Writing point of view in fiction. It’s a big deal. Choosing one point of view over another or one type of point of view over another can completely change the story you are telling. Writing point of view badly or sloppily can ruin the story you want to tell. Point of view is so basic, but also so important and so often done wrong.
Pick up a novel—whatever is closest to you.
What point of view is it written in? Do you know?
Do you hear a narrator’s voice who isn’t one of the characters?
Does the narrator seem to speak to you, the reader, or does he just lead you through the story?
If the narrator is one of the characters, are you in his or her head—seeing and feeling everything he/she sees and feels?
Or do you feel like you are floating somewhere above the story, observing, but not really being a part of it?
All of these options are legitimate choices for an author to make when writing point of view in fiction—but the choice needs to be made consciously.
Unfortunately, I think frequently many writers write without thinking about how the reader is seeing the story, without thinking about point of view. And point of view can make a huge difference.
Popular Choices when Writing Point of View in Fiction
The most popular choices for point of view in books today is either Third or First-person limited. In these points of view, you are in the character’s skin, experiencing the story as they experience it—seeing, thinking, feeling, hearing ONLY what that one character at a time sees, thinks, feels and hears.
What makes first or third person limited point of view great is that the reader really does experience the story; they are in the heat of things. What makes it a challenge for many writers is that the writer is limited to that one character. Many writers feel some need to skip around from one character or point of view to another.
My advice when writing point of view in fiction
Except under very calculated circumstances, don’t skip around. Pick a character and stick with him or her for a good piece. Let the reader get to know that character.
Other Options when Writing Point of View in Fiction
Okay, but what about the other choices? Maybe knowing what they are will help writers to keep from slipping into them by accident. (I have, for the record, no issue with these alternative points of view if they are done with intent and for a good reason. I just do not approve of a sloppy point of view and believe most instances of these points of view appearing in manuscripts is done without intent.)
Second-person Point of View—this is the easiest. I have never read a novel written in second person. I believe it would make me mad (as in insane). Second person is “You”. I have also never seen a writer use this by mistake, so I think we can move on.
Objective Point of View—The mouse in the corner. The reader can “hear” via dialogue, etc. and “see” via description, but they never go into anyone’s head. They never know what any character is thinking unless that character says it out loud.
The reader becomes the mouse in the corner.
The problem with Objective Point of View?
The problem with an objective point of view is that mouse never connects with the characters and thus the reader never does either. It is like listening to Spock tell a story—no emotion.
(Side note: This is also frequently how people have been taught in school to write reports. For a report you want an objective viewpoint for creative writing, not so much.)
Almost all books are going to have bits that seem to be written in objective viewpoint. “Mary walked across the room and picked up her purse. She slipped it over her shoulder, turned on one heel and walked back to the mirror.”
That’s objective, but that is short. Do that for a few pages and the reader is likely to be looking around for the TV remote.
You can “show” in objective mode, but it has a definite “telling” feel. There are definite times and places for it. A great time to use an objective point of view is when you are writing a mystery and want to show something that happened without giving away who did the deed, etc. In this case, you want the reader to feel distant and don’t want the reader to connect with an on-screen character, etc. Just make sure you know why you are using objective point of view—especially if you use it for more than a short block or so of copy at a time.
Do a Check
Take the first ten pages of your manuscript—the pages where you really need the reader to connect with your character—and highlight everything that is objective. Is it too much? Are you short-changing the reader of the story experience?
Omniscient Point of View– God narrates the book. I say God because it has to be a narrator who can know everything happening everywhere, at every time, and inside every mind.
Omniscient Point of View is a very “old” point of view. You don’t see it as much in popular modern fiction and there is a reason for it. Omniscient can kill suspense, and all books, no matter the type need some suspense. Readers don’t need to know what everyone is thinking. Where is the surprise in that? Omniscient is also confusing to read. Readers like to latch onto a character and “root” for him or her (even a not so nice character). With omniscient point of view, they can never know whose head they may pop into next. They don’t know who they are supposed to sympathize with. And they really do want that. But… my biggest issue with omniscient point of view? Most writers don’t know how to do it at all, much less well, and it is hard to do well. (Check out this article on head-hopping for one of the pitfalls of attempting to write omniscient point of view.)
Those are just a few of the viewpoint choices you can make when writing point of view in fiction. There are others, mainly variations of these, but these are the point of view issues I see most when critiquing someone’s unpublished or unsuccessful work.
When writing point of view in fiction, play with the viewpoint all you want…but KNOW what you are trying to achieve with that playing if you do.
Lori Devoti is the author of paranormal romance, urban fantasy and young adult fiction. Under the name Rae Davies, she writes the USA Today Bestselling Dusty Deals Mystery series. Check our her books at www.LoriDevoti.com and RaeDavies.com. Looking for help with your writing? Lori also does developmental editing and critiques for other authors and publishers. See our Editorial Services page for contact information and pricing. Or check out Lori’s classes at the Continuing Studies Department of the University of Wisconsin.