Point of View (POV) is defined as the perspective from which a story is being told.
This can be either from the perspective of a character or an outside observer who is relaying the ongoings of the characters to the audience. The POV a writer chooses can depend on a number of factors such as the story’s plot, genre, the age group it is intended for, or the reader’s personal preference.
I ran a poll on my Twitter page asking which POV other writers use in their fiction.
Thank you to everyone who participated!
I continued to receive replies in the comments following the end of the poll’s duration, so the actual figures above may not be entirely accurate percentages.
Each style has its own pros and cons, which I will be reviewing in a series of posts throughout the month of February.
First up is the most popular, First Person POV.
First Person POV means the story is being told through the perspective of a character involved. This may be happening as the events unfold around them in Present-Tense or as they reflect upon them in Past-Tense.
This narrator is typically the protagonist. It is most common for these stories to stick with one character, but some switch between two; this usually occurs on a chapter by chapter basis.
For example, The Hunger Games trilogy is told from the perspective of Katniss Everdeen.
From the first paragraph, we are dropped into the world of Panem and made to fill Katniss’s boots:
“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.”
~The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
Like many things, First-Person POV has its pros and cons.
PRO #1 | Writing in First-Person POV is great for forging closer bonds between your character and the audience.
First-Person POV tells the story through the eyes of the protagonist, meaning the reader is brought deeper into the action. They can feel the bitter chill of the wind and taste the saltiness of the air as the character stands cliffside overlooking the ocean.
First-Person POV provides a more personal experience, as though you are integrated into the world expanding on the pages. This can make it easier for readers to connect with the story overall.
This depth also enhances the effect of the work. I personally doubt The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood would be as poignant if readers were not made to experience everything through Offred’s eyes and instead be spectators to every horrific and gut-wrenching moment of life in Gilead via a Third-Person narrative.
CON #1 | Writing in First-Person POV can be limiting.
When a story is told through the perspective of one character, typically two at most, you do not always get the full scope of the story’s world. The narrator cannot be everywhere at once. We only know and see what they know and see. If something major happens on the other side of the city, it can be difficult to get into what might be important details and facts beyond what the protagonist is directly told and experiencing.
Additionally, writing in the First-Person POV limits the reader to that one character, meaning they do not get to follow other characters.
The Divergent series is also written in the first-person POV. The first and second books are solely from the perspective of protagonist Beatrice “Tris” Prior. The third installment, however, is split between Tris’s perspective and that of Tobias Eaton. Still, we are limited to these two alone. We do not get to see what characters like Caleb, Christina, or Uriah are doing at any given point unless they are in a scene with Tris or Tobias.
This limitation tasks the reader with making inferences. In the case of The Hunger Games, this includes what the Capitol and Gamemakers are doing as the game is happening as well as what is happening in the Districts. The film adaption makes an effort to fill in some of these gaps with scenes showing riots in District 11 after the death of Rue in the arena and meetings between President Snow and Seneca Crane and broadens the viewer’s scope of Panem.
PRO #2 | Writing in First-Person POV can result in a more dynamic narration style.
Since a story told by a character in the story, the narration reflects their own voice. This can result in snarky commentary and quips or deep and intellectual passages as they reflect on their actions. It also helps rein in focus in describing the setting because we see what the narrator sees and notices, likely eliminating extraneous details.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is told from the perspective of an adolescent boy with autism, and its narration style reflects that:
“Talking to strangers is not something I usually do. I do not like talking to strangers. This is not because of Stranger Danger, which they tell us about at school, which is where a strange man offers you sweets or a ride in his car because he wants to do sex with you. I am not worried about that. If a strange man touched me I would hit him, and I can hit people very hard. For example, when I punched Sarah because she had pulled my hair I knocked her unconscious and she had concussion and they had to take her to the Accident and Emergency Department at the hospital. And also I always have my Swiss Army knife in my pocket and it has a saw blade which could cut a man’s fingers off. I do not like strangers because I do not like people I have never met before. They are hard to understand…So talking to the other people in our street was brave. But if you are going to do detective work you have to be brave, so I had no choice.”
~The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon
Throughout the novel, Haddon demonstrates Christopher’s inability to show empathy towards other people. He is brilliant when it comes to the mathematical fact of a matter, but emotions are difficult for him to process. Yet the narrative becomes more compelling because it allows the reader to get a glimpse inside his mind.
This aspect of First-Person POV can be helpful to writers who excel at writing dialogue, but it requires a level of consistency in maintaining that character’s voice throughout the entirety of the book.
CON #2 | The Reader Can Get Stuck With An Unlikeable Character
We all have come across that one character we have just wanted to strangle? Isn’t always the worst when they’re the protagonist?
