I thought I’d talk a little about point of view in young adult fiction—a little more of craft-based a topic than I usually touch on, but I think it’s an important one.
Basically, there are three types of point of view to choose from when crafting your young adult or teen novel:
Third person omniscient POV: When the narrator knows everything—can drop into anyone’s head at any time. Pro: The reader can know things that the characters’ don’t. Con: Distances readers from the characters. Called “head hopping” when done poorly.
Third person POV: Uses pronouns “he/she.” Can alternate between more than one character, but within each POV character’s scenes, it only reveals that particular character’s thoughts/perceptions. Pro: Puts readers more in touch with the characters. Con: Readers can only know what the POV characters know.
First person POV: Uses pronoun “I.” Puts readers directly into character’s thoughts/feeling/reactions. Usually sticks with one protagonist, but can alternate. Pro: Drops readers right into character’s head. Con: As above, readers can only know what POV character knows.
The majority of young adult novels written today use either regular third person or first person point of view (more heavily in favor of first person), though occasionally you’ll see something written in third person omniscient (for example, some of Gail Carson Levine’s work).
Examples of point of view in young adult fiction.
I’m going to take a snippet from Levine’s Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep (third person omniscient point of view) and then we’ll play around with it for a bit.
What a hideous baby, the fairy Arabella thought. She said, “My gift to Sonora is beauty.”
The fairy touches the baby with her wand, and Sonora becomes beautiful and adorable, for a baby. Sonora doesn’t like it very much.
Ouch! It hurt to have your body change shape and to grow hair on your head in ten seconds. Sonora wailed.
King Humphrey II of Biddle thought, Why did the fairy do that? As his first-born child—as his lovey dovey oodle boodle baby—she had been fine the way she was.
Okay, notice in the above, we get into Arabella’s head, baby Sonora’s head, *and* King Humphrey’s head. It’s almost as if we’re watching the scene from above with a wide-angle lens, taking it all in. We’re basically being told the story from the narrator’s point of view, and the narrator knows what everyone’s thinking/feeling.
Now, we’ll narrow our lens a bit into regular third person point of view:
Arabella peered down at the baby, sure she’d never seen such an ugly one in all her life. With a flick of her wrist, she waved her wand over the bassinet. “My gift to Sonora is beauty,” she said, watching with a smile of satisfaction as the baby became instantly adorable—for a baby, at least.
As the baby wailed, Arabella looked up at King Humphrey expectantly, waiting for him to acknowledge this wondrous gift, to congratulate her on a job well done.
But he only scowled at her, his heavy brows drawn over stormy-looking eyes.
In the above example, we know/feel what Arabella knows/feels. We’re in her point of view, viewing the events through her eyes. Often, you will see writers alternate third person POV with more than one character. This works particularly well in YA romance, where readers want to get into the heads of both the protagonist *and* the protagonist’s love interest.
But let’s narrow the lens a bit more, into first person point of view this time:
I leaned over the side of bassinet, running my fingers across the rough lace coverlet. The baby lay there, peering up at me with curious eyes. Yikes! I winced, sure I’d never seen such an ugly baby in all my life.
“My gift to Sonora is beauty,” I said quickly, waving my wand over her squirming form. The baby wailed, her purplish-red face scrunched up like a raisin.
I glanced up at the King, waiting for him to acknowledge this wondrous gift, to congratulate me on a job well done. Instead, he scowled at me. Huh. Pretty rude, if you ask me.
In this example, we’re still in Arabella’s point of view, but now we’re firmly in her head, using the pronoun “I,” seeing/hearing/experiencing things directly through her. Her “voice” comes out more, and readers are put directly into her head. I think you can see why this works particularly well for YA fiction, where the “teen” voice is so important.
Also, the fact that readers can only know what the character knows fits well with the common theme of “self-discovery” that we see a lot of in YA fiction. First person also works well with YA mysteries, or with stories where other characters are keeping secrets from the protagonist, allowing readers to make the discoveries along with the protagonist.
Example—third person point of view done badly:
Arabella stepped up to the bassinet, pushing a lock of her shiny, chestnut brown hair from her forehead as she peered down at the squirming baby. She winced, sure she’d never seen such an ugly baby in all her life. “My gift to Sonora is beauty,” she said, waving the wand with a flick of her wrist.
The baby wailed, the pain from growing hair in ten seconds making her scalp burn.
Arabella glanced up at the King, waiting for him to acknowledge this wondrous gift she’d bestowed on his daughter.
Instead, he scowled at her. He thought his daughter was fine just the way she was.
Did you notice the point of view slips? The one in the first sentence is one I see a lot with newbie writers—the “shiny, chestnut hair” bit. When you push your own hair from your face, do you think about its color, its texture? Probably not. It’s just… your hair. When you have an eyelash in your eye, do you think “Hey, my eye is killing me?” or do you think “Hey, my exotic, almond-shaped brown eye is killing me?” See what I mean?
In the second and third slips, Arabella seems to know exactly what baby Sonora is feeling, and precisely what the King is thinking. Unless she’s a mind reader, this isn’t possible.
And there you have it—point of view in young adult fiction in a nutshell!
I’ll leave you with one tip: If you’re struggling with a manuscript, try switching the point of view, either from first to third, or third to first. See if it works better. Some stories/voices are better suited to one POV than the other, and you might just unlock a manuscript’s potential with a change.
Thanks for that great in site, the difference in POV was amazing. thank you for posting this point of view.
Susan Kaye Quinn
I was just talking about POV in my teen writing workshop Writing While Teen. It’s so hard, but important, to get a grip on. I wish I had your examples then – they’re great!
Thanks for the post!
p.s. I just took Kathy Steffen’s workshop a couple weeks ago and she pointed me here! 🙂
Glad you found it helpful!
I (First Person POV) enjoyed the article. Two questions, if you havea minute. First, what are some contemporary YAF novels that succcessfully employ the Third Person Omniscient and second, how much time does one have to spend “in the head” of various characters for TPO to be successful?
The only examples I can think of using Third Person Omniscient are some of Gail Carson Levine’s “fairy tale-esque” novels (including Princess Sonora). It’s really not used much–I personally think it makes it very, very difficult for readers to connect with the characters, so I don’t really recommend it, unless you’re making a distinct stylistic choice (as Levine did). But I would probably say that the more time you spend in each characters’ POV, the better chance you’ll have of allowing readers to connect with them/understand them & their motivations. Hope that helps!
I just stumbled upon this entry. Great examples…am I understanding correctly
that the difference fundamentally with the 3rd person omniscient and 3rd POV is that in omni the narrator can see and know everything, but we are still filtering through that detached vantage and not dipping in and out of character heads? It’s a nuance–but I think I see how making narrator a character is different then skipping around from all the actual characters POV. Straight 3rd POV is outside but anchored to particular character. Your “bad” example through me and I spent some time trying to see how it was different from omni. This is hard to write clearly about.