Your Character’s Point of View

Once you’ve fleshed out your characters you have to decide how to tell the story. Whose eyes will the reader see through and how much information will they get? This is a question of Point of View (POV). Types of point of view include first person, third person, omniscient, objective, and second person.

First person is when the story is told with an “I” voice. Usually the “I” is the protagonist or hero, but doesn’t have to be. For instance, in To Kill a Mockingbird the narrator is Scout and the protagonist is her father. The advantage of first person is it allows a potential for a greater degree of intimacy with the character. The drawback is the reader can only know what the narrator knows. In a first person story be careful of using phrases like “I smiled” because a smile is a visual we don’t see ourselves doing. Instead the first person character could tell us how she felt—“a warmth filled my whole body.” Also consider the narrator’s background. If he’s under educated, it would be out of place for an “I” character to use big, fancy words.

Third person takes a step back and lets the reader see the character from the outside. This viewpoint can vary in its limitation. “He” or “She” may be used like the “I” in first person where we see through the eyes of the character and know only what the character knows. If you establish this internal third person perspective, you don’t have to worry about including phases such as “he thought” or “She felt”. You could also limit the third person POV so the reader sees the character from the outside and has only partial access to his thoughts. But remember the reader isn’t privy to any other characters feelings, except through what is seen on the outside. This is a common POV error. It jolts the reader when you are in one person’s head then you jump into another character’s head.

Omniscient is the POV to employ if you want to go inside all the characters’ heads. Other advantages include the ability of interjecting storyteller judgments about the characters and comments about events the characters are unaware of. Omniscient POV is found mainly in classic literature and short stories. Most modern mainstream authors shy away from it because it’s difficult to engage today’s readers with a truly omniscient novel. What you do see are novels written from the perspective of a group of characters. But in that case the author stays in one character’s head at a time, and changes the POV to another in the next scene. Sometimes exceptions are made when a scene is in one POV and another POV character’s thoughts are heard, but the interjection of those thoughts should be in a separate paragraph.

Objective POV is when the reader is not allowed into anybody’s head, neither the author nor the characters. The only information given is through description, dialogue and action. It’s like seeing it on the screen or acted on a stage.

Second Person, where the author uses “you” as a character, is rarely employed but I’ve seen it work in short stories and poetry, or interjected into portions of a novel. In this case the “you” is not used as comments to the reader, but as the same as the “I”, “he” or “she”. When the POV is “you” the effect for the reader is a bit surreal because it forces them to see the story as if they were the character. This makes this POV even more intimate than first person.

What does this mean for your story? A lot of factors play into which POV you chose. One element to consider is who is the story being told to? If it’s being told to another character the teller might censor. But if it’s being written as a diary, the teller may assume their thoughts are entirely private. This brings up the question, how intimate you want your readers to be with your characters? And how much information the audience needs to know to hold their attention? For instance you’d use first person for a detective story because if the reader knew more than the detective the mystery might not be as mysterious.

An advantage of third person is the writer can vary how we see the character, sometimes internal like with first person and sometimes stepping back for an outward view. But be careful not to accidentally slip into another character’s POV, unless you have more than one POV character. Multiple POVs can give the reader more information, but at this point you may not want to venture into this difficult form of writing. But as you read fiction take note of how the author uses multiple viewpoints. In a 2004 bestseller, one character assists the protagonist (hero) then turns out to be the antagonist (villain). I won’t mention the title in case you haven’t read it, but we don’t know the antagonist’s true intent because we are not in his viewpoint until the crucial moment. In this case the author’s choice of POV characters upped the tension.

When the time comes for you to enlist multiple viewpoints, keep in mind that all of the POV characters should have a parallel, contrasting, or complementary goal in order to keep the story going.

The main concern for selecting a POV is which character will be a focal part of the action. Review the goals you put down in your Character Profiles, and decide which one has the most at stake. Chances are this will be your protagonist and your narrator. Even if he isn’t the hero, the POV must come from somebody who will experience the conflict raised by the struggle to achieve the agenda, and who will be changed by the outcome. After all stories are made by characters taking action to get what they want.