Over many years of teaching fiction writing, I’ve debated with myself over where and when in the semester to teach point of view. After character? At the end just before theme? Somewhere in the middle, maybe just before dialogue? I’ve discussed it with other teachers. The impulse is to teach it first, because which point of view you choose to tell your story in dictates so many other things. It influences description and setting, for example. A first person narrator is only going to notice and remark on things that are directly relevant to them at that point in the narrative. A frightened narrator will focus on their fear and what’s causing it. They won’t describe the weather or the extra sounds and the way the moon looks unless those things are impacting directly. In third person, you can include some of that description to enhance atmosphere, to make the fear more about the reader as well as the character.
I now think that point of view needs to be part of every single aspect of fiction writing. It’s like voice. Without developing a strong, rounded character you won’t achieve their voice on the page. But the two go hand in hand. It’s only by writing a lot in the character’s voice that you come to know who they are and how they sound (or how you sound on the page as you tell their story – a whole other can of worms). Without developing character and voice, you can’t make a decision on how first person might work for this story. And every story will be different.
Some writers say they naturally fall into first person all the time because it seems the most natural – especially if they write YA fiction. Others avoid first person because it’s way too constricting. One of the pitfalls of first person is actually in dialogue. When you are immersed in first person POV, it’s an easy trap to have all of your characters sound the same, because that’s how your narrator hears them – translated, this means it’s just how you as the writer hear them. Not enough work done on other characters leads to first person laziness.
Regardless of all that, it’s only by writing and thinking and reading and thinking that you can come to a place where, as a writer, choice of POV comes instinctively. Even then instinct might let you down. Ultimately, despite all the work we do on that other stuff (character, plot, dialogue, description, theme), it’s point of view that influences every single one. And I have found over the years that it’s point of view that gets most new writers into tangles. So here are some tips to help – not rules, because point of view defies them. And these tips require work, so be prepared!
* For every major character who could be a point of view character, write at least ten pages in their first person POV to see how they sound. Are they different? An individual with a unique perspective on the story? Will this benefit the story? What will they see and hear and know that will be a big influence? How much of the story will they be engaged in? Will the events of the story change them?
* If you know who your POV character is, write at least ten pages in first person. Write another ten pages in third person limited. (If you don’t know the difference between these, search on this site for other posts.) As the writer, free write an interview with the character. Ask them all those questions about why they should tell the story, and what they have to show you.
* Make a list of the key events in the story (at least 12 of them). Is your POV character present at every event? Is what happens important to them? A POV character can only narrate what they see and hear and experience. It’s why thrillers are often third person – more action, less emotion.
* For the most emotional scenes in the story, what effect will the events have on your character? If they are highly drastic and over the top, you might want to lean towards third person to avoid melodrama or sentimentality.
Finally, sometimes the only way to work it out is to write 50 pages in first person, and then write 50 pages in close third person. Don’t write first person and then just change the pronouns from I to he/she. You do need to write afresh to truly see and understand the differences and possibilities. Yes, it’s work, but it’s important to make the right choice. It could save your whole novel.
As for other points of view, they’re a little simpler to sort out. First person and close third person are the ones that usually give writers the most trouble!
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