Please understand that this is a snapshot of what I know now. If it doesn’t work for you–nevermind!
Who tells the story, controls the story.
Obviously, that means you, the writer. You get to pick which stories you tell and how you feel about them. This seems obvious until you start thinking about things like, “Japanese internment during WWII. Who was right? Discuss.” Or how about “The tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. What if it were called Death of a Giant?”
An excellent clip of Chimamanda Adichie talking about how you almost have to have multiple stories from multiple POVs to get at the truth of a thing is here.
So when you’re contemplating writing the next big Good vs. Evil story, consider that whichever side you pick to be the good side is the good side, but you could easily switch, as long as you do the work necessary to make the bad guys look like good guys. (A note on that–the main villains in the Lord of the Rings saga aren’t the Bad Guys, as counterintuitive as that may seem. I mean, how much time do the characters actually spend fighting Sauron? Face to face? Versus how much time do they spend fighting each other or people who used to be their friends or who people who used to seem like their friends? Or themselves?)
The main types of POV used in fiction:
- First person
- Second person
- Third person limited (I’m going to call this third person tight)
- Third person omniscient (I’m going to call this third person narrator)
This is a story told from the POV of “I.”
This is someone talking to you, telling you their* story; it’s the second-least distant POV. The reader is limited to only what the POV character can sense and think–the whole world is perceived through the mind of the POV character.
So your POV character had better be able to communicate well and interestingly. They might be a natural storyteller, the kind of person you cannot shut up and can’t help but listen to. Or the silent type who keeps up a running conversation in their own head (that is, like most writers).
I find this POV particularly easy to write; I tend to see my stories from within the characters’ heads anyway.
It takes a lot of empathy with your character to write from first-person POV. Conversely, characters with whom you have little empathy are tough to write from first person POV.
You can do multiple first-person POVs in one novel; however, make sure you clarify for the reader who’s speaking. I’ve read authors who use chapter breaks headed by the name of the character who’s speaking in that chapter, and not breaking POV for each chapter. Switching characters in third-person POV is easier to be clear about; you just use the POV character’s name in the first sentence of the new section.
With first-person POV, it’s easy to omit and distort the truth, but a little harder to lie–because with a lie, the truth has to come out, and why would the POV character admit something like that? The story is distorted through the lens of a single character; seeing things through one person’s eyes–unless the character is supposed to be inhumanly objective–is, by its nature, a distortion.
This is a story told from the POV of “you.”
People always say it’s hard to sell a second-person POV story. In fact, I have a second-person POV story out in the mail right now, and I get a lot of rejections that say, “It’s really hard to sell a second-person POV story.” However, pick-your-path books (including mine!) tend to be told from the second-person POV, and they sell from time to time.
Second-person POV is the least distant POV, asking the reader to become the character. A book takes the reader away from their ordinary lives; you’d think the reader would want to be someone else for a while. As it turns out, that is generally not the case. It’s easy to sneak a value judgment into a story with a little bit of distance in it; the reader can pretend that the judgment has nothing to do with them–it applies to someone else. But write a second-person POV story, and suddenly the reader is like, “But I’m nothing like that! I am so offended!” even if you’re writing a story that’s obviously about someone else.
The reason pick-your-path type books work, I think, is that the main character is usually an everyman–and the reader can make their own choices, which gives them back a little distance. Okay, realistically, the reader might not make either of the choices provided, but it’s like a personality quiz: you pick the one that’s close enough.
Not that I’m going to stop submitting my second-person POV; it’s a horror story. It’s pretty horrible being in someone else’s head when you can’t control anything.
Strangely, I find that it’s hard to lie in second person. Distortion, omission–sure. But out-and-out lying to yourself (“You didn’t kill Sam. Someone else killed Sam.”) takes a lot of work–which could be the whole reason for a second-person story, I suppose.
Third person tight.
This is a story told from the POV of “him” or “her”–but in such a way that you could take out the character’s name and/or pronoun and replace them with “I” and it would make just as much sense: “He never thought of himself as a bad man, as such, but the kind of man whose purpose in life was to make the difficult choices. Being good is all about easy choices.” Imagine that with “I” instead of “He” and there you go: third-person tight POV.
