This article originally appeared as a 12-part blog post series.
Many beginning writers are confused about the concept of point of view. I’m hoping this series of blog posts will help you out. After I finish the series, I’ll condense it into one blog post article.
What is point of view?
It’s the type of narration of a story. For the purposes of a writer, it’s easiest to think of it as the eyes through which your reader sees the scene.
There is third person, second person, and first person point of view.
First person is told from the character as the narrator. I’ll be covering that later.
Second person is not used often. It’s the type of narration where the character is referred to using personal pronouns, which serves to make the reader into the character. I remember this type of narration in the Choose Your Own Adventure books.
Third person is most often used. In third person, the characters are distinct from the storyteller, who is essentially the author. Most readers are familiar with third person, since most fiction is written in third person past tense.
Third person often works because while it’s told by a narrator, the reader is sucked into the story and usually doesn’t notice the narrator—they are engrossed by the characters and the plot.
Any man going on this mission wasn’t coming back.
Cluttered kitchen, cluttered head. Kent Wicksell could hardly think straight. It wasn’t supposed to start like this.
----From Amber Morn by Brandilyn Collins
The reader doesn’t even notice the third person narrator. Instead, the reader is caught up in Kent’s dilemma.
Within third person point of view, there are three types:
Omniscient third person point of view was used widely several years ago and is still used sometimes in more literary fiction. It’s what it sounds like—an omniscient writer telling the reader what’s going on from their expanded, omniscient viewpoint. The omniscient writer knows what every person is thinking, what every person is doing.
For example, in omniscient point of view, the reader would find out Karen is being bored to death at the bar by a computer software engineer while Cissy is near the water fountain, fluttering her eyes at Hanson, who hasn’t told her he’s getting married next week to the party’s hostess.
Omniscient point of view has several problems. One, it’s not used these days in commercial fiction, so using it will often mark you as an amateur. Two, it distances the reader from the characters and dampens the emotional impact of the story.
You want to show an editor that you’re up to speed on current publishing trends, and emotion is what spurs the reader to engage in your story. So my advice is to not use omniscient unless you have a darn good reason for using it.
Limited third person point of view means the reader sees the entire scene through only one person’s eyes.
For example, Karen walks into a party. If we’re in Karen’s point of view, we’ll see how she views the party—the people she meets, the things she thinks about them, the terrible time she’s having. Karen doesn’t know that Cissy is on the other side of the room having a blast flirting with a hot blond model, so you wouldn’t write about Cissy—you’re in Karen’s point of view.
Deep third person takes limited third person a step further and draws the reader right into the character’s skin. It’s as immediate as first person point of view and is most commonly used in the publishing industry today. I wrote an entire series on deep point of view that I encourage you to check out.
To help the reader understand multiple characters, you can switch the point of view character throughout the book, using one for each scene.
For example, chapter one is in Karen’s point of view at the party. In the next chapter or scene, we switch to Cissy, the day after the party, hoping Hanson will call her. In the third chapter or scene, we move to Elena, picking up her phone and finding her fiancé Hanson on the line, flirting with some other woman. In the fourth chapter or scene, Karen is woken up with a pounding headache by her cell phone—it is her best friend Elena, who is crying that she thinks her fiancé Hanson is having an affair.
Be judicious in how many point of view characters you use. Too many point of view characters is often confusing for a reader.
For example, in Debbie Macomber’s Blossom Street series, her novels always only have four point of view characters. This helps the reader keep track of who is who, because the reader is dropped into the heads of only four characters out of the larger cast of minor characters.
Typically, a romance will only show two points of view—the hero and heroine. If you choose to use a third point of view character, make sure you have scenes from that character’s point of view throughout the novel, not just a scene or two. It disrupts the flow of the story to make the reader switch to a new point of view character for only a few scenes. Be creative and write the scene from the hero or heroine’s point of view instead.
First person point of view is from only one person’s point of view, and it’s as if the reader is really inside the person’s head. You can use past tense or present tense.
Eat and leave. That’s all I had to do. If Grandma didn’t kill me first for being late. I raced through the open doorway to the Chinese restaurant and was immediately immersed in conversation, babies’ wails, clashing perfumes, and stale sesame oil. I tripped over the threshold and almost turned my ankle. Stupid pumps. Man, I hated wearing heels.
