So you’re beginning a new novel. A flurry of ideas fills your head. It’s exciting. You consider them all, dismiss most, others you put in the maybe category, but some stick. You build on them, but you worry if anything is going to result. Is your idea gripping enough to fill an entire novel, will the story peter out, do you care enough to finish it, are you capable? You’re compelled to go on.
Now that you have an embryo of an idea, and perhaps one or two characters who reach out to you, there’s a decision to be made over point of view (POV).
1st person: ‘I’
Traditionally one point of view allowing intimacy – the reader seeing the entire story world through one character. But there are more options – multiple first person point of views, sequential multiple viewpoints (e.g. alternate chapters with told from more than on ‘I’), separate multiple viewpoints that are seemingly disparate but come together in the end. So many possibilities!
2nd person: ‘You’
This POV be powerful and immediate, but not easy to pull off. Usually these stories are also told in the present tense. One memorable Australian novel, The Bride Stripped Bare by Anonymous (Nikki Gemmell), is told from this point of view. I still remember that voice.
3rd person: ‘S/he’
Limited – Told from one character’s point of view at a time. But you can have more than one main character in separate sections, eventually bringing them together. It’s similar to 1stperson but can feel more distant. This is the most commonly used POV in modern fiction.
Omniscient – Told from multiple characters’ points of view, dipping in and out of their heads as though taking a birds eye view. A more limited omniscient POV exists where the reader is in one character’s head at a time rather than skipping around or taking an overall perspective. Generally, omniscient is so popular these days. But it can be done well.
Some things to ponder, bearing in mind that point of view is the narrator, who is the reader’s eyes and ears:
- Who’s story is this?
Is it one person’s story? Is it two people’s? Or is it multiple characters’ story?
- Whose head, and how many heads, do I want the reader to be in?
One character’s and close (1stperson). One character’s, close and immediate (2ndperson). Two character’s (1stor 3rdperson limited) or everyone’s (3rdperson omniscient).
- What am I trying to achieve?
If you want to manipulate the reader say with an unreliable narrator, then 1stperson is for you. If you want to sound like a fairy tale, use 3rdperson omniscient. If you want something in between, consider 3rdperson limited.
- How immediate do I want the story to feel?
In order of immediacy: 2nd person, 1st person then 3rd (limited, limited omniscient and omniscient).
- How much do I want the reader to know?
If you want the reader to know only what one character sees consider the 1stperson POV, but 3rd person limited can also be used though with less range. If you want them to see the entire picture, then use 3rd person omniscient (but perhaps limited).
- How close, or distant, do I want the reader to be to the main character/s?
1st person creates greater intimacy i.e. the reader is the 1stperson narrator. 3rd person limited can be more distant but offers considerable closeness too. 2nd perron is in your face close. Dropping in and out of different character’s heads in 3rdperson omniscient gives you immense freedom but requires technical competency.
- How much versatility do I want?
1st person lets you only have one point of view i.e. one voice. They’d wanna be someone your reader can relate to and wants to spend an entire novel with. I know I’ve got sick of main characters and stopped reading well into a story.
- How important is backstory and world building?
This can be easier to convey in 3rdperson omniscient. That said, these should always be written as the story requires in small sections (never more than two paragraphs is my general rule).
Ask yourself the above questions and experiment. Write a page or two from two or three POVs and see what feels/reads best. You’ll soon know what suits your story, even if by realising out what DOESN’T work.