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He Said/She Said/I Said: Point of View Principles

charactersThere are thousands of articles on the Internet describing and defining point of view, so I won’t waste much time giving you the basics. Most writers know how to change points of view in their writing and have a pretty clear idea of which they want to use.

A more pressing concern is the artistic way in which you use point of view. Contrary to popular opinion, point of view is not just a method of writing you should choose on a whim, but a writing device that can significantly change a story.

What is Point of View

I said I wouldn’t waste much time on the basics, but I want to make sure you have a firm grasp.

First person point of view is used to tell the story from one character’s perspective “I” and “me” rather than “he” and “she”. It is often used in non-fiction for autobiographies, memoirs and some how-to works, but is primarily a fiction construct.

To use the second person point of view, you must switch gears and tell the story from a third-party perspective, using “he” and “she”. You can either separate yourself entirely from the story and act like an objective observer, or you can delve into the mind of one character at a time.

Second person point of view is also an option, but is rarely used in fiction. There are exceptions, such as the CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE stories where the author addresses the reader specifically, but it isn’t recommended.

Complications of First Person

Many of the writers I meet are convinced that first-person point of view is the only way to go. “It’s the best way to build a bond between the hero and the reader,” they say, and this is true, to an extent.

However, first person point of view does present a few logistical problems which, if not handled correctly, can ruin an otherwise enjoyable story.

For example, in first person point of view, the reader discovers the events in the story at the same time as the main character. It means that the reader is as surprised as the hero when uncovering a clue or experiencing an event, but it also means that the reader won’t have any inside information. In some cases, this will narrow the suspense.

Additionally, first person point of view is limiting when it comes to describing the main character. The author is forced to use increasingly artful techniques in order to feed the reader information, such as the hero’s name and hair color.

Many amateur writers have the tendency to resort to clichés in order to describe their main characters. For example, how many stories have you read in the first person where the hero examines himself critically in the mirror?

There are ways around these obstacles, of course, but writers must be aware of their existence if they are going to tell a good story in the first person point of view. Don’t ignore the challenges of your craft; embrace them and find ways to make your story better.

Switching First Person POV

One way in which some authors have gotten around the obstacles of first person point of view is by switching to the third person occasionally throughout the story. James Patterson is an excellent example of this: the majority of his Alex Cross mysteries are told from Alex’s point of view, but he switches to third person to give the reader insight into the criminals Alex is chasing.

To be honest, James Patterson’s writing annoys me, and I always feel as though I’m yanked from the story whenever he switches point of view like that. He has managed to become a bestselling author despite this fact, but do you want to take the chance?

If you want to jump from one mind to another throughout the course of your story, it is almost always advisable to write in the third person point of view. It will create continuity and avoid the common pratfalls of first person.

Switching Second Person POV

Writing in the third person point of view provides more freedom than any other perspective. In this style, you can switch point of view as many times as you’d like without confusing the reader, so long as you make it clear whose head you are invading.

This is common in mysteries, thrillers and romances in particular. In the first two, the writer might switch point of view between the protagonist and the antagonist, or between several different heroes in the same story. With romance, the point of view might switch between two lovers (or three, in the case of a love triangle) to create a holistic story.

When you switch point of view in the third person, however, make sure you tell the reader when you are making the shift. You might change POV from one chapter to the next, but if you do it within a single chapter, skip a couple lines so the reader understands.

Head-Jumping

The primary problem I see with point of view in fiction writing is what I like to call “head-jumping”. This is where a writer changes point of view several times in the same scene without giving the reader warning.

Example:

“I can’t believe you’re doing this to me, Michael,” Sheila said, her stomach clenching with fury. She wanted the promotion more than anything else in the world, and her friend’s betrayal was an ice pick buried in her gut.

“You never asked me if I was up for the position, too,” Michael protested. Why was Sheila being so unfair? He’d worked just as hard as everyone else in the office, so wasn’t he just as deserving?

Sheila fought the urge to run away, to leave the building and never come back. Her tendency in any confrontation was always to escape, to evade, but she wouldn’t give herself the satisfaction.

As you can see, the point of view starts with Sheila as she describes the sensation of betrayal, then switches to Michael’s thoughts of unfairness. And in the third paragraph, we’re back in Sheila’s mind. This is terribly confusing for the reader and the mark of an amateur.

The only time you should switch point of view without some sort of delineation is at the beginning of a story or chapter. Here, you can start with third-person omniscient or third-person objective, then switch to third-person subjective.

Example:

Thursday morning, Sheila and Michael pulled into the office parking lot at the same time, then walked together through the front doors. A thin layer of anticipation laced the morning air, and as they navigated the hallways toward their shared office, the tension began to thicken.

I wonder whether he knows I’m going to get picked, Sheila thought, slinging her briefcase on to the top of the desk with a loud thwack. She fired up her computer and straightened several stacks of paper absently, watching her partner out of the corner of her eye.

Here, we are obviously in Sheila’s point of view, but the story starts from an omniscient perspective. The reader doesn’t realize that Sheila’s in the driver’s seat until the second paragraph.

Choosing Point of View

It is entirely your choice how you write your story, and from which point of view. However, you can get a better sense for what would work best by writing the same scene from different perspectives. This gives you a chance to see how it would sound written a different way.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 15, 2017 12:09 am

    Ich wünsche Euch alles Gute und gaaanz viel Erholung. In Schweden könnt ihr mal unterm Bettkasten naucshhacen, ob es mir noch gut geht

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