Eat and leave. That’s all I have to do. If Grandma doesn’t kill me first for being late. I race through the open doorway to the Chinese restaurant and am immediately immersed in conversation, babies’ wails, clashing perfumes, and stale sesame oil. I trip over the threshold and almost turn my ankle. Stupid pumps. Man, I hate wearing heels.
Many writers like using first person point of view because it feels more immediate, but it’s actually more difficult than it seems.
Writers need to master deep point of view when they use first person. Often, I see first person manuscripts that seem very distant from the reader, when it should be very intimate because the point of view is first person.
The manuscript also can’t simply be a long monologue of what the character is thinking—that’s boring. Too often, writers fall into the habit of too much narrative when they write first person and not enough dialogue and action.
Sometimes first person is also a bit limiting because the reader is never privy to any other character’s thoughts or feelings. A manuscript in first person has to be really well done to make the reader feel the other characters’ emotions without ever being in their points of view.
The most important thing to remember about point of view is:
You are the character.
This involves several things. First:
Your character would only see what you would see.
You don’t see your face unless you’re looking in a mirror. You don’t see the color of your eyes. You don’t see when a flush creeps up your cheeks (although you might feel the heat). You don’t see how charming you look when you’re angry. You don’t see the flash or glitter or tears in your eyes.
Your character wouldn’t see any of that, either. So when you’re writing a scene from a certain character’s point of view, only write what the character herself would see.
Susie wouldn’t see the dimples in her cheeks, so don’t write about how Susie’s dimples peeked out at Jim.
Frank wouldn’t see his hair, so don’t write about how his ebony hair shone in the sunlight.
Audrey wouldn’t see her own eyes, so don’t write about how the candlelight made her eyes turn golden.
So if your viewpoint character can’t see herself, how do you describe your character to the reader?
Through other character’s eyes in other sections of the story.
You really don’t need to give a full description of every character, all in the first chapter. I’m totally serious, here.
If you start out chapter one in Amelia’s point of view, you don’t need to make sure the reader knows Amelia is petite, dark-haired, and sexy.
You can save that for chapter two when Gaston finds himself attracted to his new neighbor, who is petite, dark-haired and sexy.
Also, remember that your character won’t notice things that are commonplace, so she won’t toss back her long, ebony tresses as she walks to her car. She probably wouldn’t even notice what she’s doing.
Instead, have the next scene start from Gaston’s point of view as his attention is initially caught by the sunlight glinting off of hair so glossy, it’s as if it’s made of strands of onyx.
Using a mirror to describe your character is extremely cliché. It’s also sometimes seen as lazy writing because the writer can’t come up with a more creative, unique way to let the reader know what the character looks like.
Some writers use a mirror to show how the character views herself, but there are other, more creative ways to do that—with dialogue, action, or snippets of thought in response to specific things that happen to her. Be original!
Your character would only think what you would think.
You don’t hear anyone else’s thoughts when you’re talking to someone, right? (Most people don’t anyway.) You can guess what someone else is thinking from their expression, body language, words or tone. Many times, you can guess pretty accurately just from these visual and audible cues.
But you can’t really hear your friend thinking his thoughts. Neither should your character.
Judy thinks Alvin is pompous and full of himself. She can’t hear his thoughts, so she wouldn’t know Alvin thinks Judy is irresponsible and flighty.
Mary thinks, Charles just doesn’t understand me. She wouldn’t know Charles is thinking, I think I’m finally starting to understand her. So your reader shouldn’t be told this, either.
However, your character can speculate on what the other character is thinking.
Judy can tell by Alvin’s expression that he thinks she’s a dumb blonde.
Mary can tell Charles thinks he’s starting to make headway, but he doesn’t know he’s completely missing the point.
When you’re writing the scene from your character’s point of view, stay in that character’s head—don’t go wandering into someone else’s thoughts!
Your character would only notice what you would notice.
Do you notice the color of your hair on an average day? Do you tell yourself in your head that Lisa is your sister? Is it possible to consciously notice when you’re unconsciously looking at a cloud? Would you know at one moment that the next five minutes will bring you a promotion?
