Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Point of View from My Point of View

Point of view is one of the most interesting topics we cover at The Blood-Red Pencil. It can even be controversial because our preferences as writers, editors, and readers often get in the way. And those same preferences vary among agents and editors. The truth is, no point of view approach is totally wrong. Styles go in and out of fashion, although not quite as fast as hemlines and pointed-toe shoes, and the writer who doesn't pay attention to the current trend risks a flurry of rejections.

If I tell beginning writers what's best based on my own point of view, I suggest they never use an omniscient unknown narrator. Read a few chapters of National Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (ignore The Custom House at the beginning) for a perfect example. An omniscient unknown narrator should only tell you what he sees happen or hears the characters say. He may repeat history or backstory that he's learned along the way. He cannot let you inside the character's mind or heart in a meaningful way.

Writing as an omniscient narrator, I could take the liberty of telling the reader my character's thoughts, but the reader wouldn't hear those thoughts through the character's voice, tone, and attitude, which leaves room to doubt the narrator's credibility.

There is another kind of omniscient point of view writers sometimes attempt, and that is one where the reader is privy to all characters' actions, behavior, dialogue, and thoughts, mixed together in a hodgepodge. There's no sense that an unknown narrator is present, so it becomes difficult for the reader to identify the important character in each scene. I recommend beginning writers avoid this option as well.

What do I prefer, whether reading or writing?

1. First person point of view limited to one character. If used for the whole book, every scene must be witnessed by that first person character.

2. Third person limited to one character. Again, that character must participate in every scene, even if only an observer.

3. Third person limited, multiple point of view. Each chapter or segregated scene must be in one character's POV, but the next scene or chapter may focus on a different character. No head-hopping is allowed within a scene.

4. Multiple point of view with one character in first person and the rest of the characters in third person limited.

As a fiction writer, which point of view option do you prefer? Is that also what you choose when you read fiction for fun?

For more information on point of view, check out these posts from other Blood-Red Pencil contributors:

Training Our Inner Editor - Point of View (3a) by Linda Lane

Training Our Inner Editor by Linda Lane (continuation)

Which is Better - Single POV or Multiple POVs? by Linda Lane

Point of View - Head Hopping by Morgan Mandel

Deep POV: Three Mistakes and How to Fix Them, Part I by Kathryn Craft

Deep POV: Three Mistakes and How to Fix Them, Part II by Kathryn Craft


Patricia Stoltey is a mystery author, blogger, and critique group facilitator. Active in promoting Colorado authors, she also helps local unpublished writers learn the critical skills of manuscript revision and self-editing. For information about Patricia’s Sylvia and Willie mystery series, visit her website and her blog. You can also find her on Facebook (Patricia Stoltey) and Twitter (@PStoltey).

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  1. I prefer writing first person limited and third person limited; both have their advantages. However, when I read, I really don't care what POV is used as long as it's done well.

  2. As a reader I enjoy books very it's done in a "different way" if it's done well.

    As a writer, well I'm not really a writer, but in the process of writing my first (crap) novel. I started out with one POV, kind of the character bearing my own opinions. Then I found that I also needed the oposite, like the particle and anti-particle duality in physics, if you see what I mean. So, now I'm flipping between the two, but keeping single POV within each chapter >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  3. I've only written in first person. Both novels. And I have thought about changing the point of view when I get to editing.

    Ah, we'll see.

    Thanks for the post, Patricia.

  4. CaH - If you're writing, you are a writer. ;-)

    This is a good question and one I wrestle with. I've written and read just about every POV type, most of them poorly. For some reason I prefer 1st person, but it doesn't work for every story.

    3rd person limited seems to be the most popular/recommended POV, especially the no "head hopping" within a scene. I wonder how much of that's about good writing and how much of it is just the current flavor.

  5. Scott, I wouldn't call the cashier in the supermarket a mathematician, even though he's adding up the prices of all the groceries >:)))

    Cold As Heaven

  6. My favourite POV is First Person because I think the character's personality comes out really well, but it doesn't work for every story as Scott said.

    I use third person limited for almost everything else. I only ever use the omniscient narrative for podcasting where it works very well if I keep it under control.

  7. RE: no head-hopping in multiple third-person limited...

    What if it's same scene, but the perspective shift is clear? There may be parts of a scene that I want in different POVs, which is not something I mind reading either. Does the POV change make it a different scene even if it would only be one scene if the POV did not change? Or is that just a no-no?

