This is something all writers wonder at some point in our story. Choosing which POV will be used is something hard, especially because it’s the lens through which we’ll see the story pass.
POV – short for point of view – is one of the most important elements within a story. Why? Because it shapes exactly how we’re going to experience it. Is the story going to be told from the character’s perspective? Will we have an outside narrator? Will we get to see what’s within the characters head, or out of it?
This is going to be a long post where I discuss which options are better for your own stories (and some of my personal favorites, along with good examples). Ready for it? Then let’s take a deep look into POV options.
1st Person POV
This is the most common option in YA. We often see the main character as the narrator, telling their experiences. This is often the most used when you want your readers to really connect to your character — they can get inside their heads, experience their thoughts and feelings and see everything they see. It also allows room for more character’s voice – a strong voice, something so elusive in our writing, is more easily spotted through the 1st Person narrative.
- Pros: This allows all readers a bigger glimpse into a character’s world and feelings. We experience what the character is experience, and thus, we are allowed a deeper connection as readers.
- Cons: If you have a story with multiple main characters, it’s not going to work so well. Each character must have a distinct voice, and it’s complicated to find that in your writing and make sure each character is telling the story through their own POV. Two is doable, if you have more, it’s going to be hard for the reader to grasp whose chapter is whose.
- Best Used in: YA and Thrillers. We see a lot of character’s experiences through first person, and it allows a greater connection to the reader.
- Good examples: The Hunger Games, A Court of Thorns and Roses, The Young Elites, The Hate U Give, Percy Jackson series.
1st Person POV also allows something really great for mysteries and thrillers — the unreliable narrator trope. The unreliable narrator is someone who tells the story but deliberately ommits important details of one’s own. We’re so used to experiencing their story, trusting the character to tell it, that we rarely see them actively lying about something. Great examples of this are Gone Girl and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Both stories are told in first person by unreliable narrators who deliberately leave out details of their story. For YA, a classic example is We Were Liars, and the twist comes at the end when all is revealed.
As I said before, this might not be the best option if you have more than one main character. Some writers can pull it off really well – usually using it in romance to tell the story from the main character’s POVs – but with more than two narrators, it’s bound to get really confusing, especially since all sentences will be seen through the “I”. If you have more than three narrators, it’s very, very hard to pull it off, and I recommend not using it.
- Good examples of multiple 1st Person POV: An Ember in the Ashes, Will Grayson Will Grayson, I’ll Give You the Sun, Legend, The Girl on the Train.
- Bad examples of multiple 1st Person POV: The Lorien Legacies. We’re introduced to more than six POVs, and even though the book uses a different font for each character, it’s still very confusing until we understand who’s narrating the story.
3rd Person POV
This is also a very common narrative, especially used in adult and MG books. For MG books it works because usually the narrator is irreverent — like Lemony Snicket in A Series of Unfortunate Events – and for adult because it keeps things more distant and allows the reader to decide for themselves about the main character.
Third person is especially good if you’re writing more epic fantasy. The definition of epic fantasy is having a bunch of characters, and 3rd person allows us to glimpse into the life of all the characters without the narrative being jarring because of all the “I” used. It also allows the narrative to be in different places all at once, so we get to see through the eyes of the narrator, who is seeing it all.
We have two different kinds of 3rd Person Narrator, so let’s delve into it:
- Ominiscent Narrator: This type of narrator knows everything. It knows thoughts, it knows what’s happening outside, it knows the future of the story. This allows head-hopping between characters to make sure we know what each person is feeling. If done really well, we can encompass everything.
- Third Person Limited: This is a narrative that follows one character closely. We can see this done perfectly in Harry Potter, where although it’s a narrator telling the story rather than Harry himself, we always know what he’s feeling and how he experiences the world. This is good because it also allows different chapters from different perspectives — on Book 1 we get the perspective of the Dursleys and then McGonagall, and so on.
