Point of View: Which POV Should You Use in Your Story?
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Point of View is an important tool for every writer. However, it’s often glossed over before a writer starts writing their story.
Understanding POV and how to pick the one that’s most effective for your story is crucial to telling the right story. So, don’t just pick one because it’s what you’ve seen used before. Really think about this choice.
You can also watch this video on point of view:
Below, I’ll discuss the different points of view, which tense to use, and how to pick the right POV for your story and determine who’s telling the story.
What is point of view?
Point of view or POV denotes from which viewpoint or which character the story is told and in which tense. It’s the perspective from which the story is told.
Carefully choosing the proper POV is critical, as it will control how your reader perceives other characters, your story’s world, events, and other details.
Different points of view
First person POV
With first person POV, the POV character tells a story as “I.”
“I’m doing this; I’m doing that; I’m feeling this.”
First person creates a sense of intimacy because we’re very close to the character. We have direct access to their thoughts and emotions.
Using first person also leads the reader to experience everything through the narrator’s eyes. This is often biased to their perspective. You’ll see other characters and scenery from their limited perspective, as well as experience events with their emotional reactions. It’s a very subjective point of view.
For this very reason, unreliable narrators are often common within first person books (although they don’t have to be). It can be used effectively in psychological thrillers, for instance.
First person POV is also predominantly used within Young Adult fiction. This POV lends itself well to the coming of age aspect, as it shows the internal growth within the protagonist more clearly.
Related: Understanding the different fiction genres
Second person POV
Here, the reader is the POV character. It’s told with “you.”
“You are doing this; you are thinking this; you are saying this.”
With second person POV, your reader becomes the protagonist or another secondary figure. Or, with nonfiction, they’re themselves reading the book for a specific solution. It’s difficult to pull off in fiction, and it’s not used often. However, when done well, it’s a very intimate experience.
Second person POV is mostly used in nonfiction, in particular self-help. For fiction, it can be used in choose-your-own-adventure type books and creative fiction. Fanfiction also often uses second person POV. I have seen some fantasy-type novels coming up that apply this type of writing for original fiction as well.
Third person POV
With third person POV, the character’s viewpoint is told through the lens of a narrator. The story uses pronouns like “he”, “she”, or “they.”
“He is doing this; he is saying this; he’s thinking such-and-such.”
You can divide third person POV into two separate categories.
Third person omniscient POV
An omniscient narrator, the person who’s telling the story, is privy to all the thoughts, all the emotions, all of that of all the characters all the time. This means, for instance, that you can have a chapter where you can experience the thoughts of multiple characters within this one chapter.
Within this POV, you can introduce information that your protagonist, for instance, is unaware of. You can introduce different perspectives for a fuller scope of the story. This one relies heavily on the voice of the narrator. This is also not an easy POV because you have to choose which information you reveal at what point. You also have to be wary of switching too often—this is called head-hopping.
Genres that commonly use third person omniscient are fantasy and sci-fi stories. The narrator gives commentary on the world, political alliances, and more. They can easily give a full scope of their created world by switching between characters. Literary fiction also often has this POV to give the reader a larger perspective of the story.
Third person limited POV
Third person limited POV is like a combination of first person and third person. While a third person distance is used—hence, the narrator is the one telling the story, not necessarily the POV character—the narrator only knows the thoughts and feelings of a single character at a given time.
This gives a certain closeness to the character but gives a bit more distance than first person POV. This allows the reader to engage with the characters but also process their experiences from a more objective distance.
It’s possible to switch POV characters, often between chapters. But within each chapter, you only hear one perspective at a time.
Genres that use this POV often are romance, thriller, mystery, fantasy, and sci-fi, among others. It’s a versatile viewpoint that is used often by many writers across many genres.
Related: Active vs Passive voice
Use of tense
Aside from POV, you also have to choose which tense you use in your story.
You can write your story in the past or present tense. Future tense is also an option, but I can’t say I’ve ever read a story in that tense. I think it would be quite difficult to pull off well.
Most commonly, stories are told in past tense because that’s how we’ve ingrained telling stories. “Once upon a time, there was a princess…”
But in recent times, more and more stories are being written in present tense. For instance, the Hunger Games or The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue are some examples of this. Present tense creates more immediacy because everything is happening right now as you’re reading it.
Some readers will hate this. I’ve seen comments from readers on present tense where they just don’t like it.
However, that shouldn’t be a reason not to use it. Many more readers won’t even notice that it’s written in a different tense. Or they might notice it and then get used to it. Most won’t really care about it that much.
Just pick the tense that makes the most sense for your story and your genre.
How do you pick the right POV and tense for your story?
It’s always a good idea to look at books similar to yours, so in a similar genre, and see what they’re doing. Ask yourself:
Which POV are they using?
Are they using mostly first person POV or mostly third person POV?
Do they switch POVs?
Do they switch POV characters?
Do they use past or present tense?
Of course, also look at what you prefer to write in because you want to make it as easy as possible for yourself.
Who’s telling the story?
Now that you know which type of POV you’ll use and which tense, it’s time to decide who’s telling the story.
Picking the character who tells the story has a huge impact on the story.
The most obvious choice is your protagonist. And most often, it’s the right choice. But before you simply pick that and call it a day, consider a few different options.
What if the story is told through a close secondary character? For instance, this is done in The Great Gatsby. This gives us a different perspective on events and the main character than we would’ve had if the story had been told by Gatsby himself.
Which other characters could tell the story? How would that change the story? How would it make the reader view other characters and events? How would they interpret the world?
Write a list of other characters than the protagonist who could be the narrator of the story. For each one, write how this would affect the story and what it would add or take away from the story.
If you’re telling the story from multiple perspectives, you may also find some characters you could add to this cast that you didn’t consider before. You might decide to add a POV character or remove one. You might even decide to have a different character narrate the story.
Pick your point of view
Now you know the basics of each point of view, which genres most commonly use them, how to choose your POV and tense, and how you can choose the right POV character for your story.
If you need any help or are still in doubt about your POV, please contact me. I’m happy to help.
In the next article, we will discuss narrative device—the why and how of your story.