  8. I definitely write in "third person limited, multiple pov".

    Usually each pov is seperated by chapter but when absolutely necessary I may seperate by scene. And I try to keep the pov limited to as few characters as possible.

    When reading, the only pov I tend to dislike is 1st person. I'm not sure why but I find it difficult to get into the characters and another reason is I like to read aloud and 1st person is too personal to read to the family. But there have been books where I literally got so involved in the story that I didn't even realize they were in 1st person. When that happens, I'll put the book down afterwards and think, "now, that was a good author!"

  9. I used to use third person limited, but lately I've switched to number 4 on your list, and it really works well for me. Using the first person really allows me to infuse a strong sense of personality in my main character, and the ability to use a few third person scenes, lets some of the details come out that my main character wouldn't necessarily see otherwise. Great post.

  10. Thanks for all the great comments. Point of view seems to be one of the most discussed aspects of writing fiction.

    Scott makes a good point, sometimes the "right" POV is whatever option is preferred by agents and publishers at the moment. The reader? A lot of readers just don't care. A good story and great characters trump POV considerations.

    The manuscript I'm working on at the moment began as a 1st person main character and third person limited for the other main characters. I'm now rewriting the whole manuscript in third person limited from the main character's POV. I think the main character's story will be more powerful, but I know I'm going to cut a lot of material for the other characters. Each option has its own limitations.

  11. I meant to say my wip began as "1st person main character and third person limited for the important secondary characters" -- a short disconnect between fingers and brain. :)

  12. I favor deep 3rd person, which is almost the same as 1st. I have two POV characters, since that's 'expected' in romance, but I make shifts at scene or chapter breaks. Funny, my blog today also touches on POV, since I'll be hosting a chat on the topic tomorrow night. :-)

  13. I used to only like third person point of view, preferably from two characters, but lately I've liked first person also when done well.

    Morgan Mandel

  14. For my writing, I like third person limited with a second character point of view after scene or chapter changes. With reading, I prefer the same thing.

    If the story is well-written I don't tend to notice POV that much.


  15. Very helpful post, and thanks for the links to all those others.

    As a reader, I don't have a favorite POV. Whatever works for the story works for me. As a writer, I like third person deep POV. It is as close to first person as one can get without the limitations.

  16. I tend to write in 1st person, although I did a short story in 3rd omnicient that turned out nicely. I really like to crawl inside the head of my characters and 1st person just seems more natural to me.

  17. My preference for both reading and writing is third person limited, with multiple characters (point of view shifts only with chapter or scene breaks). I also enjoy books with a single point of view, whether first or third person. In fact, for certain genres, like mystery, a single point of view seems much more effective.

    I've read a couple of books with one character in first person and others in third, and I found that technique very distracting. I also am not a fan of omniscient point of view, because head-hopping usually keeps me from getting to know any of the characters well enough to care about them.

  18. I use #3—or a variation thereof— usually limiting POV to 1 character per scene. Sometimes, however, this doesn't work because it's essential to get inside more than one head at the same time. In this case, I leave a blank line to indicate a POV change, which works well because the extra space traditionally notes a change.

  19. Great post, Pat! I prefer third person, multiple characters. I love to get deep inside the heads of the main characters in order to really show what's going on. I've written short stories in 1st person and enjoyed them, but doubt I'll ever write a full length novel first person. I love third, limited.

  20. I also prefer deep third, from just one character's POV. But, as you say, it is quite interesting what might be popular at any one time. And sometimes it works. Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy is written in omniscient mixed POV, which I usually find very difficult to sustain interest in as the characters don't grab me the way a deeper POV does.

    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

  21. I much prefer third person limited, because I tend to think that multiple POVs get tiresome and first person POVs often reveals too much, too fast. POVs is definitely a fun thing to play around with, though, and definitely something I need to be very focused on in my own writing.

  22. I developed my own technique long ago, which doesn't appear on any lists. It resembles third person limited, but all description is done from the point of view of the person perceiving the scene, and which person is perceiving the scene can change from one paragraph to another. One judge described it as third person that reads like first person.

    Marc Vun Kannon

  23. I like writing and reading in first and third. When the POV gets too omniscient I start to switch off.

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