If you’re not sure what a narrative point of view is, or how to use it effectively in your fiction writing, this post is for you.
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What is narrative point of view?
Point of view (POV) describes whose head we’re in when we read a book ... from whose perspective we discover what’s going on – and the smells, sounds, sights and emotions involved.
There can be multiple viewpoints in a book, not all of which have to belong to a single character. And to complicate things, editors’ and authors’ opinions differ as to which approach works best, and what jars and why.
I’ll review the most-oft-used POVs and explain why I think they’re effective.
POV can be tricky and my aim is to keep the guidance as straightforward as possible, not because I think you should only do it this way or that way, but because most people (myself included) handle complexity best when they start with the foundations and build up and outwards.
Why should you bother nailing POV?
Pro editors and experienced writers agree on one thing: it’s worth the beginner author’s time to understand POV so that they can make decisions about which to use, where, and why. Consider the following:
Says Julia Crouch:
Choose who is doing your telling very carefully, work with their voices, character, secrets and lies, reliability or lack thereof, and the spaces between different points of view. You can weave a wonderfully rich pattern this way. This doesn’t mean that you have to write in the first person (‘I’) – you can get right up close inside a character’s head by using third (‘she’). A cool, detached, narrator can be helpful, too, but you have to be clear who and what they are, and why they are there.
Point of view: What are the options?
There are multiple ways in which to narrate a novel. Some are more popular than others, and some easier to master. What you choose will shape not only the story you tell but also your readers’ understanding of it. The options are as follows:
First-person narrative POVs are the most intimate, the most immediate, but they’re less flexible. The pronouns used are ‘I’ and ‘we’. The reader is privy to an individual character’s thoughts, emotions and experiences, all told through a distinctive voice.
We can only see, hear, smell and feel what the character sees, hears, smells and feels. We are compelled to move through the story knowing only what they know, and at their pace.
However, used throughout an entire novel, from on character only, it can be problematic for the following reasons:
Example: Not relying on ‘I’
In To Kill a Mockingbird (p. 5), Harper Lee keeps ‘I’ to a minimum and yet the prose oozes with first person. Note in particular how the voice is rich and distinct, rather than the more neutral tone we’d expect from third-person objective narration.
Because Lee doesn’t append ‘I’ plus a verb to much of the prose, we are given a shown narrative that we can experience rather than being told how the narrator experienced the world being described. Compare it with the ‘I’-heavy made-up example below and consider how the narrator’s told experience keeps the reader at a distance.
I placed my hand on the rusty handle and tugged, but the old oak door refused to give way to me. I heard a rustling sound behind me and turned my head. I spotted movement in the inky shadows and felt the skin on the back of my neck prickle with terror as I realized I wasn’t alone.
Let’s rewrite this with a less invasive first-person narration in which the reader can experience the action as it unfolds.
The handle was rusty against my palms as I tugged but the old oak door refused to give. A rustling came from behind and I turned. A shape flitted in the inky shadows and the skin on the back of my neck prickled. I wasn’t alone.
Example: Sustaining interest with other interpretations
In The Word is Murder (p. 208), author Anthony Horowitz is one of the characters! The viewpoint is first person (his). The author is like a floating camera; we see the protagonist – the detective (Hawthorne) who solves the crime – through Horowitz’s eyes as he accompanies him to interviews with suspects and on visits to crime scenes.
The author-character offers his own theories, even pursues his own lines of investigation, and interjects with stories about his life and career. This adds interest but, ultimately, it’s the detective who grounds the crime story, brings reliability to the narrative, and drives the novel forward; it’s through him that we access the procedural elements and the answer to whodunnit. Here’s an excerpt:
First-person narratives introduce depth and explain motivations but can be difficult to sustain if not sufficiently interesting and there’s too much told narrative. Watch out for filter words if you think you’re over-telling.
Consider whether your whole novel needs to be in first person. Perhaps limiting this approach to specific characters in dedicated chapters would be more effective. If you decide to stick with first person throughout, think about voice and how your viewpoint character (and therefore the reader) will discover the how, when and why of the story at an engaging pace.
