One of the first questions you need to answer when starting your new novel is which point of view you plan to use. It’s a choice that could affect everything from your voice to your individual plot points, so you need to consider it carefully.
Most of the time, for most authors and most storylines, third person is a solid default choice.
But there are considerations which might lead you to a different decision. Let’s a take a look at some particulars, starting with the basics.
What Is Point of View
In life, your point of view is the set of opinions you have of a particular subject, along with the circumstances that led you to that opinion and the attitudes and actions that result.
In literature, point of view is the perspective of the narrator in your book. It is colored by his perception of people and events in the story and strongly influences how your audience will experience the narrative.
There are three basic points of view from which to tell your story:
First Person: The narrator recounts the story from his own perspective because he was, in some way, involved in the action. Narrative dialogue is told using I, me, my, mine, us, our, ours.
Second Person: The narrator addresses the audience directly through the use of you, you, yours. He tells you what’s happening to you, or what actions you are taking.
Third Person: The narrator is an observer of the action and relays the resultant story to the reader from the perspective of one or more characters. Neither the narrator nor the reader is part of the plot.
(Read more about point of view from James V. Smith, Jr., at WritersDigest.com, an article which influenced some of the information here and below.)
When to Use First Person
- Natural voice for authors
- Develops immediate intimacy with readers
- Helps develop author’s “voice”
- Consistent point of view throughout story
- Can only relay events and conversations that narrator has experienced personally
- Can only explore other characters to depths known by narrator
- Narrator always “on”
- Gaps when narrator is asleep, etc.
First person point of view works well when your story revolves around a strong central character, such as a hero, villain, or historical figure. It can also be powerful when describing an epic event, such as a large-scale tragedy. This technique can lead to multiple re-tellings of the same event, all from different first person perspectives.
When to Use Second Person
- Consistent point of view throughout story
- Establishes intimacy with the audience
- Awkward for many authors to adopt reader’s voice
- Hard to pick one voice that fits multiple potential readers
- May alienate readers if you hit the wrong tone
- Locked into one perspective
Second person point of view can work in certain types of short stories where the intent is to instill a sense of privacy violation or personal suspense. It’s difficult to maintain in longer works and generally does not resonate well with audiences.
When to Use Third Person
- Narrator can “see” all parts of the story at all times
- Can portray multiple nuanced points of view — corresponding to different characters — throughout the story
- Neither the narrator or reader “on the spot” as focal point of the narration
- Not as intimate as first or second person point of view
- May be confusing if voice changes throughout novel
- Narrator may slip into omniscient point of view where he “sees” everything rather than limited scope of a character
Third person point of view can be used effectively for almost any type of story. Because it is flexible in its perspective, this technique fits all but strongly autobiographical narrations.
First Person v. Second Person v. Third Person — Which Is Best?
So, given all we know about the three points of view — first person, second person, third person — which should you use for your novel?
The final choice will be yours, of course, but we can make some general observations.
- Unless you’re deliberately aiming to make the reader uncomfortable (not being snarky: sometimes that’s a writer’s goal) or making an artistic statement, then second person point of view is probably not a great choice.
- If you’re writing about a strong central character or want to make a quick and lasting intimate connection with your reader, then first person point of view may be the right choice.
- If you want to give a comprehensive view of your plot, potentially representing multiple characters’ perspectives, then third person point of view is a good choice.
And if you’re just not sure?
The safest, most flexible choice is third person point of view.
Don’t be too concerned about making a “wrong” choice, either. Especially now, when your manuscript is stored electronically and you can make sweeping modifications almost instantly, changing point of view is not a tremendous burden at any point in the game.
So, spend a few minutes considering your plot and characters, pick a point of view, and get to writing.
What is your favorite point of view? Let me know in the comments below.