POV Basics: a perspective primer
How to choose the best point of view for your narrative
By David Brown
At a glance, point of view can seem like a simple or obvious component to storytelling, but the perspective a story takes can make or break reader immersion. Also, maintaining a particular POV can be challenging, especially for new writers. This is one area we commonly coach clients on in developmental edits.
Ultimately, the narrative should determine the best POV for your story. Who has the most to lose? Who changes the most? To whom does your story belong? Whose perspective is required to reveal the critical action that drives the plot? Is there more than one protagonist? Are you the best narrator for this tale, or is it better told by one of the characters, or by a godlike observer? Save yourself a massive headache when it comes to the revision stage by deciding on the best POV in advance.
The Classic: close (or limited) third person
I’ve seen several online polls and discussion threads comparing reader POV preferences, and a close third-person perspective always tops the list. In fact, many readers REFUSE to read anything that isn’t told in third person (whether singular third or multi-POV).
A close third-person POV follows one character—the story is filtered through their perspective. Anything described is necessarily what they see, hear, and feel. If you have one protagonist who will drive the plot, then close third is a reliable perspective to choose.
If you are struggling with close third, try writing a scene in your POV character’s first-person perspective, then go through and swap pronouns.
Following two or more POV characters using multiple points of view is a popular choice, but it is also more difficult to do well. Readers will tend to love one POV character more than others, and their narrative immersion can take a hit when switching away from their favourite storyline or perspective.
Also, shifting perspectives can come across as narrative convenience. It is, after all, easier for the writer to tell a story from multiple angles. Therefore, it is imperative that the story demands each perspective, and not the writer’s convenience.
In most cases, each POV character should be the “hero” of their own story. That is, they should have a clear narrative motivation (a desire that compels them to make choices and take risks) and a satisfying arc. Keep in mind, having too many protagonists can spread your narrative thin, and as noted, readers might lose immersion when they switch from one to the next. To succeed with multiple protagonists, each storyline needs to be engaging.
But beware of headhopping! This is a surefire way to pull readers out of the story. Headhopping is when you shift POV within the middle of a scene. Always mark POV shifts with a hard line break—in other words, stick to one POV per chapter or section.
Also important in multi-perspective narratives are the concepts of the “POV contract” and “POV precedent”. Make it clear to the reader which character owns the perspective of a chapter or section within the first few sentences—this is your contract. (Headhopping, in this sense, is a POV contract violation.) Precedent is established by demonstrating to readers early on that there will be POV shifts. The longer you wait to shift, the more you will impact narrative, and with each new POV introduced, you must build immersion from scratch.
Lastly, beware telling the same story from different perspectives rather than using each to move the plot forward. You will have a tough time keeping readers’ interest if events keep repeating, even from a different perspective.
Omniscient: the mythic narrator
An omniscient narrator is another form of third person that can take the perspective of a “fly on the wall” or a godlike observer. This narrator can follow many characters (like in a multi-POV close third), or they can focus on the protagonist.
An omniscient narrator may also have access to the thoughts and/or emotions of multiple characters. In a sense, this is like headhopping, and yet it is very different because the point of reference, or the “camera angle” (so to speak), is not based within the characters’ heads. Rather than imagining a character’s thoughts/emotions from inside their heads, employ the perspective of the godlike observer who knows, either through some psychic power or sheer wisdom, what the characters are thinking.
As soon as the narrator dwells overlong in a character’s head and/or filters a scene through their senses, the perspective has taken on the aspect of close third. Remember, the omniscient narrator—psychic or otherwise—is watching the characters with great insight and powers of observation, but is not directly relating their lived experience.
For most stories, an omniscient narrator is not a good choice. It’s very difficult to pull off effectively and it tends to distance the reader and thereby negatively impact character connection.
When is omniscience a good option? Omniscience works best in stories with a mythic quality, or in combination with other POV modes. For example, Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea takes the mythic approach. The narrator in The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is Death, though this can also be described as a form of “neutral observer” first person, just like Ishmael in Moby Dick. Lastly, many thrillers and mysteries start out with an omniscient first chapter or prologue to set up the conflict/crime/mystery that the protagonist will soon encounter.
First Person: a solid alternative to close third
This is the easiest perspective to master. When you give the reins of a story to a first-person narrator, there is no question whom the story belongs to. As with close third, it’s important to cut/omit most “filtering” verbs since everything described is necessarily what the narrator sees, hears, and feels.
For example, rather than Sally heard a dog bark next door, go with a dog barked next door. It’s a given that Sally heard this.
Otherwise, there are few pitfalls in this storytelling mode. However, there are a number of readers out there who, for whatever reason, will not read first-person novels (based on my research into reader POV preferences). I suspect the reason for this is first person is very commonly used in young adult and middle grade novels, so some readers feel this direct perspective is somehow childish or less serious. Personally, I think that’s a ridiculous position—Moby Dick, for example, is certainly not childish or unserious. However, this opinion is still worth taking into account as you consider your potential audience.
Speaking of Moby Dick, it’s also worth noting that a first-person perspective does NOT need to belong to the protagonist. Indeed, a neutral observer can offer a very effective first-person point of view.
Second Person: the least popular POV
In second person, you are the POV character, or at least, the pronoun “you” is used to refer to the main character experiencing the events of the story. This mode creates an interesting sense of immediacy, but many readers find second person distracting or, worse, extremely annoying. To pull off a second-person POV, the story absolutely needs to warrant it.
The best example of second person I’ve come across is in Rabbit Ears by Maggie de Vries. Another popular example is N. K. Jemisin’s award-winning Broken Earth trilogy, though in this case, I personally found the second-person narration a distraction that diminished my immersion and appreciation of the story.
Keep in mind that “you” can also be used outside second person as a form of “reader address”. Indeed, this can be an excellent way to build voice and add a conversational element.
If you’re still not sure what POV best suits your narrative, play around. Write a scene from one character’s close third, then shift into their first-person perspective, then take a step back and rewrite the scene from the angle of another character altogether, or even a ghost or alien who is observing the action as a complete outsider. An experiment like this can be a great way to wade into your narrative. Ultimately, however, the story itself should determine how it will best be told.
Finally, I’d like to recommend a novel that is an excellent read and also a valuable study in perspective. In Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer does a masterful job blending elements of first person, omniscience, and alternate first, with frequent second person in the form of reader address.