And, finally, if you’re basing your whole novel in the first person, be cautious about using the present tense throughout. The past might give you more flexibility, particularly if you’re writing action-heavy scenes where, in reality, the character wouldn’t have time to give much thought to the consequences and motivations of their behaviour.
In second-person narrative POVs, the pronoun is ‘you’. This narration is intimate, but strangely so, as if the author is talking directly to the reader as a character. That intrusive element is both its strength and its weakness. It’s powerful because it places readers at the heart of the story, and yet we – the ‘you’ – know less than the narrator.
That can create a sense of immediacy, but almost amnesiac dislocation. We have to discover what we think, see, know and do. And if we don’t identify with the ‘you’ – if we feel implicated rather than attached – we can be pulled out of the story rather than brought deeper into it.
Still, this controlling aspect of second person can have an advantage. Whereas first-person narrators tell you what they thought and did, second-person narrators tell us what we thought and did. This witnessing adds a level of reliability (even if we don’t like it). And readers aren’t daft. They know they’re not really the you-character, which means authors could use it as a tool to create surprise when the ‘you’ is unveiled later in the book.
If you want your readers to feel connected but controlled, second-person POV might be just the ticket, but it’s difficult to pull off and rare that authors of contemporary commercial fiction write an entire novel in it. More likely, you’ll see shorter-form use: dedicated chapters either in narrative form or written as diary entries, letters or other missives.
Example: Voyeuristic tension
In I See You (p. 176), Clare Mackintosh punctuates her primary third-person narrative (a police officer’s) with a second-person viewpoint of an anonymous predator, though she keeps the narratives distinct by giving them their own chapters.
The distinct transgressor voice explores the predator’s twisted psyche intimately, and in a way that enables the reader to understand their motivations – what’s making them think and behave so monstrously.
The chapters given over to the transgressor provide a rich sense of cat and mouse when juxtaposed with the more distanced police-procedural storyline. Note how the predator-narrator in the above example bends their perceptions into a warped reality – there are no maybes here; they’ve decided that this is the way things are and justify their actions accordingly.
Because Mackintosh uses the present tense for her second-person narrative, she’s able to retain tight control over the unveiling. We’re right in the now of the novel. It’s deeply suspenseful, but emotionally demanding to read. However, this narrative style doesn’t dominate the novel. The transgressor chapters are shorter, and readers are allowed breathing space as they’re pushed gently back into the less intimate third-person narrative of the protagonist.
Example: Curiosity, reliability and the complicit reader
In this example from Complicity (p. 9), Iain Banks uses the second-person viewpoint in which a narrator reports on the actions and thoughts of an unnamed serial killer addressed as ‘you’.
Think about how you feel as you read this. It’s as if you’re being addressed, as if you’re complicit. At the very least, the prose arouses curiosity – who is this ‘you’, and how is it that the narrator knows so much about them?
Banks doesn’t present the novel fully in second person; these sections fall between those of a first-person viewpoint character, journalist Cameron Colley. As such, readers are confronted by a juxtaposition of Cameron’s version of events and what was witnessed by the narrator.
By all means experiment with second-person point of view but understand its implications. If you want to draw your reader into the heart of your story, it’s a good choice. However, that connection can come at a price – a lack of control that could alienate your audience. Overdoing it, says James Peacock, ‘can feel like a form of harassment from someone trying too hard to get into your head’.
For that reason, consider the purpose of this narrative style and the extent to which you employ it. It might be better constrained – limited to chapters inhabited by specific viewpoint characters.
If in doubt, rewrite your scene in an alternative narrative viewpoint so you can evaluate how this affects your perception of the story as a reader.
Third-person limited POV
Along with third-person objective, this viewpoint is the one that most writers find easiest to master at the beginning of their journey. Furthermore, readers are used to encountering it in contemporary fiction. The pronouns of choice are ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘it’ and ‘they’.
Third-person limited is so called because it’s a deeper viewpoint that limits readers to a single character’s experience – what they see, hear, feel and think. Readers get to sit in their skin and that provides an immersive experience. It’s as if we’re them.
