Point of view (or POV) is the perspective from which a story is told—who is telling the story and how they relate to the story. In her book, Steering the Craft, Ursula K. Le Guin offers helpful advice on this topic, as well as exercises for writers. There are several types of point of view, but the three most commonly used are first person, third person limited, and third person omniscient.
First Person. The viewpoint character is “I” or “we.” What’s great about using first person is this character is central to the story and the reader stays in this character’s head, getting information about what this character thinks, feels, and perceives. The limitation to using first person is the reader experiences solely what this character experiences—the reader can only make inferences about who other characters are and what they feel based on what the first person character sees, hears, or says.
Third Person Limited. This point of view is essentially the same as first person, except we use different pronouns, like “he,” “she,” or “it.” We are still limited by what the point of view character is experiencing. However, you can change point of view to another character.
Third Person Omniscient. This is the most versatile point of view because the author is not telling the story from within a character, but rather knows what is happening with all the characters, as well as what has happened and what will happen. There can be multiple view point characters and the narrative voice (the voice of the character, not the author) can change. Because the story is told outside the characters, the author can share information only the author could know, such as a moment when no characters are present to experience it. This can be a difficult point of view to write, because you can easily make the mistake of going from one character’s thoughts to another’s without offering cues, making it difficult for a reader to follow the story.
In writing fiction, it’s important to be understood and keep readers engaged in a story. You don’t want to confuse a reader—thus pulling them out of your story and marring the reading experience. That’s why you need to offer clear cues about point of view and avoid hopping from one character’s head to another’s.
If you change point of view, you should have a good reason for doing so, and give your reader a clear indication you have changed perspective. One way you can do this is by beginning a new section or chapter. In his A Song of Ice and Fire series, George R.R. Martin writes each chapter from a different character’s point of view and titles the chapter with that character’s name. Simple, but effective.
I mentioned that when writing from first person or limited third person, you are in a character’s head, and you experience what they experience. You see what they see. That means you have to be careful about defying logic. We can’t see our own facial expressions unless we are looking in a mirror. You know when you are smiling, or you can feel your jaw tighten when you feel stress, but you have to describe facial expressions as something a character is experiencing rather than seeing.
Sometimes writers feel the need to describe a character’s physical traits in detail. This isn’t always necessary, though sometimes it serves a purpose. You have to be careful about being in a character’s point of view and describing what that character looks like. Maybe the character has gnarled hands due to arthritis and that affects the story. But if your character reflects on his or her good looks, you are telling us your character is arrogant, and that may not be your intended message.
What point of view do you tend to use in your writing, and what cues do you use to help readers follow your story?