Commercial fiction is fast-paced and character driven, but when planning their next novel, career authors want to choose the Point of View (POV) that makes the most sense for the story they are trying to tell.
Here are options to consider:
- First person
- Second person
- Third person omniscient
- Third person close
FIRST PERSON POV: I
The first person POV seems like the easiest way to tell my story. After all, I think in the first person. In my book I am trying to express my character’s unique outlook, and first person POV will provide my future readers a good opportunity to intimately connect to my character. Hearing my character’s internal thoughts while observing the book’s events should make the reading experience more intimate, urgent and compelling.
“Sixty seconds. That’s how long we’re required to stand on our metal circles before the sound of a gong releases us.”
—The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
“I had always avoided that bridge, for it was stained with the remembrance of the mothers, uncles, and cousins gone Natchez-way.”
—The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I’m stuck in that one character’s head, for better or worse.
I must absolutely stay within this one POV—no slips into other viewpoints or omniscience! The first person narrator cannot read other characters’ thoughts, just like I cannot know for sure what is happening in the next room.
First person POV perspective is limited by what the narrator knows and sees and thinks and feels. There can be thorny technical issues, like how to describe my central character. I’ve often read writers solving this problem with mirrors: a narrator is checking himself out in the mirror so readers can get an idea of what he looks like.
One way to get around the general problem of limited perspective is by creating additional narrators with their own first person point of view. Novels like Chris Cleave’s Little Bee and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife alternate first person narrators.
Still, I don’t want to confuse my reader with too many POVs.
More than five characters’ perspectives in one book can become tiresome.
Call me Unreliable
The limitations of first person POV can be an advantage for the tricky and masterful author. In such a close alignment of narrator and reader, the latter shares the former’s biases and limitations. In Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, the young second wife narrator feels so slight and colorless compared to the larger than life Rebecca that we never even learn her name. Maybe my character’s POV is purposefully a bit skewed. Even so, my readers may not notice they are being lied to or shielded from the truth.
I do love me an unreliable narrator.
The use of unreliable narrators (like in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl) offers novelists a clever way to manipulate readers. We lie in wait until the optimal moment to dramatically reveal the shocking truth. This literary derring-do is tough to pull off. Along the way, readers must always trust, feel comfortable and believe in the narrator … until they don’t.
SECOND PERSON POV: You
Maybe second person is your best option. Like first person, second person POV feels intimate. You make the reader feel and smell and taste all that is described. You talk directly to them. It feels spontaneous. It sounds cool.
“Some in the crowd smile knowingly, while others frown and look questioningly at their neighbors. A child near you tugs on her mother’s sleeve, begging to know what it says.”
—The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
“Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.”
—Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Writing in second person POV must be done with extreme care. The danger is that your readers might not want to become the character you are telling them to be. They may not appreciate being told how to feel. Empathy may be in short supply. Your schtick may get tiresome.
This POV is demanding, tough to sustain. Writers rarely use it. And unless you’re a genius, it’s tough to sell and publish. You might think twice about this strategy.
THIRD PERSON POV: He, she, they
Another option for the writer is Third Person Omniscient and Third Person Close—the most common POV in commercial fiction.
Know it all
In the Omniscient POV, the narrator knows everything about everything. They know what’s happening on the other side of the wall. They know where the treasure is buried and what the knight is thinking and what the queen is feeling.
“‘I remember thine eyes well enough,’ Arthur said, distracted by the child version of Cordelia, and this was when it happened. There was a change in his face, he stumbled, he reached for a column but misjudged the distance and struck it hard with the side of his hand.”
—Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel
“He had traveled in his younger years, and was held in this part of the county to have contracted a too rambling habit of mind.”
—Middlemarch by George Eliot
Like God telling a story, the omniscient POV is all-seeing. The narrator knows more than the characters. In Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, the omniscient narrator turns out to be Death.
An omniscient POV appears less subjective, more objective: the narrator seems to see and report all. However, in creative fiction, that subjectivity is questionable. More on the omniscient POV’s huge challenges can be found here.
Most commercial fiction these days is in third person limited, or third person close: here the perspective is limited to one single character’s knowledge.
This third person close narrator is not the same as first person POV, in that the narrator describes and assesses events and actions from a slight distance. Her story is related as she experiences it. He doesn’t know what she is thinking.
“At nine in the morning, she was standing on the steps of the Plaza Hotel, shivering in a linen dress. One of the clothespins that held the back of the dress together clattered to the ground.”
—The Love Machine by Jacqueline Susann
“Keller sees the child and the glint of the scope in the same moment.”
—The Border by Don Winslow
As in first person POV discussed above, alternating chapters may feature varying narrators.
The above referenced Rule of Five remains: the writer is advised to not muck up the works with too many POVs.
Most commercial novels have just one point of view—or one per chapter. In popular fiction, head-hopping is discouraged. One might conclude that sticking to a single character’s point of view in third person close POV is the most comfortable place for both readers and writer, especially with the goal being popular fiction.
Stay the course
Whatever the choice of perspective, be consistent. When agents and editors read a submission, spotting POV gaffes is one of the most common ways to identify an amateur. A career author must avoid any mistakes that may result in the curt dismissal of their manuscript.
Writing is a craft. Clear knowledge of the tools of the literary trade is compulsory. Strategize storytelling with care: consider the options, and tell your story in the most effective way.
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