Know your writing terms: Point of view

In Nancy Kress’ book, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, she describes why we love to read fiction:

“The only thoughts, plans, dreams, and feelings we can directly experience are our own. It’s because this one-viewpoint reality is hardwired in us that fiction is so fascinating. It lets us experience the world from inside someone else’s head.

You give your readers that experience by choosing a point of view. Point of view (POV) is a literary term that describes a story’s narration. It’s the way you allow your readers to see and hear your story. The story must be told by someone and it’s your job to choose who that someone will be.

Who you select will determine two things:

  • The position (or perspective) from which the story is told;
  • The amount and type of information your reader will receive.

Your choice of POV is important. It’s the literary device you will use to tell your story and develop your characters effectively.

POV Characteristics

If you do any amount of research on point of view, you will find its characteristics differ depending on the author of the article or book, the type of story, and even the era in which the story was written. There are many nuances to POV, which may get your head spinning after spending too much time with them. For now, let’s take a look at the positions most commonly used in literary narration.

First Person: I.  In this position, a character is telling the story. Your readers identify with this character and feel as though they are a part of the story.

Second Person: You. With this POV, the author speaks directly to the readers. This position is not used in fiction writing as often as first and third person. You’ll see it more often in nonfiction guides and manuals, interactive fiction, music lyrics, and blogs. (Hello, dear reader.)

Third Person: He, She, It. The author tells the reader about the characters. This narrative position has three types:

  • Limited omniscient. You share with your readers the thoughts and feelings of only one character.
  • Omniscient. You tell your readers everything. That includes all of your characters’ thoughts and feelings. You may even reveal information that none of your characters know.
  • Objective. You tell your readers only what happens and what is said. The thoughts and feelings of the characters are not revealed. For your readers, this would feel like they are watching a play or a movie.

From my experience and the research I did for this topic, I find point of view to be tricky for many writers. Last week I introduced a writer to this blog and one of the first things she asked was if I had a post on point of view. I’m even rethinking the POV of my novel after taking time to learn about the term. Choosing a point of view for your story early on — and sticking with it — will give you the focus you need to write effectively.

There are many nuances to POV, so use this post as a general summary of the term to get you started. Check around the Web for more specifics, and be on the lookout for future posts here where I’ll go into more detail about point of view.

What have you learned about point of view that changed your writing?

[This is one post in the Know Your Writing Terms series on fiction writing. Click here for a list of the terms I’ve covered.]


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6 thoughts on “Know your writing terms: Point of view

  1. I am reading a book right now that switches every few chapters. Most of it is omniscient third, but periodically there is a switch to first person from the perspective of the protagonist. It’s effective in that the protagonist doesn’t know what is happening or being thought by the antagonist(s), and the reader (me) knows what is happening on both sides, creating tension. I’m not sure I’m a fan yet, but I’m only half way through the book and want to wait to the end to see how it all comes together.

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    1. I just read a book that is similar to your description: omni-third and first person, with an occasional mesh of the two. I didn’t have a problem with the points of view. I just didn’t enjoy the story. What I do enjoy is learning something about writing from everything I read — whether I like the book or not!

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  2. POV is a big topic, and a personal quirk for me. I’m always picking at it when I edit other writers’ manuscripts. I think you have to absolutely know who is going to tell the story *before* you write a single word. Because each character will have a different outlook, different experiences, and will take the story in a different direction.

    My current WIP has two points of view, a brother and a sister, and there is a specific reason I chose both rather than one over the other. I can’t really tell you why, because it would give away a crucial part of the storyline. 🙂 However, my reasons for choosing two POVs (3rd person)is because of the amount of information I wanted the readers to know at specific times.

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    1. Your WIP sounds interesting and creative. I just looked at a list of novels with multiple points of view after reading this comment. The one that grabbed me is called The Girls. It’s about twins born joined at the head. One of them wants to be a writer. I might have to read that one!

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