Example: Intimacy and getting under the character’s skin
Here are some examples from Mick Herron, Harry Brett and Louise Penny that demonstrate an intimate third-person limited narrative:
The voices are distinctive. It’s not just dialogue that conveys how the viewpoint characters speak and think; it’s the narrative too.
However, it’s called third-person limited for a reason. Strictly speaking, what that character can’t see or know shouldn’t be reported. In the above examples, we’re left with questions – of destination in the first, of the origin of a smell in the second, and of the nature of the journey – because we don’t know any more than the viewpoint characters.
Third-person limited is effective because an author doesn’t want to give everything away at once. The limitations over what can be known, and therefore divulged, allow the writer to control the unveiling of information via the viewpoint character.
I recommend you stick to a single character’s POV per chapter or section to avoid confusion or interruption. Mittelmark and Newman (p. 159) offer this wisdom:
Sometimes an author slips into a different point of view for the space of a single paragraph, or even a sentence. This is especially jarring when the remaining novel is given from the point of view of a single character, whom we have come to regard as our second self. It gives the feeling of a fleeting and unexplained moment of telepathy, an uncomfortable intrusion of somebody else’s thoughts. When the protagonist’s point of view resumes, we move forward into the narrative warily, ready at any moment for a fresh assault on our minds.
That’s worth heeding. It means the reader’s trust has been lost, that they’ve been pulled out of the story rather than drawn further into it.
Trickier still is narrative ping pong, where within one section we bounce back and forth between the POVs of Character X and Character Y.
Here’s a made-up example that demonstrates how things can go wrong.
Jan ran down the road, her lungs screaming for air. She snatched a glance over her shoulder, hoping to Christ Melody was behind.
‘You okay, Jan?’ said Melody. She’d barely got the words out – her throat was on fire. All she wanted to do was stop, breathe, devour that bottle of water in her backpack bouncing hard against her spine.
‘We’re here,’ Jan said. Thank God. Tears of relief stung her eyes. She’d been worried Mel wouldn’t keep up. Guilt niggled. Would she have gone back for her? She wasn’t sure.
The problem with this kind of setup is that it ‘alienates the reader from both perspectives. She is unable to identify with either because there’s no telling when it will be yanked away’ (Mittelmark and Newman, p. 161).
In other words, the reader has been prevented from immersing themselves in the character’s version of the story. When you stay in the head of one character per chapter or section, you make your writing life and your reader’s journey easier.
Third-person objective POV
If third-person limited provides intimacy – allowing us to explore a character’s emotions and hear their voice – third-person objective offers a more neutral flexibility when we need some distance to look around and beyond objectively.
Like its limited sister, writers find this easiest to master and readers are used to encountering it. The pronouns too are ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘it’ and ‘they’.
It’s a useful viewpoint for the author who wants to convey descriptive information – height, weight, facial expression, environment. If you’re using this POV, practice your observation skills so that you understand how people move from place to place, what they wear, where they live, how they gesture, so that you can show what might be going on in their heads through what can be observed.
The same can be said of the objects in your novel. How does light play on water or a brick building at various times of the day? What sounds might be audible in your environment? How do the seasons affect the flora and fauna?
Third-person objective viewpoints are powerful because they force a writer to show rather than tell what’s being seen. That’s because we don’t have access to the internal thoughts of a character.
Example: A more distant and descriptive narrative
Here’s an example from David Baldacci’s The Fix (p. 3) that demonstrates third-person narration as observable description.
Example: Shown-not-told in action
Here are some excerpts from Stephen King’s The Stand that demonstrate a close attention to the way things and people behave when observed.
Objectivity allows the writer to explore in detail what would be unnatural for a character to report directly. Remember, we’re not accessing thoughts, opinions and emotions with an objective POV, just the stuff that any onlooker could see, hear or smell.
Objective is the key word here. Third-person objective viewpoints should focus on what could be known by a narrator witnessing that scene. When information is reported that moves beyond a floating camera that’s tracking the immediate environs and into a space where the narrator knows more than could possibly be witnessed by the character or the onlooker, omniscience is in play (more on that below).
