Point of View: 1

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I haven’t done any craft posts in ages and with my book gone I have a little bit of time. So I thought I’d write a little bit about point of view, especially as two fellow writers have asked me some questions about it recently. I’ll start with the basics and work my way up.

What is point of view (POV)?

POV is whose eyes you’re looking through as you tell your story. The simplest POV to define is first person, when the main character(s) tell their story in their own words, referring to themselves as “I”. Some books use multiple first-person POV, where several characters tell their own story.

You can also have a variety of third person POV techniques. There’s third person omniscient, where there’s a narrator who knows all the characters’ thoughts and feelings, and dips in and out of them at will. (Sometimes the author’s voice comes in to comment on the story, without being an active character in it.) Thomas Hardy uses this POV, and it’s often employed in literary fiction.

There’s third person limited, where the story focuses on one character’s thoughts and emotions at a time. Many books have third person limited POV from only one character’s POV; many others use third person limited POV for two or three or many characters, focusing on one character at a time. This is very popular in commercial fiction.

There’s also third person objective, where the events are reported, but we don’t see into the thoughts and feelings of the characters. You’re just presented with what happens. I think of this as being like a film, where you can’t see into the characters’ heads, just see their acting.

And some authors use a mixture of two or more of these styles. For example, in Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen uses a mixture of third person limited (focusing on only her heroine Catherine’s thoughts and no one else’s) and third person omniscient (commenting on Catherine’s actions and the structure of her story, from the author’s own point of view). Some books use first person for one character’s sections of the novel, and third person omniscient for another character’s. (A recent example is L. A. Weatherly’s recent YA novel Angel.) Some books might use third person limited POV to show their hero’s actions, but third person objective when showing what the villain does.

What point of view should I use?

I always think carefully about my point of view choices before I use them. Some authors make their choices more instinctively.

Sometimes, the genre you’re writing, or the publisher you’re targeting, determines your POV choices for you. Traditional romance novels, for example, are usually in third person limited, from the heroine and the hero’s POV. You have to have a pretty good reason to break that convention. I’ve noticed that children’s picture books are more often than not in third person. Chick-lit in the tradition of Bridget Jones is often in first person. There’s a publisher who requires all of their books to include the hero’s POV, as well as others.

At other times, your story might determine your POV choices. One of the strengths of the Sherlock Holmes stories is Watson’s first person POV, which lets the reader discover the clues and mystery as he does. On the other hand, your main character might not be present for certain scenes, and you might have vital information that you can only impart to the reader by going into a different POV. In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen sticks with Catherine’s viewpoint because she wants the reader to discover the truth about the creepy house and its inhabitants along with her. But she zooms out into omniscient POV because she wants to make statements about her society and the popular novels of the time.

Whatever decision you make for your whole book, a good rule of thumb for individual scenes is generally: The scene should be in the POV of the person who has the most at stake at the time.

In my next post, I’ll talk about some of the POV decisions I’ve made, and why I’ve made them. Then I’ll discuss some questions, so if you have any, please post them below!

(Meanwhile, Novelicious has put up an article bout my Post-It plotting method. And my lunch yesterday was absolutely divine. And nobody called me a fraud!)

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  1. Thank you Julie, I found this really helpful. I’ve started my first manuscript and it’s in first person, just because that was the instinctive whim that took hold of my fingers when I began typing and so far it works – particularly as I want my readers (please g-d I ever have any!!) to discover things along with my heroine.

    Tis so exciting!

  2. Thanks, Hadassah, I’m glad you found that helpful. In my next post I’ll probably talk about the advantages and limitations of first-person POV, because that’s the one I tend to use the most these days. I hope that will be helpful to you, too.

    Good luck with your first manuscript. Is it for NaNoWriMo?

    • Thank you so much for your reply Julie. Sorry only just saw it!
      It’s not for NaNoWriMo – I’d already started in the summer, it will (all being well) be my debut novel!!

      Ooh, I look forward to your next post! I did think about reverting my POV to third person but the way that I’m writing it, as I said, I feel benefits from first person – though obviously makes it tricky when I’m trying to describe my protagonist – but will make it work!!

  3. Excellent timing. I’m reworking a MS that was written in 1st person, but my publisher wants the hero’s POV so I’m attempting to add it in as a 3rd person narrative. Why 3rd? Well, I think getting inside his head is a scary place to be. His voice doesn’t speak to me the way hers does.

