Which point of view should you choose for your novel? Should you use multiple points of view or stick to just one? Is it better to write in the past tense or present tense?
Believe it or not, choosing which point of view to write your story from is one of the most important decisions to make when starting a new project!
You can use different points of view to create different experiences for your readers, and whatever you choose will fundamentally affect how the reader will respond to your characters and their actions.
In today’s post, we’ll review the three main types of point of view and how to choose the best point of view for your story. But first, let’s start with the basics.
Point of view (or POV) is the “lens” through which your story is told. It determines whose eyes the reader will experience your story through.
In fiction there are three main options to choose from:
In the first-person point of view, the main character is the narrator of the story. They are telling their story, from their perspective, in their voice, with the events filtered through their unique worldview and biases.
This point of view choice allows for closeness between the narrator and the reader because the reader gets to experience the character’s thoughts, emotions, and subjective interpretation of events as they happen. If the character has a powerful emotional experience, the reader is very likely to have one too.
Here’s an example of first-person POV from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”
Because the narrator is the point of view character, he or she has a limited view of the events that occur in the story. This means that the reader can only learn information through the character’s direct experience (what they see, feel, hear, say, and do) and a certain degree of indirect experience (what they interpret from the actions, words, or circumstances of others).
This can be an advantage or a disadvantage depending on the type of story you’re writing.
For example, if mysteries and revelations are crucial to your story, the closeness of first-person point of view allows the reader to discover information as the character discovers it. Because the reader knows only what the character knows, it’s easy to spring surprises on them. The suspense and tension that comes from the character trying to piece things together becomes an experience the reader can share with the character.
First-person POV also allows you to use an unreliable narrator. An unreliable narrator is a narrator whose credibility has been compromised. This could be because the character is lying, mentally unstable, deluded, young and naive, or for a number of other reasons. An example of an unreliable narrator can be found in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. At the end of the novel, there’s an unexpected plot twist, and in the last chapter, Dr. Sheppard describes how he was an unreliable narrator.
Other examples of books written in the first person include: The Fault in Our Stars by Jon Green, The Divergent Series by Veronica Roth, The Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyer
In a story written in the second person, the reader becomes the central character in the story.
Do you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? Those were written in second person POV.
Here’s an example of the second person POV from Journey Under the Sea by R.A. Montgomery:
“…You are a deep-sea explorer searching for the famed lost city of Atlantis. This is your most challenging and dangerous mission. Fear and excitement are now your companions.”
The novelty of the second person POV can be interesting and engaging when done properly. However, because it’s not a common choice for fiction, it can be jarring to the reader. These days, second-person POV is most commonly found in short stories, instructional narratives, and how-to books.
A story told in third person point of view is presented from a narrative distance that makes the reader an outside viewer of the story.
Within third person POV, you have two choices:
In third-person omniscient POV, the narrator has a “god’s eye view” of the story. This means the narrator sees and knows everything in the story, and that their knowledge is not limited to what anyone character knows or sees.
The omniscient narrator is almost like having another character that is not present in the events of the story. They’re an outside voice, telling the story and commenting on what happens.
Therefore, it’s essential that the narrator has their own unique voice apart from the voice of each character, so the reader is never confused about who they’re listening to at the moment.
A benefit of using third person omniscient is that it allows the writer to capitalize on the “dramatic irony” when the reader knows something that the character doesn’t.
But because there is an outside narrator, this can sometimes make third-person omniscient feel impersonal and make it difficult for readers to identify with your characters.
Let’s look at an example of third-person omniscient from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien -
“’I thought you liked walking in the dark,’ said Frodo. ‘But there is no great hurry. Merry expects us some time the day after tomorrow; but that leaves us nearly two more days. We’ll halt at the first likely spot.’‘The wind’s in the West,’ said Sam. ‘If we get to the other side of this hill, we shall find a spot that is sheltered and snug enough, sir. There is a dry fir-wood just ahead, if I remember rightly.’ Sam knew the land well within twenty miles of Hobbiton, but that was the limit of his geography.Just over the top of the hill they came on the patch of fir-wood. Leaving the road they went into the deep resin-scented darkness of the trees, and gathered dead sticks and cones to make a fire. Soon they had a merry crackle of flame at the foot of a large fir tree and they sat around it for a while, until they began to nod. Then, each in an angle of the great tree’s roots, they curled up in their cloaks and blankets, and were soon fast asleep. They set no watch; even Frodo feared no danger yet, for they were still in the heart of the Shire. A few creatures came and looked at them when the fire had died away. A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.‘Hobbits!’ he thought. ‘Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.’ He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it.”
Do you see how the narrator dips into the thoughts of both Frodo and fox? And then the narrator comments on how the fox is right about something weird going on, but never finds out any more details. This is the ability of an omniscient narrator.
Third-person omniscient is not a popular POV to write in these days because readers like to feel connected to characters, and the omniscient narrator gets in the way of that connection.
Examples of books written in the third person omniscient include Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
A story told in the third person limited is similar to one told in the first person in the way that it’s narrated from the close perspective of just one character. However, the difference is that in third person limited, the reader is not “trapped” inside that character’s head.