In some genres – crime fiction for example – this can be useful because the reader will be forced to reach their own conclusions as to the reasons for, or motivations behind, a particular event or behaviour. In other words, it’s mysterious.
However, it can be distancing if overused and as a result contemporary commercial fiction writers rarely write entire novels from an objective POV because it’s reportage and we can’t get into the characters’ heads. It’s harder to understand what motivates them unless they express it through dialogue. A blend of limited and objective is a more likely choice.
Use third-person objective POV to create suspense, to make your reader wonder, and ask their own questions, and to provide scene-setting information, but blend with a limited viewpoint for deeper emotional engagement.
In the first paragraph of the example below, Baldacci (The Fix, p. 3) uses third-person objective to give us background facts. In the second, he switches to limited to explain the character’s feelings. It’s a lovely fusion:
Third-person omniscient POV
This viewpoint is probably the trickiest to master. Omniscient means all-knowing. It’s the most flexible because it gives the reader potential access to every character’s external and internal experiences. It also has the potential to be the least intimate if not handled well.
Imagine a futuristic news helicopter. Inside, our roving reporter shifts her camera from one person to another, and one setting to another. She’s also got some serious kit, stuff that enables her to tap everyone’s phones, TVs and computers. But that’s not all; the characters’ brains are bugged too; our reporter knows what they’re thinking. She can see, hear and smell it all! Says Sophie Playle:
The narrator knows everything, and isn’t limited to the viewpoint of any single character. An omniscient narrator could be a character in the story (like a god or an enlightened person), or they could be an observing nonentity. Completely omniscient viewpoints are difficult to pull off well because the narrator needs to have reasons for imparting the knowledge they choose to impart in the order they choose to do so, otherwise the story will feel contrived [...] Omniscient narration and third person objective narration have similarities, but the key is looking for when the narrator knows more than it could objectively observe.
Example: Deeper knowledge than third-person narration
If you’ve read anything by Neil Gaiman, you’ll see a blatant external narrator in evidence with a depth of knowledge that defies the rules of a third-person viewpoint. Here’s an example from Neverwhere (p. 10).
The first ten words might appear to be a third-person viewpoint (‘He’ refers to Richard, the protagonist), but that’s not the case. What follows is a distinct narrative other, a voice that explains ‘white knowledge’.
In the second and third paragraphs, the all-knowing narrator offers historical information. Then in the final paragraph, we’re told more about Richard. The viewpoint was never third-person objective. It was omniscient all along.
In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, ‘the man’ takes centre stage in most of the sections such that we see what he sees and feel what he feels. It’s almost as if he’s the narrator, and once more we could be forgiven for thinking the viewpoint third person. But there’s more going on here.
In the following extracts, notice the shift beyond what it’s possible for the man to see, think or know.
In the first extract, only an all-knowing alternative narrator could be privy to the intent behind the marchers’ colour choice of scarves. In the second, the man watches the army, but it’s only an omniscient narrator who can know where their blades were forged and how the boy is feeling. Maybe that narrator is McCarthy; maybe it’s someone else. But it’s not the man.
Example: World-building backstory in a flash
Some genres – science fiction and fantasy for example – lend themselves well to omniscient narrators because they can provide critical world-building backstory quickly. Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters provides a fine example (pp. 1–2).
Example: Social and political commentary
Omniscient viewpoint comes into its own when authors want to pepper their prose with political and social commentary that’s distanced from the belief systems and experiences of their novel’s characters.
Let’s start with an example from Thackeray’s classic, Vanity Fair (p. 6):
Thackeray uses an omniscient POV to tell us everything his omniscient narrator (or more likely he) thinks about his characters, and the rules and norms of the society within which they live. Omniscience allows him to speak directly to the reader, thereby temporarily bypassing the voices of the players, whether those be reliable or not. And with it we are given not historical drama but timeless satire.
