This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?” The rest of the series is here. You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂
POV & Structure
Note: Please keep in mind that my structure posts are going to be relatively tentative, because this is some fairly high-level stuff that I’ve only been getting into over the last few years.
At the beginner level, what we learn about POV is that it is a “point of view” and that there are three of them:
- First person (I)
- Second person (you)
- Third person (they)
You may also learn that there is an omniscient third point of view (written from outside the character’s perspective) and a tight third point of view (written from inside a character’s perspective, but from the third person, not the first).
You will also probably get the message that you should not head hop, which is that you should not jump from inside one person’s point of view to another (generally in third person). And you’ll probably hear that you’re not supposed to use second person POV at all.*
Okay, great. Those are things that tend to trip up beginning writers. But you’re not a beginning writer now; you’re intermediate, so it’s time to pick apart POV on another level.
What is POV
A point of view is the filter through which all the events of the story are viewed. The point of view should have such a strong filter on it that it changes how the events of the story are told to the reader. If you swapped POVs or omniscient narrators, it would be a completely different book.
In cases where the narrator is hidden or there’s a little head-hopping going on, the POV should still be strong. A POV isn’t just literally how someone sees things, but also their attitude toward life. If your POV is an omniscient narrator, this filter can secretly come from one of the existing characters, no matter how minor, in the story, or it can be pulled out of thin air. Or it can just be you 🙂
Let’s go back to the movie version of The Princess Bride. (Although I think this is relevant for the book version, too.) The entire story, even the parts that aren’t being directly intruded on by Grandpa, carries a filter that comes from him. Even though he is cynical, he still carries an immense well of love in him: both attitudes come through in the telling.
Removing the Grandpa/Grandson sections of the story would obviously change the story as a whole. But removing Grandpa’s attitudes from the story and replacing them with, say, Humperdink’s, would totally change the story. Buttercup would be beautiful, but she would be an idiot. Wesley would not be a dashing pirate, he would be a murderer. And so on.
A point of view is about an individual character’s or narrator’s view of the world, more than it is about first or third person.
How to Use POV
When people ask me how I decide what “person” to use in POV (first, second, third, etc.), I always say, “It depends on how much I want to lie.” First person narrators make excellent unreliable narrators. Lolita, American Psycho, and Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd are all first-person narrators. People accept that when someone is telling you a story, personally, there might be some lies, distortions, half-truths, braggadocio, etc., involved. But if you hear a story about someone else, you expect that your narrator will tell you the truth about that person, as they know it. It’s like gossip, so be careful about writing an unreliable third-person narration–the distrust can blow back on the author, not just the narrator.
But the bigger question is, “How do I decide which point of view to use for this story?” Which character is the right POV? And how should that person best tell the story? And how on earth do you decide whether to use multiple POVs?
As far as I can tell:
- The right character is the one who “speaks” to you. If you can hear that voice in your head, then that is the right voice to use.
- The right character is the one who knows less, but can find out more. Readers move from ignorant to informed during the course of a book; having a narrator who does the same is awfully convenient from a writing perspective.
- The right character is the one who tries to see the events objectively, but cannot truly do so. A narrator who both tries to see the events with the distance of wisdom and who can yet be overwhelmed by emotion is a powerful thing. (This especially applies to omniscient-type narrators, I think, as in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)
- The right character is the one that the reader can understand and relate to. Nobody can truly understand Sherlock Holmes; that’s why he tends not to narrate his own stories.
Multiple POVs are a special case. Obviously, if you’re writing a romance where the POVs alternate between “he said” and “she said,” then you have your POVs selected for you. And if you’re writing a thriller, then a dramatic prologue showing a murder almost has to be told from the POV of the victim, witness, or villain. Some things are solidly established as reader expectations, and it’s rarely a virtue to try to completely flip them.
But what about other types of POV shift?
If you are typing things in, you will run into areas where professional writers are breaking POV “rules” right and left. There is a lot of head-hopping among that crowd. If you are outlining, you will see professional writers shift through more POVs than you might have noticed, too, with some POVs only showing up once or twice.
The rule of thumb is:
- Have a main character. (ONE.)
- Spend most of your time with that main character.
Please note that this is only a rule of thumb; some writers will break that sort of basic rule. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire has some pretty sophisticated, unusual POV choices, and outlining his novels is pretty interesting in and of itself.
The arrangement of POV chapters should also reflect the plot of your story. Let’s say that you have a story where there’s a good guy and a bad one, but it’s not initially clear which one is which. Initially, each character might get an equal number of chapters, but as it becomes clear that evil has overtaken one of the characters, that character can have fewer chapters as the other character becomes the clear good guy. Most authors will do this kind of thing subconsciously. However, if you’re interested in how it works, I’d definitely take a look at outlining the George R.R. Martin books.
First, Second, or Third?
Finally, let’s cycle back around to that old question: what POV should I use, first, second, or third?
- First-person POV is for when you want the person telling the story to be in the reader’s living room with them, as it were.
- Second-person POV is for when you want to address the reader directly, as in this blog article. OR for when you want to sound hypnotic. “You’re sinking deeper into sleep…” OR for when you want to completely alienate the reader from the narrator; I’ve done this on a couple of psychopath stories. People naturally hold a second-person narrator at arm’s length. See Caroline Kepnes’s You for a brilliant example.
- Third-person POV is for when you want someone else to tell the story to the reader. This is the most believable of POVs. It sounds like someone repeating gossip, for one thing, and it’s easier to forget that you’re “hearing” someone tell the story, especially if you leave out a narrator and only report things from the third-person’s point of view.
A constraint about first-person narration: All first-person narrators must be able to tell their own tales at some point, logically speaking. If you kill off a first-person narrator at the end of a book without them having written or recorded their thoughts as they go, you’re going to have a very annoyed audience.
Next time, I’ll probably post on how to headhop and what using different tenses means. But only probably.
*Which was exactly what I was doing in that sentence. Talking to you. In second person POV. Writer “rules” are weird sometimes.
Free book and other curiosities here.