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Working the Camera: How to Choose POV

May 23, 2023

Choosing a perspective to write your story in can be tricky. It depends heavily on the story you are trying to tell, the cast of characters, the scope of the world, and what you want the reader to know. It’s easy to fall into the trap of choosing the first one that seems to fit. But that can often lead to problems later on or even rewriting your story. 

Don’t fall into that trap. Take some time to review all of the options and how they could benefit your story.

What is POV?

A point of view (POV) is the lens through which a reader encounters your story. This can be through the eyes of a single character, through a cast of characters, or from an all-seeing narrator. 

Whatever POV is used must be used consistently. Without consistency, a reader doesn’t know how to situate themselves within a scene. You risk them becoming confused or annoyed and setting your story aside. 

Imagine POV as a camera – if you are constantly giving the camera to a different character without introducing them or even signaling a transition, the audience will be focused on trying to follow who holds it. They won’t be able to pay any attention to the actual story. Eventually they’ll grow so tired they’ll walk away. 

Tense

When choosing a POV, keep tense in mind. A story is written in either past tense (“I opened the letter”) or present tense (“I open the letter”). Just like with POV, stick with whichever tense you choose. Don’t switch it up halfway.

What are the types of POV?

First person

First person POV is told from the perspective of a specific narrator – often the main character. A perspective character is called the anchor character

First person stories are personal. They are told in the anchor character’s voice, with intimate looks into their thoughts and feelings. (“I did this. I thought about this. I felt that.”) 

People often feel a narrator must be a good person, but this isn’t always the case. A first person narrator can be a bad person. But they have to be a likable bad person, or at least the reader must enjoy disliking them. They can’t be annoying. Your reader is experiencing the story through them. If they can’t stand the narrator, they’ll abandon the book. 

Put it to the test: Would you spend an afternoon with this character? Maybe you go for a drive, grab a bite to eat, sit and chat. If you find yourself feeling annoyed already, your reader will too. 

Example:

I didn’t know what to do. The news was too sudden. Heat flooded my face, burning my eyes, my nose, my cheeks. I gasped for air. The faces around the room were spinning. What were they staring at? Couldn’t they look away? Didn’t they have people they loved, too? They should go home to them. Hold them, while they could.”

Pros

  • Offers an intimate connection between the anchor character and the reader.
  • A unique view of the world through one character’s eyes can be interesting and engaging.
  • Makes it easier to create a sense of realism for plots that would otherwise be difficult to believe.

Cons

  • The reader only experiences what the anchor character experiences. This can make it difficult to show things that are happening elsewhere.
  • It can be challenging to write everything believably through one character. Not only does the story have to be compelling, but the character has to be compelling, as well. 

Second Person

Second person POV is told as if the reader is a character in the story. Everything happens from the reader’s perspective, directly addressing them and bringing them into the story as events unfold. (“You did this. You felt that.”)

Second person stories are difficult to get right. Writers using second person risk making the reader fit into a character box that they don’t like. This will alienate them, causing them to put down the book. Second person has the potential to submerge a reader into the story more than  first or third person POV, but because this perspective is rarely used, readers find it disorienting.

Example:

“You didn’t want to hear any more. The news was too sudden. Heat flooded your face, burning your eyes, your nose, your cheeks. You gasped for air. The faces around the room were spinning. What were they looking at, you wondered? Couldn’t they look away? Didn’t they have people they loved, too? People they could still hold?”

Pros

  • Makes the reader a character.
  • Makes the reader experience each scene personally, through all five senses.

Cons

  • Often disorients the reader by breaking the fourth wall.
  • Can be exhausting to read.
  • Has to be written carefully or else it can be considered poor writing.

Third Person

Third person POV is told from the perspective of a distant narrator. There are two types of third person: third person limited or close third person and third person omniscient

Limited

Third person limited POV is similar to first person in that it is tied to one specific character’s thoughts and feelings at a time. This happens at a distance. (He did this. She did that.) 

Writers using third limited will spend more time developing each anchor character’s voice. The story itself will have more flexibility with what details it can reveal, but the reader still won’t know the thoughts and feelings of other characters. (“She said that, but he wasn’t sure why she said that when she said it.”) These will have to be inferred through actions, gestures, and dialogue that the anchor character picks up on.

Example:

“He didn’t know what to do. The room around him was spinning. There were so many faces on him. What did they want? Heat flooded his face. Couldn’t they look away? It burned. Everything burned – his eyes, his nose, his cheeks. He staggered to a chair, gasping for air.”

Pros

  • Allows the reader to get close to anchor characters, to know their thoughts and feelings.
  • More distance allows more flexibility.

Cons

  • The reader only experiences what the anchor character experiences.
  • Can be difficult to show things going on behind the scenes.
  • Can be tricky differentiating narrative voices between anchor characters.
Omniscient

Third person omniscient POV is told through a distant narrator or a character with a God’s-eye view. This narrator can be a non-character or a character. One mistake new writers might make is to assume the omniscient narrator is objective. They aren’t. Even though the story is being told through one perspective, there is still a distinct voice. This voice will have opinions, personality, and an agenda. They are, after all, the one telling the story.

An omniscient narrator knows what is happening at all times and what all the characters are thinking. They can show the reader anything they want them to see. With that said, the narrator should only show characters’ thoughts when they need the reader to know them in order to understand what’s going on. They cannot word thoughts and feelings in the characters’ voices. (“He did this. She did that. While she did that, she was thinking this.”). 

The reader-narrator relationship here can be thought of as a mentor taking someone’s hand and guiding them through events as they unfold, explaining things when necessary.

Example:

“He didn’t know what to do. The sudden news was too much. The others in the room froze, just as startled. They watched, unable to do anything, as his face flushed red and his eyes glazed into that frantic look that could only be brought on by terrible grief.”

Pros

  • The writer has complete flexibility over the story.
  • The narrator can show the reader anything they want to.

Cons

  • Easy to fall into head-hopping.
  • Can be difficult to build a connection between the reader and characters.

How to choose a POV for your story

Think of the pros and cons

After reviewing the types of perspective, take some time to consider each of their constraints. For example, in first person and third person limited, it can be difficult to show the reader things that are happening off-stage. But in third person omniscient, it can be hard to build that essential reader-character relationship that keeps your story engaging. 

Anchor characters

How many perspective characters do you want to have? 

First person stories should only have 1 or 2 anchor characters. Any more and your readers will have trouble keeping track of whose head they are in with each transition. 

Third person limited stories can have 2-5 anchor characters. Some stories have even more. But keep in mind that the bigger the cast, the bigger the scope of your world and the more complex your story will be. Each anchor character needs to have their own arcs, as well. The more you have, the more you will have to spend more time figuring out where everyone is at a given point. 

Test each POV

Write a few scenes using different perspectives. When you’re done, you’ll have an idea about which one feels more natural to write in for this story. But don’t stop there. Before you settle on one, read each of the scenes and experience them as a reader. 

Remember: POV is an important element to your story.

Give it as much time and consideration as you would give to any other important detail. Taking time to go over it isn’t a setback or a bad reflection on you as a writer. Even experienced writers will get stuck choosing a POV. 

Point of view is the key to communication with your reader. Make sure whichever one you choose is one that feels natural and gets your idea across in the way you want.

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