Example: Multiple introductions
Omniscience can be used to introduce us to a cast of characters – who they are, and what they are doing and thinking. Here’s an example from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (p. 671). Dickens uses a seamless omniscient viewpoint to show us the internal and external experiences of Bradley Headstone, his pupils and Miss Peecher.
For a more contemporary example, we can turn to Mick Herron, author of the Jackson Lamb thrillers, a series about MI5 officers who’ve screwed up and been sent to Slough House to shuffle paper.
Herron doesn’t use a god as the lens through which we see. He uses a cat. He imagines our feline friend sneaking ‘like a rumour’ (p. 9) into Slough House and checking out the various rooms’ occupants. Of course, a cat doesn’t think or behave with intention like a human. The cat can’t possibly know any of the things that we’re told during its wanderings. Instead, Herron uses it as a cheeky tool to introduce the cast, the environs, and the atmosphere of Slough House.
Dead Lions is Book 2 of the series. Herron wants to introduce us to a cast of characters, most of whom appeared in Book 1. However, he respects the fact that not all his readers will have read the first book, and that those who have might have forgotten who these people are and why they’re important.
The omniscient POV allows him to do the introductions quickly and cleanly, and democratically. None of the characters are explored in depth. Rather, Herron gives us a snapshot of what he wants us to know about them, what makes them tick.
And here’s an example from Gaiman’s Neverwhere (p. 8). In the second paragraph, the omniscient narrator blatantly interrupts the story to give us some character description.
Example: Freedom to roam quickly
Let’s return to Herron. Through the imaginary cat, we’re given the freedom to roam without intrusion. No single character’s feelings or experiences dominate over the others. It’s a form of speedy literary democracy.
That roving feline shows us not only key details about each character, but also how they perceive each other. That’s difficult to do with first-person and third-person narration without offering lengthy and interruptive explanations of how the information was acquired.
The omniscient can convey a sense of tension that sets up the next scene. Back to Herron. The main man, Jackson Lamb, head of ops, is not in residence. And that’s unusual.
Rather than hopping from one internal monologue to another, or cluttering the text with dull dialogue in which the various characters express their confusion about their boss’s absence, the omniscient narrator tells us in only eighteen words (‘Simply put ...’) that everyone knows he’s absent, and no one knows why.
What omniscient is not
An omniscient viewpoint can be powerful but it needs to be controlled and used with purpose. If we’re accessing one character’s thoughts and experiences, and we jump to another character’s viewpoint, it can jar the reader.
Imagine you’re listening to your best friend tell you about a difficult experience. Even though it didn’t happen to you, her description of the event helps you to imagine the challenges she faced, the emotions she grappled with. You’re thoroughly immersed and emotionally connected. Then someone else barges up to you both and tells you what it was like for them. Your friend butts back in to wrestle the telling back to her.
Would the interruption annoy and frustrate you? Would you feel like your efforts to invest in your friend’s story were being thwarted?
The impact is the same when it occurs in a book’s narrative (though not the dialogue, of course). That viewpoint ping pong is not omniscient POV. It’s third-person limited gone awry.
I’d recommend caution. The beauty of fiction often lies in the unveiling, in the immersion. Overuse of an omniscient narrator can block this.
The all-seeing eye can be a powerful tool – as demonstrated by the examples above – but less experienced authors, particularly those writing commercial fiction such as thrillers and mysteries, risk accidental head-hopping, which will destroy the tension and distance the reader from the characters.
Choose POV with intention, and recognize the benefits and limitations of each style.
There’s nothing wrong with experimenting, and you need not stick to one viewpoint style within a novel, as demonstrated by Mackintosh and Banks. Switches like these can add interest and tension, heighten conflict, and help readers build varying levels of intimacy with different characters.
Do, however, be consistent. Recall how Banks separates his first- and second-person narrations into distinct chapters and sections, and how the choice of narrative style is applied consistently to the viewpoint characters. Doing otherwise will lead to reader confusion.
Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with independent authors of commercial fiction, particularly crime, thriller and mystery writers.
She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), a member of ACES, a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and co-hosts The Editing Podcast.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Fiction Editor & Proofreader, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or connect via Facebook and LinkedIn.
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