How to Choose the Best Point of View for Your Story
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.
What is Point of View in Fiction?
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:
- First Person: “I” am telling the story.
- Second Person: The story is told to “you.”
- Third Person: The story is about “he” or “she.”
In general, I recommend sticking to either first person or third person point of view, and I’ll explain why as we dig into those two options below.
What is First Person POV?
In the first-person point of view, the protagonist 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.
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.”
In this example, you can see how Katniss is narrating her own story, filtering everything that happens through her perspective.
This point of view choice allows for closeness between the protagonist 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.
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.
Writing in 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: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas, It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover, The Martian by Andy Weir, Circe by Madeline Miller, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, The Divergent Series by Veronica Roth, and the Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyer.
What is Second Person POV?
In a story written in the second person, the reader becomes the central character in the story. In other words, the narrator is speaking to “you.”
If 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.”
In this example, you can see how the narrator is speaking directly to the reader, making the reader the protagonist in the story.
The novelty of the second person POV can be interesting and engaging when done properly. However, because it’s not a common choice for modern 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.
What is Third Person POV?
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:
- Third Person Omniscient POV
- Third Person Limited POV
Third Person Omniscient POV
In third-person omniscient POV, the narrator does not exist inside the story, but tells it from the outside—sometimes intruding with their own perspective.
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. They can talk about things from the past or things that will happen in the future.
Let’s look at an example of third-person omniscient POV 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 Sam 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.
And this is one of the benefits of using third person omniscient POV is that it allows the writer to capitalize on the “dramatic irony” when the reader knows something that the character doesn’t.
However, 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.
It’s also quite challenging to write in. For example, your omniscient narrator needs to be developed just like your protagonist would be. Not only that, but they need 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.
Examples of books written in the third person omniscient include the Bridgerton books by Julia Quinn, Dune by Frank Herbert, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Good Omens by Neil Gaiman, and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.
Third Person Limited POV
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 at a time.
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 ...”
In this example, we’re seeing the story from Harry’s perspective, and we don’t dip into any other character’s thoughts or feelings.
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.
However, the difference is that in third person limited, the reader is not “trapped” inside that one 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.
Examples of books written in the third person limited include the 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, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas, and The Magicians by Lev Grossman.
Writing a Story With Multiple POV Characters
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:
- Be in a relationship together
- Have their fates bound together
- Face a common form of conflict
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? When in doubt, 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.
What is narrative tense?
Narrative tense shows the reader when the story is happening.
There are three choices when it comes to narrative tense:
- Past tense - It already happened “Yesterday, I played outside.”
- Present tense - it’s happening right now “I play outside.”
- Future tense - It has yet to happen “Tomorrow I will play outside.”
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 just because it’s the way we naturally tell stories.
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 because that '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 are the 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, and 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 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. However, since present tense is not how we (humans) naturally tell stories, it can feel jarring to many readers.
Examples of novels written in the present tense are Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins, the Divergent series by Veronica Roth, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
How to Choose the Right POV for Your Story
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 won’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.
Here are a few things to consider when choosing your POV:
- What genre are you writing in? What is the common POV choice for this genre?
- What age group are you writing for? What is the common POV choice for this age group?
- Do you want to create a sense of intimacy or distance between the reader and the character?
- What point of view feels the most natural for you to write in?
- Will you write from multiple points of view or just one?
- Whose voice do you want the reader to hear as they read the story?
- Do you want to be able to describe your character from the outside and give insight into their thoughts?
- Does the narrator announce its presence openly or try to remain invisible?
- Will you write in the past tense or present tense?
Sometimes the point of view a writer chooses depends on their personal preference. Most of the books I read are written in third person limited. Because of this, writing in third-person limited feels the most natural for me.
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! But when in doubt, you can choose what feels most natural to you and/or look at some other books in your genre for guidance. Whatever you do, don’t let this decision hold you back from getting started.
👉 Let me know 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?