It’s time for the final post in this series, friends! Over the last few weeks we’ve looked at how to create believable characters, how and why to craft the anti-baddie, and various other aspects of character creation, but today we’ll take a look at Point of View. It’s an essential part of your WIP, after all!
Who tells your story is one of the first things you decide before you start writing. Will there be one POV, or six? Will it be first person narrator, or third? When I was younger I struggled with this; the choice seemed SO important, and it never even occurred to me that I could just change it later (not that I finished any of my earlier drafts or thought about editing…).
I do have a preference now. My POV of choice is a third person narrator with multiple POVs. While I have used a first person narrator and a single POV on occasion in unpublished experiments, I fall more easily into third person and start every WIP that way. I rarely change my mind. It’s the POV that feels most natural to me when I’m writing.
Let’s take a look at the options available to you:
For many of us, a first person narrator comes easiest. We talk in first person, we send messages and emails in first person, so it only makes sense that you might write in first person, too!
Many of my writing buddies prefer first person to third person. It allows you to really get into your character’s head, and will make it easy to convey what they’re going through as they’re going through it. It makes your chapters more personal, since we feel like the character is talking to us.
At the back of my mind, Darin’s voice grows fainter: Find something, Laia. Something that will save me. Hurry.
No, another, louder part of me says. Lay low. Don’t risk spying until you’re certain you won’t get caught.
Which voice do I listen to? The spy or the slave? The fighter or the coward? I thought the answers to such questions would be easy. That was before I learned what real fear was.
(from An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir)
It’s also more limiting, which doesn’t have to be a weakness! A character written in first person gives the reader insight into everything the character does, sees, and thinks, but no more. This can create tension if done well, but can also leave your reader frustrated if done badly.
For some examples of excellent first person narrators, check out these books:
A second person narrator isn’t easy to pull off, but if you want to give it a try I suggest you experiment a little first before committing to anything. I haven’t read any books written entirely in second person, but The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern had some parts written like this. Have a look:
In this tent, suspended high above you, there are people. Acrobats, trapeze artists, aerialists. Illuminated by dozens of round glowing lamps hanging from the top of the tent like planets or stars.
There are no nets.
You watch the performance from this precarious vantage point, directly below the performers with nothing in between.
The reason it can work extremely well is because it makes everything personal. The writer addresses you, and effectively makes you a part of the story. When you’re reading The Night Circus, you feel like you’re experiencing the circus yourself. But it’s also easy to do badly; most people just aren’t used to writing in second person. Educational books and poetry are more likely to use second person, but it can be done in fiction – it’s just not as common. As a matter of fact, my blog posts are a mixture of first person and second person, because I’m addressing you but I’m also talking about my experiences and writing methods!
Here’s the one example I have read:
I love the third person narrator, because it allows you to get into your characters’ heads and give a little insight on the side. It’s a common choice in fiction, so you’d be in excellent company!
I’ve read several articles that state third person POVs can’t get into your character’s head as well as the first person narrator does, but I don’t think that’s true. I’d argue that third person narrators are just as capable as getting into your character’s head (and your readers’) as first person narrators. In fact, the books that have
moved destroyed me the most were written in third person!
When the woman dared disobey him the child was so surprised she bit her fingers. She scarcely felt the small pain, vast like the barren wastes beyond the village’s godpost, and had been so since her first caterwauling cry. She was almost numb to it now.
(from Empress by Karen Miller)
You need to be careful, though, because it’s all too easy to switch narrator part way through. If this keeps happening to you, you may want to consider writing your book with several POVs (more on that below). It’s easily done – you’re writing a chapter from Kath’s POV, mention briefly how Jake left the room without a word because he felt like he needed to throw up – and just like that you’ve switched POV without even realising it! Because, you see, Kath only knows that Jake ran out of the room without a word. She might suspect it’s because he’s feeling sick, but she can’t know that because he hasn’t said anything. When you’re writing your first draft it’s easy to make a mistake like that, but it can be hard to spot on your own, so you need to be careful.
Take a look at these wonderful examples:
While I personally prefer multiple POVs, I don’t mind a single narrator telling the entire story. I prefer writing multiple POVs, but I’m not fussy when it comes to reading them.