    It’s also really interesting, because I’m realising how reactionary his character is. For most of the story he’s a voice on the end of a phoneline (my heroine’s on the run, so her interactions with him are limited). He doesn’t do anything unless it coincides with her actions. Now I’m filling in the gaps and realising that he’s not really sitting around waiting for instructions. Not only does he have his own life and agenda, but his actions can shape the plot and make it a lot more rounded than it was before.

    My general rule of thumb for working out whether a story should be 1st or 3rd is how I hear it in my head. When I think about the characters, am I thinking “She did this” or “I did this”? I’ve started off the wrong way before and it’s like playing on an out-of-tune piano. The tune’s there but it sounds all wrong.

  4. I love that adding your hero’s POV is teaching you all kinds of stuff about him, Kate, which makes your plot more rounded. It sounds like the process is making his POV necessary, and giving him more at stake. Which is exactly right, and very exciting.

    I sometimes “hear” my characters in that way, too, either speaking directly, or through a third-person filter. But being me, I do need to spend some time thinking about why I’ve subconsciously made that decision.

    It’s true, too, that if you get the POV wrong for whatever reason, the story just won’t work properly. Sometimes it’s because it’s third and should be first, or vice versa, but it can also be that the viewpoint character for that particular scene should be someone else. I’ve written third-person scenes that fell flat, until I tried rewriting them from the other character’s (3rd person) POV, and the whole thing suddenly had more depth and conflict.

  5. Also, I don’t think I meant ‘reactionary’ there. I meant someone who reacts rather than acts. I know there’s a word for it somewhere…

  6. Great post, thanks. Perhaps exploring my hero’s POV will help me flesh him out further … Some time I would love to hear words of wisdom on creating good heroes …
    By the way Julie are you aware that Robert Downey Jnr is in London today? What a pity he couldn’t have been around on the day of your lunch (glad it was fun!)
    Kate, is the word you want ‘reactive’? As opposed to responsive …
    Am about to order GAWT on Amazon, can’t wait!

  7. I know! The Downey has been in London for a little while, now. I keep on missing him. Rotten luck…

    Creating good heroes would be a good blog post. I’ll put that in my stack of to-be-blogged. Thanks, Queen.

  8. Perfect timing, just grappling with POV in second draft, chapter four and you have resolved it for me. It is written from the POV of the person with the most at stake – so go that right – and I have even thought of a way of linking it with the heroine and her POV, seamless! (Well, getting there) Thanks a million. (Love the website, it is a pleasure to navigate and have just ordered Getting Away With It from Amazon)

  9. Very useful insight – the POV issue is always a tricky one, especially for a novice like me. Thanks a lot 🙂

  10. Excellent, glad I could help, Adrienne and Sheila! And thanks for the compliment on my spanking new website. I hope you enjoy Getting Away With It. 🙂

  11. You’re fabulous Julie. Did you know that? Well you are! Thanks for the post!

  12. Hey Julie, a craft post! How exciting!

    I read a book on writing once which talked about 1st and 3rd person, and mentioned the very very few books successfully written in 2nd person, but didn’t say what these were! Have you ever heard of any?


    PS: Are you watching X-Factor? Is Wagner actually RDJnr in disguise? The truth is out there.

  13. The only 2nd person novels I’ve really enjoyed have been the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. They were great.

    Anyone else have any ideas?

    I’ve never seen X-Factor, but I certainly hope you’re wrong.

  14. This is really helpful, thanks Julie! In the novel I’m writing for NaNoWriMo I’ve decided to go without the hero’s POV because I think it’ll make him more intriguing but in my first novel I’m dithering over whether to get rid of the Hero’s POV or keep it in. He’s not a tradtional hero but he deeply loves the heroine. It’s jus that he doesn’t always show it. I’m not sure that I can show his true feelings through actions alone. Any advice? I’m writing in third person. Thanks, Lisa x

  15. Hi Julie,

    I always love it when you do craft posts. They’re so inspiring!

    So the age old discussion on POV is head hopping. I’ve recently read some debut category romance authors who jump in and out of the h and H’s POV within the same scene very frequently. It’s been done well, so again down to the execution of it, but I would love it if you could reiterate your opinion on this.

    I haven’t spotted the Downey either, but did have a rather nice Johnny Depp sighting when he was filming in Greenwich (right at the part of the University the RNA conference was).

  16. […] been sent about point of view. First, though, if you haven’t read my previous posts, this one is about what point of view is, and this one is about how I’ve chosen the points of view for my […]

  17. Lisa and Carol, I’ve tried to answer your questions in a new post, here:

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