Tackling Point of View
Point of view (POV) was one of the first choices you made when you wrote your novel, whether you knew it or not. And it affects every single word choice, every scene, even the plot.
Poorly crafted POV confuses readers and can land your novel in the dreaded did-not-finish pile where good stories go to die.
When done well, the right POV not only immerses the reader in your world, it provides a path for the reader to build an emotional connection to your characters and their circumstances.
So, how can you craft POV well?
First, it's important to understand the approaches to POV. There are three common approaches to POV and one less-common approach:
Second-person POV is the less-common approach and for good reason—it's hard to write! In second person, the narrator talks directly to the reader by addressing "you," but it goes further than that.
The reader becomes a character and there must be something for them to do in the novel. "You" has specific characteristics and reactions and intimately interacts with the story.
Writing Second Person Well
Since you're up for an experimental way of writing your novel and you've chosen the second-person POV to deliver your message to readers, you'll want to know how to write second person well (and keep your novel away from the dastardly did-not-finish piles of the world's readers). Writing second-person well benefits from a few key ingredients:
You must have a reason for involving your reader in the story, and for readers to have a reason for involvement, the reader must become an active participant in the plot and movement. In short, the reader must become an active character.
Consider how the reader/character interacts with or changes the fictional world you've created and how the world changes your reader/character to ensure you're balancing the internal and external journeys of the reading experience.
In this context, I'm not talking about the originality of the story you write (though that is also an important consideration); I'm talking about the originality of the text you write.
If your novel is littered with phrases like "you say," "you notice," "you smell," you're constantly reminding your reader that you're writing in second person. It's distracting.
Instead, challenge yourself to craft an implied second-person point of view, which removes most instances of 'you,' 'your,' and 'yours,' in favor of creating a more organic and immersive internal reading process, the approach I took when writing Descend.
And second-person POV does best when it provides a sense of immediacy, that something is happening right now in which the reader must become involved.
After all, it is easier to guide a reader through an experience happening in the moment than to try to impress upon them a memory of something that happened in the past (with limited exceptions).
Consider using the present tense when crafting second-person POV.
Final Thoughts on Second Person
The quiet consideration for using second-person POV comes in the quantity.
Novels written entirely in second-person POV can become challenging for readers and can tire them out if it goes on forever. So, if the novel feels long and tiresome, consider switching between second and either first- or third-person POV in alternating chapters or sections.
This will allow readers to take a mental break and have a more enjoyable experience overall.
First-person POV is more common than second-person in novels and has great capacity to deliver immersive reading experiences. It is also the only POV with a true narrator. But your readers will need to know who the narrator is early in the novel, so they know who your protagonist is.
In the first-person POV, the narrator is the viewpoint character, "I," who tells the story. In some cases, the narrator may be the protagonist, where the "I" tells "my" story (central narration), and the trustworthiness of the narrator—and the reader connection to the narrator—depends on how close you allow the reader to get to the narrator's thoughts.
And writing first-person POV well means choosing the type of narration most pertinent to the story, as well as the right narrative distance.
The narrator may be the protagonist where the "I" tells "my" story.
The trustworthiness of the narrator (and the reader connection to them) depends on how close you allow the reader to get to the narrator's thoughts.
Consider how much you want your reader to know and how much the "I" is willing to share. Then, let readers get up close and personal.
Central Narrative Distance
When writing the "I" as a central narrator, you'll most effective pull readers into teh story by closing the gap between author and narrator as much as possible.
To get your readers as close to the narrator as possible, challenge yourself to remove sensory filters and writer internal thoughts as stream of consciousness.
This way, readers gain insight into what the character is thinking to build trust.
The narrator (often "I" but sometimes "we") tells the story about someone else. Often, the peripheral narrator is a side or main character, but they are not the protagonist. They report on the events of someone else, the true hero (or anti-hero).
Consider how much control you, author, wish to have over the reader's perception and how much your narrator must know about the protagonist or the world to retain that control.
