One of the most important elements of writing is point of view (pov). Writers need to understand what the benefits and drawbacks of each pov are in order to properly choose how to write their stories. Most writers tend to let the story speak for itself, and this almost always works, but in the revision stage, it’s important to know how to make your chosen pov shine.
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What is Point of View?
Pov is the relationship between the narrator and the story. Every story is narrated; sometimes a character will tell the story, sometimes an unknown voice will speak, sometimes the story will jump between different characters or between characters and omniscience. But there is always a clear voice telling the story, and that is the narrator. The pov describes how this voice is related to the story: is the voice inside one of the characters, or observing from a distance? How much information is the voice giving the readers? What do we, the readers, know about the story given the style of narration?
Depending on the answers and the writing style, you’ll end up with first person, second person, third person, or some combination. Pov can be further broken down into limited versus omniscient and close versus distant.
First Person Point of View
First person pov uses an “I” narrator, meaning the narrator is the primary character. The main strength of this pov is that it gives absolute, unfettered insight into the character’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences. The reader becomes the character. This is the most intimate point of view. The main drawback of this pov is that the reader can only know what the character knows – you may have absolute knowledge of a single character, but you have no knowledge whatsoever about other characters, except what your primary characters thinks they are feeling/experiencing.
Note: limited knowledge can be a benefit, as it can help to keep secrets from characters and from readers.
When I teach first person pov in the classroom, I like to use a clip from Doom, a first person shooter, and ask students why first person is the best pov for this style of game. Answers range from the suspense it creates, to the immediacy and adrenaline rush you get while playing, to the way it forces you as a character to notice tiny details that might indicate an enemy nearby.
This relates directly to how it is used in fiction: while stories do not always have the suspense of monsters popping out from corners, good first person stories will always have some element of the unknown that keeps the reader wondering what will happen to the character next. Some stories give you an adrenaline rush, but good first person stories should always have a sense of immediacy so that the reader is fully invested in the character (this is true even if the story is told in past tense, or the character is relating something that happened long ago – think Frankenstein). And last, a good first person story will keep the reader engaged and looking out for clues as to what will happen next, because readers tend to want to be one step ahead of the character (people like solving puzzles).
Second Person Point of View
The least used and most difficult point of view, second person is usually neglected but that always makes me want to try it. 😀 Second person uses a “you” narrator and is best used as instructions or commands. The most common places you’ll find it are in instruction manuals, cookbooks, and other nonfiction places, but a few brave authors have succeeded in writing great second person stories.
The best second person story I’ve read is “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)” by Junot Díaz (read part of it, or listen to the author read it). It’s superb (and quite funny!).
At its best, second person fully engages the reader by making the reader an active participant in the story. At its worst, second person alienates and/or bores the reader. It’s hard to do well, but when it is done well, it’s delightful. Choose Your Own Adventure books often fit in category as well.
Third Person Point of View
Third person is probably the most common pov, especially for novels. It seems to be the default for most writers, and it has the most flexibility. Third person uses a “he/she/it” narrator and ranges widely depending on whether it is limited or omniscient, close or distant.
Limited versus Omniscient
Limited pov means that the narration is focused on a single character and doesn’t leave that character. Like first person, you will only know what that character knows (although the extent of your knowledge will be dictated by the next criteria, close v. distant).
Note: Many novels and stories use shifting limited pov, in which one chapter/section will be told from one character’s point of view, and the next chapter/section will be told from a different character’s point of view. However, within each chapter/section, the narration is clearly limited.
Omniscient pov means that the narration has access to multiple minds, ranging from two to all existence. Some others use communal point of view to represent how a town or society views an event, and describes specific members of that community in order to provide a deeper understanding of the story (for example, “Johnny’s heart sank at the news, but Sally thanked the Goddess in her heart and the Council of Elders understood her joy because they had seen her lose her first child and knew even a witch-child would be a blessing.” In this example of omniscience, we have two individual’s pov and a group pov in the same sentence). Omniscience is different than shifting limited because the changes between characters are not necessarily clearly delineated, and the purpose is usually to create communal understanding rather than talk about a different character for a while.
Close versus Distant
The distance of a pov refers to how much information the reader is able to know about the character(s), and there is a wide range from very close to very distant. In very close pov, like in first person, the narrator has complete access to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the character(s). The example of omniscience above is close omniscience, because we see the thoughts of three entities. In very distant pov, the reader observes the scene like a fly on the wall: we can see actions and hear dialogue, but we have no idea what is happening internally. Obviously many stories fall somewhere in the middle, but it is always good to figure out where your story fits and make sure your writing is consistent.
Point of View in Video Games
Here are some fun examples of point of view in classic video games. Hopefully these games are familiar to most readers, if not, see the gameplay clips (I am not promoting the style of play or creators of the clips, just trying to show what the game is like).
Omniscient Close (third person): Final Fantasy VI
FFVI is a superb example of omniscience because there are multiple characters and multiple plotlines, all equally important, and all work together to create the overall story. Some parts of the story are more like shifting limited (when the pov focuses temporarily on a single character) but overall the interactions and community of the main party is what creates the game. FFVI is close because we have personal insight into each character’s stats and abilities as well as their thoughts, emotions, and histories through cutscenes and player-directed interactions.
Limited Close (third person): Harvest Moon DS
Harvest Moon focuses on a single character (you) and your attempts to rebuild a farm and start a family. The game is definitely limited, even though other characters play important roles, because the other characters are only important when they interact with your character. Harvest Moon is very close because, as with FFVI, you not only have complete access to stats and abilities but you also have cutscenes that allow you to see your character’s thoughts. In Harvest Moon, players also directly control their character’s emotions by making them fall in love, so there is a great degree of immediacy and emotional closeness.
Limited Distant (third person): Super Mario Bros.
In this example, we are clearly following a single character because the screen moves with Mario. He is the protagonist. However, we have no insight into his thoughts or feelings. We do see the number of coins and lives he has, but this is information we could glean externally as well (how rich does he look? how healthy?). A clear case of third person, limited and distant.
Omniscient Distant (third person): The Legend of Zelda
In this example, it isn’t clear who the protagonist is unless you are the one with the controller. The screen remains in place and various monsters and characters move around within it, making the game far more omniscient. If you are watching the screen with no previous knowledge of the game, you might not realize who the main character is and think the other characters are equally important. The world has a much bigger role, and other characters are given voices. In terms of distance the game is similar to Mario: you see wealth and health, and now weapons/items, but those would be visible to an outside viewer.