Your character, going about his average day, wouldn’t notice certain things that are commonplace or actions that are unconsciously done. Don’t write what your character wouldn’t consciously notice to himself.
Jennifer wouldn’t notice her own hair because she sees it everyday, so don’t write how Jennifer tossed her long, silky blonde tresses out of her face. (She probably wouldn’t even consciously realize she was doing it—do you consciously note every time you brush the hair out of your eyes? Do you consciously note the color of your hair every time you brush it out of your eyes?)
Dave wouldn’t tell himself, “That’s my sister Milly crossing the street toward me.” He’d think, “That’s Milly crossing the street. I wonder what’s up?”
Amy wouldn’t even be aware what she was staring at if her mind is wandering, focused on something else, so don’t write about her gazing unseeing at a shop window.
Sara would only think she was on a nice early morning run, she wouldn’t see anything unusual, so don’t write that she didn’t see the glowing eyes watching her from the darkness under a bush. Of course she didn’t see it—so don’t write what she doesn’t see.
Be careful about narrative and description—remember that you’re in the character’s head.
Decide whose point of view the scene needs to be in.
Try to chose the character with the most to lose. This will ensure the scene is at its maximum emotional potential.
Sally is going to tell Billy that her four year old son is his, a secret she’s kept since he walked out on her five years ago. Whose point of view do you write the scene in?
Sally has known this information for years, so her anguish is in finally revealing it to Billy and feeling his shock and anger.
Billy, however, is about to be laid a bombshell. The emotional strain will be higher from his point of view, so write the scene from Billy’s viewpoint.
Sometimes people will write a scene from a third party’s point of view for literary reasons. It has a tendency to mute the emotional reactions of the primary characters involved, and sometimes a writer will deliberately want to distance the reader from the emotional scene. This choice of literary device is up to you.
However, for most popular fiction, stronger emotion is usually a better force to drive a scene. This is why it’s best to get into the head of the person who will have the most emotional upheaval in their lives.
Let the reader know whose point of view they’re in.
You should clue the reader in about which character’s point of view the scene will be in as soon as you can. Preferably within the first three sentences.
“Move and you’re dead.” Maggie Somers lifted the .22 higher, trying desperately to keep her hands from shaking.
--From Buried Secrets by Margaret Daley
This was not the smartest way to die.
USAF Pararescue Jumper Manny Péna grunted, tensed his muscles and tried again to flare the canopy on his parachute.
--From A Soldier’s Family by Cheryl Wyatt
Sophie heard God in every explosion of thunder as she listened to the awesome power of the approaching storm. But there was more. There was something coming—something more than rain.
--From Petticoat Ranch by Mary Connealy
In each of the examples, you know exactly who is the viewpoint character right at the start of the chapter.
(You’ll notice that the first two examples show the characters’ full names, which they wouldn’t think to themselves if we’re in their point of view. However, when starting a story, most editors will allow for this kind of “introduction” to the reader of a character’s full name, as long as the rest of the manuscript is deeper in point of view.)
Do not switch points of view during the scene.
This is called “head hopping” and it marks you as an amateur. Yes, other multi-published, bestselling authors head hop in their own books, but you are a new writer trying to break into publishing, and you shouldn’t do it. In the current publishing business, head hopping in your manuscript will decrease your chances of being published, plain and simple.
If you switch point of view, insert a scene break to indicate the change in character viewpoint.
Some writers will write part of the scene in one person’s point of view, insert a section break, then continue the scene in the other character’s point of view. Then they’ll insert another section break, and continue the scene back in the first person’s point of view.
While this isn’t “wrong,” I personally dislike this. It smacks of lazy writing, in my opinion. I think that a good writer should be able to write a complete scene in one person’s point of view without absolutely needing to switch to the other person’s point of view right in the middle of the scene for a short section. I think that a good writer will be able to show the other character’s emotions through the viewpoint character’s eyes, or defer describing the other person’s emotional reaction to another scene.
Read other resources.
My favorite point of view books are Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress, The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley, and Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.
There are also several online articles available. If you Google “point of view” and “writing” you’ll come up with a bunch. Here are a few to get you started:
http://www.gailmartin.com/tips.htm#Seeing (short and to the point)