Having a single POV means that one character tells the entire story. We’re not privy to anything the MC doesn’t know, and will unravel the plot as your character does. This can add a lot of tension, since we don’t know what’s going on behind the MCs back.
What a single narrator doesn’t mean is that your readers only get one opinion. Unless your character never talks to anyone and doesn’t make eye contact, the other characters in your story are likely to argue or support your character throughout. In this way, even though we don’t get whole chapters from their POV, we still know how they feel about the plot and other characters. Your side characters don’t have to fall short just because you’ve chosen a single narrator!
Here are two books with brilliant single POVs:
This is my favourite (I may have mentioned this already… *ahem*). Multiple POVs allow your reader to get a broader sense of what’s going on, but this also means that your characters need to be strong. If you have four POVs and three characters sound and act the same, you’ve got work to do! Every POV needs to add something unique to the story. One of the reasons Six of Crows works so well is because all six points of view have their own voice, and we know who’s talking without Bardugo needing to tell us. There’s a scene where Kaz asks the others what the easiest way to relieve a man of his purse is, and the answers that follow stand alone. No identifiers. No ‘so-and-so said’. But we know who’s talking, because Bardugo has created six strong characters who each stand out from the others.
From my own experience, your readers will either enjoy this or they won’t. Some readers love getting more angles and even knowing that the antagonist has set a trap their favourite characters aren’t aware off, but other readers think it takes away from the tension. Personally, I’m more tense knowing that a character I’m rooting for is walking into a trap. Of course, having more than one POV doesn’t mean one of those has to be the villain! Who you choose is up to you – just make sure they’re there for a reason.
I’ve read plenty of articles recently encouraging new writers to stay far away from multiple POVs. I don’t think that’s necessary. If you want your book to have six narrators, you go write six narrators – just make sure you create six different narrators. Make sure all six are strong, believable, and shine in their own right, and having more than one POV won’t be a problem. It creates more work, sure, but if you enjoy the character creation process like I do you won’t mind that.
More to love, more to hurt you 😉
This would be my recommendation of what to stay away from. At least until you find your feet. I’ve read a few books this year which had an omniscient narrator, and most of the time I find it irritating. If a chapter starts with Taylor’s thoughts, I don’t want it to switch to Hillary’s thoughts mid-sentence, and then switch back to Taylor before the paragraph is over. I’ll happily raise my hand and say it’s confusing, and I don’t get it.
You might like an omniscient POV because it knows everything, and can show the reader whatever it wants at any time. Personally, I always feel more detached from the characters, like I’m getting a bit of everything but I’m not getting any of it completely (kinda like buffets which serve however many different cuisines but haven’t mastered any of them).
I’m not saying it can’t be done well, but I do think it takes some skill. I love the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, but as a general rule I’m not a fan.
Here are some examples:
You’re excused if you’re writing your book with an omniscient narrator. Otherwise, choose your POV and stick to it. If you feel while you’re writing or editing (I hope for your sanity’s sake that you feel it while you’re still writing the scene) like the chapter would be better told from someone else’s POV, fix it. It’s not too late to change what you’re doing until you’ve hit publish.
If you do switch POV partway through a chapter, make sure there’s a clear scene break so we’re not confused by the sudden change. It’s as simple as tapping the space bar twice instead of once.
As with anything in this business, there’s no one right way of doing things. Go with your instincts. If you start writing your book and it just comes out as a first person narrator with multiple POVs, go with it! If you had plans of writing it in third person with one narrator but the opposite happens naturally as you write, don’t force your first choice. Let whatever happens organically happen.
And if you suddenly realise halfway through the first monster edit that your book needs to be rewritten from third person to first person, I send warm thoughts to you and your sanity.
And that’s it for another series, friends!
If you’ve missed anything or would like to remind yourself of a specific topic, here they are again:
(have you collected your free character questionnaire?)
In the next series, we’ll look at why you should write for yourself above anyone else, what it means to be a plotter or a pantser (or the plotster hybrid), and other general writing related topics, so keep an eye out for those! 😉 In the meantime, if you have any questions, ask away!
How do you decide which POV is right for your book? Do you have a preference when you read? Make yourself a cuppa, and let’s talk about books!
Sign up for my newsletter for updates on my books and recommendations to help you grow as a writer:
For all of my other musings, click me!
For Cookie Break’s home page, have a look here.