That means the author can tell the character’s story closely without being bound to that person’s voice, or their thoughts, feelings, and attitudes toward the events of the story. This allows the reader to see the character in a more clear and objective way than the character himself would allow in the first person.
Here’s an example of third-person limited from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling -
“Harry had taken up his place at wizard school, where he and his scar were famous ... but now the school year was over, and he was back with the Dursleys for the summer, back to being treated like a dog that had rolled in something smelly. The Dursleys hadn’t even remembered that today happened to be Harry’s twelfth birthday. Of course, his hopes hadn’t been high; they’d never given him a proper present, let alone a cake – but to ignore it completely ...”
Because you don’t have an omniscient narrator, the reader can only know and see what the POV character knows and sees. Depending on the type of story you’re writing this can be an advantage or a disadvantage.
Like first-person, this can be good for novels where the character is kept in the dark about some aspect of the story. The reader is kept in suspense as the character tries to figure out what’s going on from his limited viewpoint.
But let’s say you’re writing an epic fantasy with a large cast of characters and action happening in multiple locations. It can be challenging to write in the limited third person because you can only show the reader what’s happening wherever your POV character is. The way to handle this type of story is by using multiple point of view characters (more on this later).
Examples of books written in the third person limited include A Song of Ice and Fire Series by George R.R. Martin, The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
If you want to have multiple point of view characters, you can do this in first person or third person limited.
By using multiple points of view, you can jump between characters and tell a story that spans a great deal of space and time. This can be a great tool for novels with big casts and complex plots as it allows the author to move about as needed.
For example, in A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, there are 9 POV characters, and the story follows three main storylines across two continents. Each chapter follows a different point of view character and is limited to, and by, their experiences. We get to see conflicting viewpoints of the same events, and there is no omniscient narrator to tell us who’s right in the end.
Having multiple POV’s can work well in a story where a character needs to be in a state of not-knowing regarding some aspect of the story. The reader either gets to make discoveries right alongside the character or else witness the dramatic irony of the character acting without the knowledge that the reader themselves has gained in an earlier chapter.
Another benefit of having multiple POV’s is that you can develop a greater number of characters from the inside, letting the reader in on each character’s thoughts and feelings, making them feel more real and complex. It’s important that each character has their own distinct voice so that the reader understands who they’re listening to at any given time.
This is why writing from multiple points of view requires discipline and consistency. If you switch POV without clearly signaling the switch to your readers, you risk losing their trust. The best way to handle this is to stick to one character’s POV per scene or per chapter.
Also, if you decide to have multiple point of view characters, it’s best if they’re connected in some way. For example, they can:
In other words, though the characters need to be distinct themselves, they should share a common quest to ensure your story ties together nicely.
If you want to write a story with multiple viewpoints, ask yourself what will be gained from switching viewpoint characters - Missing information? An opportunity to switch locations? A chance to explore an interesting subplot? Don’t use multiple POV characters unless you have a compelling reason to do so.
Once you’ve decided on which point of view you’ll be using, it’s time to think about narrative tense.
Narrative tense shows the reader when the story is happening.
There are three choices when it comes to narrative tense:
Most stories are told using either the past tense or present tense. If you can’t decide what tense to write your novel in, you should probably default to writing in the past tense.
Past tense tells the story as if it’s already happened, using past tense verbs.
Most mainstream adult novels are written in the past tense. The main reason past tense is the most popular for novels is that it’s the way humans have always told stories – “Once upon a time, there was a princess…” This can also make it the most natural feeling to write in.
Examples of novels written in the past tense: A Song of Ice and Fire Series by George R.R. Martin, The Throne of Glass Series by Sarah J. Maas, The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
Present tense tells the story as if it’s occurring now, in real-time, using present tense verbs.
A lot of mainstream YA novels are written in the present tense. This is because present tense can feel more personal and creates very little space between the POV character and the reader, making it easy to put your reader in your character’s shoes.
Keep in mind that because the present tense is not the norm, it can feel jarring to many readers.
Examples of novels written in the present tense: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins, The Divergent Series by Veronica Roth, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
The key to successfully choosing the best point of view for your novel is to understand how each viewpoint option can impact your story. Each point of view has its own advantages and disadvantages and comes with different responsibilities and effects.
For example, if you’re writing a mystery novel, you don’t want to use third-person omniscient where there’s nothing off-limits to the reader. You’d be better off choosing first person or third person limited which allows for information to be revealed to both your character and the reader at the same time.
Sometimes the point of view a writer chooses depends on their personal preference. Most of the books I read are in written in third person limited. Because of this, third-person limited feels the most natural to me to write in.
As you can see, the point of view and tense you choose all depends on the story you want to tell, and how you want your readers to experience that story. There’s no right or wrong answer!
👉 Let's discuss in the comments: What’s your favorite point of view to read and write? Do you find one point of view more challenging than the others? Did this explanation of point of view and tense help you make decisions for your story? If not, do you have any other questions on point of view or tense?
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