Few characters have gotten on my nerves quite like Dorian Gray. His arrogance, which is admittedly the result of his age and Henry’s influence, became a point of frustration for me as I was reading Oscar Wilde’s novel.
While I stand by the opinion that the ultimate goal of fiction is to stir emotions in the reader, sometimes emotions we may not want to feel especially when reading for pleasure, I am very glad The Picture of Dorian Grey was written in a Third-Person POV and not from Dorian’s perspective (although I would love to read it from Basil’s).
First-Person POV runs the risk of the reader not being able to invest in the character’s journey. If the reader has constant thoughts of wanting to slap the narrator/narcissistic twit upside the head, it can be hard for them to enjoy watching their journey and possibly overlook the most remarkable things about a book.
This is why I plan on rereading The Picture of Dorian Grey in the future.
PRO #3 | First-Person POV Is Direct
Since a story told in First-Person POV is told from the perspective of the protagonist, we are able to see into their minds and know what they are thinking. This often presents their ruminations in times of conflict. As such, this makes their goals and motivations clear.
When we know exactly what a character wants, it makes it easier for us to cheer them on and feel their pain at every downfall and failure.
CON #3 | First-Person POV Can [Sometimes] Be Too Direct
Speaking honestly, I write using the Third-Person Omniscient POV (more on that in an upcoming post). In my writing, I like to add a little bit of mystery by keeping some characters’ motives under wraps, dropping hints leading up to a big reveal later on.
In the case of GtK, JE’s reasons for the engagement are outlined clearly and known to the reader early on. FD’s, however, are only partially known until later. I do this because I want the reader to be left in the dark along with CR and several other characters when it comes to their trying to understand why FD would agree to marry JE so suddenly.
This doesn’t mean that First-Person’s direct nature is an entirely bad thing, it just means this is one of the times where it depends on the way it is being used.
PRO #4 | First-Person POV Is An Outlet For Emotional Depth
As I mentioned earlier, First-Person POV allows the reader to step into the character’s mind and experience the story through their eyes.
This also provides insight to their inner thoughts and reflections. It can be easier to convey their feelings towards the reader, which can be trickier to accomplish with a Third-Person POV.
CON #4 | First-Person POV Can Dwell On Emotions
Like many things in writing, there needs to be a balance when it comes to how much of the narrator’s emotion is portrayed. If too much time is spent on the character monologuing to the reader about how they are feeling, it blogs down the passage. Additionally, this can result in the character coming across as a little too narcissistic. While this can get a pass if the book is written in the format of a diary and the character is, as the kids say, spilling tea, it’s not something to dwell on most of the time.
I’m the kind of reader who often finds their favorite characters to be the secondary ones like Finnick in The Hunger Games and Drake from Poldark. I don’t exactly mind a First-Person narrator taking some time to talk about their feelings, but too much of it can make the story drag and cause readers to lose interest.
Pro #5 | Memorable Character Descriptions
When a First-Person POV introduces a character, it is done from the perspective of the narrator, which can allow for some creativity on the writer’s part. In this style of writing, it is sometimes more authentic when a protagonist describes their best friend’s eyes as being, “the same shade as the coffee her father was always drinking in the morning whenever I slept over at her place, dark and rich.”
When this is done in a Third-Person POV, it starts venturing nearer to the line of an authorly intrusion because the author is not a character, unlike in the First-Person POV.
Con #5 | First-Person POV Makes It Difficult To Describe Your Protagonist
The common example here is simply that we do not go into descriptive monologues about ourselves whenever we look at our reflection in the mirror. Were I to write about my description, I might reference myself checking to see that my eyeliner is even before leaving the bathroom or debating if I need to trim my bangs, but I don’t launch into an internal speech about the way my eyeliner juts out from the corner of my greyish eyes or fiddling with the mahogany strands of the bangs swooping over my forehead as I contemplate whether or not I need to dye my hair soon.
Sometimes we want to bring forth physical details about our protagonists in a First-Person POV. In doing so, we have to get creative.
“There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair. I sit on the stool and my mother stands behind me with the scissors, trimming. The strands fall on the floor in a dull, blond ring.”
~Divergent, Veronica Roth
The passage tells the reader that the story’s narrator, Tris, is blonde. But, more importantly, we get a hint about the setting with the reference to what will later be revealed as the Abnegation faction’s customs and rules. This is more realistic than if Tris were to give a full run-down of her looks, especially since the Abnegation faction forbids any sense of vanity self-indulgence.
First-Person POV can be a great choice for writers, but does come with some downsides, as do the other POVs I’ll be discussing throughout this series.
Be sure to check in next week for the second post in this series on Second-Person POV.