Ready for more examples? Here are the pros and cons of using a 3rd Person in a story.
- Pros: When it comes to ‘voice’, 3rd person is best used here. You don’t need to differentiate between character’s narratives in 1st person POV and think of each person’s filter. It also allows to see bigger things happening in the narrative, like thoughts of other characters and actions far away from the main character.
- Cons: It doesn’t allow a unreliable narrator, for example. 3rd Person is reliable and telling the story like it is. It doesn’t allow different storytelling format or any tricks you want to pull on the reader.
- Best seen in: Adult, Middle Grade, Epic Fantasy.
- Good examples: All the Light We Cannot See, Pillars of the Earth, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Heroes of Olympus Series, Truthwitch, The Wrath and the Dawn, Lord of the Rings.
Third person really allows more than one character have a voice in the story without confusing the reader as to seeing who is who. This is a really great option if you have more than two or three main characters doing different things. You can also choose the omniscent approach versus the limited approach to see how close you want the narrative to be to your character.
2nd Person POV
This is most uncommon of all, and rarely used. It does bring an interesting perspective to the story – either inserting the reader in it, or allowing the narrative to approach the reader and treat it as a friend.
It’s very experimental and hard to do, but it’s recommended in some cases, depending on the story you want to write.
- Pros: It allows you to address the reader in parts of the story and incorporate him in the narrative.
- Cons: It can often be awkward if not done really well and the writer knows where he’s going. It’s hard to tell a story that way because the reader is not universal, so you have to be careful when writing his experiences.
- Examples: On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino. You experience the narrative as if the character’s problems were you. The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. Some chapters are told in 2nd Person Pov, as if we were going into the circus itself and seeing its wonders.
Another form of seeing “you” in the narrative is when a story is told through letters addressed to someone — that someone becomes “you”, the reader. Although it usually is a 1st person POV that addresses the reader as ‘you’, and not necessarily “you” as a point of view. This is seen really well done in Lolita, Love Letters to the Dead, Attachments. Books can also be written in form of blog posts or e-mails, and they’ll be usually told in first person, but allowing the reader to be seen as the addresed.
Why Choosing the Right POV is essential
As writers, we choose the lens through which the readers will be able to see the story. Do you want your readers to be part of the story? Do you want them to know what each character is thinking? Do you want them to experience two different narratives from two different perspectives so we get to see each side of the same story?
This is why POV is important. It’s what is going to shape the story itself.
One of my personal pet peeves is when a book changes POV midways in the series (I’m looking at you, Allegiant and King’s Cage). To me, it feels like lack of planning on the author’s part, as if it then occured to them that they could not tell a story through a single character. When writing series, you need to think really carefully about that, and whose POV you’re going in with the start. Don’t start with something then change it into the next book to incorporate some more. Really think of what’s best for the story, and how jarring it can be for the reader to suddenly change the lens through which the story is seen.
Another personal pet peeve when it’s multiple points of view but both 1st person and 3rd person are used. This can feel really awkward in a narrative, especially if it’s not just one small chapter, and intercalates characters. Although I really enjoyed Anna Banks’ Of Poseidon series, this is one of the parts I really did not like. One chapter was 1st person, one was 3rd, and every time I came back to the book it threw me off.
This is one of the important things about choosing POVs, or writing multiple POVs within a book. You can choose between switching characters, going all for 3rd POV, keeping it only one-sided… there are plenty of options, but you need to make sure of continuity, too. If you’re starting with 3rd person, don’t suddenly change to 1st. Or go between one and the other. A book and a series need consistency to keep the reader grounded, and one of the ways to do that is through POV.
In this other post I discussed how I usually choose between using 1st and 3rd – it usually comes down to the main character and how they interact with plot – and there’s this other great post on writing multiple viewpoints that you should consider.
What do you use to choose the right POV to your story? How do you know a story will be consistent? Have you ever had to change from 3rd POV to 1st, or vice-versa?
Let me know in the comments!