Before you begin to write a story there’s one crucial choice to make: who is the narrator? The narrator is the character(s) telling the story, whether that’s the protagonist, multiple characters, or an observer.
The point of view (POV) taken by the narrator is the reader’s way in to the story – it’s how they connect with the characters. Get the POV right and the reader will forget they’re even reading. The characters and the world of the story will come to life and the words on the page become invisible.
Which POV you choose depends on the type of story you want to tell and how much freedom you need in the telling. Can you tell the story from one perspective, or do you need to move between the characters?
Imagine POV as a director’s camera in a film. Where the director puts the camera will influence what is revealed, how much the audience knows about a character and what is happening in the story. Camera position and POV also reveal theme and direct you to think about the story through a particular focus. POV colours your understanding of the characters.
So how do you choose which POV to use?
Ask yourself: who’s story is it? Who is the main character? Or is there more than one? The answer to these questions may be obvious, but sometimes it can be more complicated. The main focus of a story tends to be the character who has the most at stake, and this is usually the most dramatic way of unfolding events for the reader.
Your choices include:
- A single protagonist – simple and straightforward, easy to follow, e.g. How to Be Good by Nick Hornby.
- Dual protagonists – two characters of equal importance share the storyline, e.g. The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.
- Multiple protagonists – lots of characters jostling for storylines, more of a challenge to control the focus, e.g. Transition by Iain Banks.
There are four basic options available for point of view: First Person, Second Person, Third Person, and Omniscient. These can be broken down further depending on the number of protagonists involved and the tense used.
First Person – Single
The story is told from the point of view of the main character or narrator. First Person Single is an intimate and highly focused way of telling the story because you’re using the voice of that character, with all their idiosyncrasies and limitations. The downside of this is you can’t use words the character wouldn’t use or tell the reader things the character doesn’t know. The action of the story can only be shown through your main character’s eyes. This can be a good way of increasing suspense, especially if you’re using an unreliable narrator.
Here’s an example from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, written in First Person Single, past tense. The protagonist is a young boy who has Asperger’s Syndrome – note the use of language to show this:
“I pulled the fork out of the dog and lifted him into my arms and hugged him. He was leaking blood from the fork-holes. I like dogs. You always know what a dog is thinking. It has four moods. Happy, sad, cross and concentrating. Also, dogs are faithful and they do not tell lies because they cannot talk.”
First Person – Multiple
This is the same as First Person Single but you can move between many characters, usually by assigning each character their own chapter or section. Telling a story this way allows the reader to piece events together themselves and is good if you have many characters with vastly different viewpoints. But it can also be hard to maintain focus.
Here’s two short extracts from The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, written in First Person with dual protagonists, present tense. The narrative is divided into sections written from each of the main character’s POV.
“Clare: It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays.” …
“Henry: I cannot believe that I have made a slip of the tongue of this magnitude. I stroke Clare’s hair, and I wish fervently that I could go back to my present for just a minute, long enough to consult Clare, to find out what I should say to her, at fifteen, about her mother’s death.”
First Person – Peripheral
This is used where the narrator isn’t the protagonist of your story. For example in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jay Gatsby is the protagonist but the story is narrated by Nick Carraway. The difficulty here is you’re stuck on the sidelines of the story and can’t see everything that’s going on. On the plus side, it can be good in a story where the protagonist lacks self-awareness or has a strong effect on someone else in the narrative.
Here’s an example from The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, written in First person Peripheral, past tense. The narrator is Maugham himself, who wanders in and out of the story which tells of his encounters with the protagonist, Larry Darrell, a man on a spiritual quest for the absolute.
“So the conversation went on. … I said little, and Isobel’s young man, Larry, I’d forgotten his surname, said nothing at all. He was sitting on the other side of the table between Brabazon and Elliot and every now and then I glanced at him. … I was interested in the fact that though, so far as I could remember, he hadn’t said half a dozen words since entering the house, he seemed perfectly at ease and in a curious way appeared to take part in the conversation without opening his mouth.”
This isn’t used much in fiction because it’s quite confrontational. It puts the reader on the spot and really grabs their attention. With Second Person POV the reader is addressed directly as you. Instead of ‘he did this…’ or ‘she said that…’, you write ‘you did this…’ or ‘you said that…’, etc. This article is written in the Second Person, but you knew that already.
Here’s an example from Complicity by Iain Banks which includes chapters written in Second Person. This is the opening:
“You hear the car after half an hour. During that time you’ve been here in the darkness, sitting on the small telephone seat near the front door, waiting. You only moved once, after half an hour, when you went back through to the kitchen to check on the maid. She was still there, eyes white in the half-darkness.”