I used to get thrown off-track when people called it “third-person limited POV.” It means the same thing, but for some reason I would blow it off as unimportant. It’s limited, huh? So what’s the point? I don’t want to be limited…
This POV is, I think, the best POV for most commercial fiction. Readers pick up commercial fiction because they want plot, not because they want to explore a situation from multiple aspects.
(Good literature tries to capture the fact that there’s more than one way to look at a situation, that there might be no “right” and “wrong” perspectives in a situation. Good commercial fiction tells a good story. The two are not mutually exclusive, but a matter of priorities.)
Third-person tight POV is both close and distant enough that you can choose how much you want to empathize with the characters. A lot of commercial fiction readers want to imagine they’re in a different world, like they’re on a particularly interesting vacation.** Writing as though the reader is in yet not in the character’s head seems to give the reader room to empathize with the character (during the fun parts) or not empathize with the character (during the torture scenes, of whatever stripe). It’s like going to China on vacation and being able to pretend going through the red tape is happening to someone else, while walking along the Great Wall while making out with the hot tour guide is happening to you.
Third-person tight POV also lets the writer switch POV characters fairly easily–make an easily-recognizable division in your book (a chapter or white space in the text) and start off with the name of the current POV character in the first sentence, and you’re golden.
Lying in third-person tight POV is easier, but the POV character usually thinks about that fact that it’s a lie. D’oh!
Third person narrator.
This is a story told from the POV of “him” or “her”; however, the person actually telling the story is a narrator. The narrator can be defined as a character (and, in fact, can take a part in the story) or not (and get forgotten about by the reader). The narrator of a story, even if invisible, is rarely the author. This is the most distant POV.
This is the POV most often used in the past, from Jane Austen to JRR Tolkein. My best guess is that it’s an oral tradition thing. Back when stories used to be told out loud more often than not, there was someone telling the stories–a narrator, a storyteller. When people started writing stories down, they wrote down what the narrator said, and the narrator spoke in third-person narrator POV, naturally enough.
Storytellers comment on their stories, as they tell them, often because people tend to not shut up during the telling, and sometimes it’s best to get the answers to their questions out of the way before the questions are asked. “Once upon a time, there was a girl [what was her name?] nevermind her name, who asked a lot of stupid questions. [Why did she ask a lot of stupid questions?] She was a foolish girl, just like you.”
Also, storytellers in the oral tradition, as far as I can tell, never told stories for just one person, but for a large group of people that weren’t all of the same kind–all kids, all adults, all horror-story enthusiasts, all romantics, etc.–and were therefore required to entertain them all at the same time.
Take that and shove it up your genre!
That thing where kids’ cartoons have inside jokes for the adults? It’s probably not new.
When you try to include elements of multiple types of stories or references for multiple types of audiences in a first-person or third-person tight POV, it can come out as gibberish: “I’m an eight-year-old kid. I’m a detective. I’m an eight-year-old kid detective, just like Perry Mason.” Er, eight year olds know Perry Mason? (I don’t really even know Perry Mason.) I’m not saying it can’t be done. But third-person narrator comes out so smooooooth: “Sam was an eight-year-old kid who worshiped detectives like Chet Gecko and Max Ernest. But if he’d been born when he was supposed to, he would have idolized Perry Mason, the way the writers of Chet and Max obviously did. The kid was a classic. Shame he was born too late.”
The problem with third-person narrator, for modern audiences, is that it tends to be a lot of blah blah blah. The commercial fiction reader often just wants to see things from the POV character’s POV and doesn’t want to waste time on all the extra commentary and in-jokes implicit in a third-person narrator’s POV.
But if you can pull off a good narrator, you’re golden. Some of the best-loved books are told by narrators whom we love, whether told from a straight (that is, invisible) third-person narrator POV (Pride and Prejudice), or from a narrator who is in the action of the book, either in the tale or a frame story (The Princess Bride), or from a first-person narrator who isn’t the main character in the book (Bridge of Birds). There’s something inherently trustworthy and soothing about a good narrator.
Conversely, it’s really, really easy to lie in third-person narrator POV. I mean, ridiculously easy.
A note on switching POVs:
Don’t switch POVs without clarifying the switch for the reader. Your system of clarification is up to you, but use it consistently within the story.
*If “he” can mean both male and female, then “they” can mean both singular and plural.
**Huh. I might have to think about that some more, with regards to description.