Peripheral Narrative Distance
When writing the "I/we" as a peripheral narrator, you'll serve readers well by allowing a limited perspective who will remain objective, insofar as they are able, while allowing the peripheral narrator to change and grow as they tell the story.
Consider what the narrator could reasonably know within the limits of their experience and humanity, though they may speculate or interpret as needed.
Final Thoughts on First Person
Readers are not required to accept the narrator as trustworthy and are not required to accept the narrator's assumptions, interpretations, or speculations.
In fact, it can benefit the novel if readers reject the narrator's opinions to form their own. When in doubt about using first person, consider whether you want to the narrator to be reliable or unreliable and go from there.
As common as the first-person POV is the third-person POV, where the author tells another's story using "he/she/they" to create distance between narrator and character.
The narrator is not the protagonist and is not a character but is an observer to the unfolding story without thoughts or emotions of their own.
You, author, move through the story with freedom, and you decide how many characters your readers will get to view intimately.
Writing Third-Person Well
There are a few key ingredients to crafting third-person POV:
When telling third-person stories, you must decide how close you want your readers to get. Most commonly, readers will view events objectively and will have access to the mind of one character.
But the narration is limited to the thoughts and perceptions of that one character and is limited by all the things the character cannot (or does not yet) know. However, the benefit is in immediacy.
Readers cannot know more than the character knows about their own situation and you, author, cannot articulate more than the character can reasonably articulate themselves, including those unnamed emotions requiring processing time.
Avoid intruding on your third-person POV and maintain the character's perspective to keep your reader behind the right set of eyes.
It is phenomenally easy to head-hop when writing third-person, but this must be avoided to retain the reader's control over their experience.
Restrict your knowledge to the external facts that your chosen character can be aware of, and dive into sensory cues and body language available within the scene at hand to fill out all the things the character could not know but may be able to infer.
Final Thoughts on Third Person
When determining who your third-person focal character is, consider whether your single character can reasonably know or deliver all the information the reader needs to know.
If you find yourself scrambling to include information and breaking third-person POV to do it, consider adding a second POV character to fill in gaps for your reader.
Omniscient POV is a third-person POV. However, it is difficult to pull off. For this reason, I consider it a POV category on its own.
In the omniscient POV, the narrator knows all and is a sort of opposite of the first-person. Instead of being in the head of one character through the novel or through a scene, the omniscient POV is written from a detached perspective and may sometimes address the reader directly.
The omniscient POV makes it easy to provide your readers with information because you get to tell readers exactly what they're supposed to think.
Writing Omniscient POV Well
The omniscient narrator is a God-like narrator who:
objectively reports action
goes into the mind of any character
interprets the character's appearance, speech, actions, and thoughts (even if the character can't)
moves freely in space to provide a micro, macro, or panoramic view; and
provides reflections, judgments, and truths.
There are a few key ingredients to writing omniscient POV well:
thought portrayal, and
The omniscient POV means you can give readers information that none of the characters know. And you can build tension if you give the reader something they can see coming.
However, you must decide what to tell the reader, when to tell, or whether to tell them at all. Keeping hold of certain information until the best point to reveal it is key.
When writing the omniscient POV, you must avoid head-hopping, but given that the omniscient POV allows you to get in any character's head at any time, this is an art in itself.
You are free to observe the mindsets of any character, but you are not free to portray those thoughts in the personal voices of the individual characters. Direct thoughts are generally off limits.
You, author, give your omniscient narrator their unique storytelling voice. This also means you must use a consistent tone and approach for your narrator throughout the story.
If the narrator is objective, keep them that way. If subjective, remain so. And if the narrator has a specific opinion about the characters or events, ensure they keep that opinion until you have them provide a reason for changing it.
Final Thoughts on Omniscient POV
Though your omniscient narrator has God-like knowledge of your story and the world it lives in, ensure you deliver information to your readers in right-size chunks at the right time.
The right approach to information delivery will allow you to retain some level of suspense and the ability to surprise your readers.
And remember that there must be a purpose for including information before you tell readers anything at all.
Do you have a favorite POV to read or write? Or a favorite method of sticking with a specific POV? Leave a comment and let your fellow writers know about it!