Third Person – Single
In this POV the narrator isn’t necessarily a character in the story. It can be an observer relating events, or somebody connected to the characters in some way. They tell the reader what’s going on from a distance and refer to the characters by name, and as he or she. With Third Person Single you follow the story from one perspective, one character, but you’re freer than with First Person single because you’re not stuck with the voice of your main character. The narrator can tell the story in whatever way you choose, but you’ll still need the POV character to be witness to everything that happens.
Here’s an example from Saturday by Ian McEwan, written in Third Person Single, present tense. Notice how it could just as easily have been written in the First Person as we’re placed right inside the protagonist’s head, but there’s a sense of distance created by the use of Third Person, appropriate perhaps because Henry Perowne is a scientist:
“Some hours before dawn Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, wakes to find himself already in motion, pushing back the covers from a sitting position, and then rising to his feet. It’s not clear to him when exactly he became conscious, nor does it seem relevant. He’s never done such a thing before, but he isn’t alarmed or even faintly surprised, for the movement is easy, and pleasurable in his limbs…’
Third Person – Multiple
In this POV you can tell the story from many different angles, jumping from character to character as needed. This gives you more flexibility and the potential for more complexity in the story. But you do need to be careful how you manage the transition from one character to another. It’s usually best to jump POV at the end of a paragraph, section or chapter, to avoid confusing the reader.
Here’s an extract from Witch Hunt by Ian Rankin, written in Third Person Multiple, past tense. We start with the POV of George Crane, pleasure boat owner and skipper, then jump to the unnamed, mysterious woman hitching a lift on Crane’s boat:
“They dropped her off and watched for a few moments as she struck for shore. She swam strongly, dragging the rucksack after her. They were no more than a hundred yards from land. It looked like she’d make it with ease. Then Crane remembered his orders.
‘Back out to sea with her, Brian. We’ll come around to Sandgate. Home before dawn with a bit of luck.’
‘She was something, wasn’t she, Skip?’ Brian was still gazing towards shore.
‘Yes, son,’ admitted Crane. ‘She was something.’
She changed quickly. The rucksack contained quite a lot, including several changes of clothes and shoes. It also contained air pockets to help keep it afloat. She deflated these. The rucksack had been heavier early on in the evening. She smiled at the memory.”
Third Person – Objective
This is rarely used because it’s so distancing. With Third Person Objective the narrator can’t see into any character’s mind so you’re trapped outside in a purely objective perspective. Everything must be revealed through action and dialogue. In fact, this is very much how a screenplay is written.
Here’s an example from the screenplay for Slumdog Millionaire by Simon Beaufoy, written in Third Person, present tense (as all scripts are). It stays out of Jamal’s head, so is completely objective, and yet still manages to convey a powerful sense of what he’s feeling:
“SALIM: Jamal! Catch it! Catch it!
The seven-year old Jamal stares up at the ball, jinks around trying to get into position. He pays no heed to the rest of the children who are scattering fast to the edges of the tarmac. The ball seems suspended in the blue sky. Shouts from the other children seem very far away. He doesn’t notice that they are screaming for him to get out of the way. Jamal adjusts his feet for the perfect catch. Then out of nowhere, a light aircraft almost takes his head off as it comes in to land on the tarmac runway.”
Also known as God’s Eye View, this is the all-knowing narrator. With an Omniscient POV you can go into any character’s mind, interpret events, describe things not seen by any of the characters, provide historical context and information, and even tell us about the future. In short, you can do whatever you want. It gives you total freedom. This is the classic approach to storytelling and can be seen as old fashioned now. It’s useful if you have lots of characters or an epic tale to tell, but the style can create distance, leaving the reader floating above the story along with the writer.
A modern master of Omniscient POV is Philip Pullman. Here’s an example from Northern Lights, the first in the His Dark Materials trilogy:
“Lyra had to adjust to her new sense of her own story, and that couldn’t be done in a day. To see Lord Asriel as her father was one thing, but to accept Mrs Coulter as her mother was nowhere near so easy. A couple of months ago she would have rejoiced, of course, and she knew that too, and felt confused.
But, being Lyra, she didn’t fret about it for long, for there was the Fen town to explore and many gyptian children to amaze. Before the three days were up she was an expert with a punt (in her eyes, at least) and she’d gathered a gang of urchins about her with tales of her mighty father, so unjustly made captive.”
Which POV are you using in your novel, and what were your reasons for choosing it? Share below…