Monday, March 19, 2012

CRAFT CORNER: Point of View

by Isabo Kelly


One of the first questions an author must ask when starting a new project is: what type of point of view will this story be in? For most commercial genre fiction, the choice is between Third Person Subjective and First Person. But which is best?

Like all things in writing, the answer depends entirely on the story being told and the author doing the telling. In the current market, either is acceptable—if done well. And some authors even manage to write comfortably in both third and first person. So which is right for your story and your voice?

Consider first which comes more instinctively. When you sit down to write, do the words flow out in first person (I said, I went), or do you just naturally turn to third (he said, she went)? Often, a writer has a preference for one or the other and that’s just how they write.

On the other hand, if you’re having trouble deciding which POV will best suit your current work-in-progress, consider these pros and cons.

Third person subjective (also referred to as “limited” or “deep” third person POV) takes a reader into the head of your main character or characters and keeps her there. This is as opposed to third person omniscient, which takes readers into all heads and sometimes steps farther back to talk to the reader directly—think Jane Austen; this style isn’t seem much in commercial fiction. Similarly, but even more deeply, first person forces the reader to view the story strictly through one character’s perspective.

So if both bring the reader into the head of the point of view character, what’s the difference between using “she” and “I”?

Third person POV provides a little more distance from the character than first—this is both a pro and a con. A bit of distance gives the author more freedom in conveying events of the story and filtering those events. But the reader doesn’t get the immersion into a single character that they feel in first person.

Flexibility in storytelling, pacing and a larger perspective on the story are all easier to accomplish in third. An author’s voice can be distinct from the voice of the main character. The narrator can also be more easily disguised. If, for example, you’re giving the perspective of the antagonist, but you don’t want the readers to know exactly who that person is yet, third person gives the distance necessary to make this work. The language chosen can be prettier and more elaborate as well.

On the other hand, third person POV lacks immediacy. There’s a distance from both character and story, a kind of buffer that you may not want. It’s also entirely too easy to head hop, jumping from one character to the next even within the same paragraph, because the author is seeing the story through several different characters’ perspectives. Slipping into the omniscient POV is also much easier to do by accident, and this will put even more distance between the reader and characters. Avoiding these problems is something an author must keep in mind when using this POV.

So is first person better? Depends on what you’re going for. In first person, you have an immediacy—into both story and character—you don’t necessarily get in third. The prose must move quickly, which doesn’t mean the action or plot has to be quick, but the language used to tell the story does. It’s easier to have an unreliable narrator when filtering the story through a first person perspective. And back story is easier to deal with.

However, there is no separation between narrator and character, so the author’s voice needs to mesh well with the character’s. If as an author your style is flowing and languid but your character is sharp and quick-speaking, the two styles will come across as discordant notes to a reader. Using pretty or elaborate language is much more difficult and frequently doesn’t work.

You can only tell the story through one person’s perspective, so only one person’s thoughts and experiences can be shown on the page. If the entire story is in a single character’s POV, the story can only be known through that character so if something happens in the plot outside the character’s experience, you’ll have to find ways for your character and the readers to realistically learn this information. Not being able to “show” the scene on the page limits the scope of your story. Taking all these things into consideration, also remember that there are no hard and fast rules as to which POV you use. This has opened up in modern fiction and using a mix of several first person or first and third person POVs in the same novel is acceptable. This gives the author a great deal of freedom.

If no POV comes naturally to you, or your story doesn’t call out for a specific one, try both. Take a scene and write it both ways to see which feels right. This technique can also help if you’re struggling with the voice and tone of a novel. Attempt to write from the opposite POV—if writing in first, switch to third or vice versa—and see if the story flows easier.

In the end, only an author can decide which style of writing is best for their novel. Making an informed choice between these two possibilities will help move your novel that much closer to The End.♥

Useful Links on POV:

Isabo Kelly’s latest fantasy romance, Brightarrow Burning, did have a few anti-info dumps that needed to be filled out. She’s eternally grateful to her editor for catching them. For more on Isabo and her books, visit her at, follow her on twitter @IsaboKelly or find her on Facebook


  1. Great post! I would add also that I tend to think of POV as what works for the kind of story I want to tell. Multiple 1st-person POVs is incredibly hard to pull off, because each voice has to sound different. So if I want to tell a story from multiple POVs, I'll write it in third person. I write in first person when the thrust of the story is about how that one character views and experiences things. The latter is a hard thing to pull off in a romance because most readers want to know what's going on in the heads of both protagonists, but I do think it's possible. (And I personally really like to write in first person.)

  2. Been reading Nora Roberts lately. She will change POV in the same paragraph. For some reason it works. However she can get away with it. Not okay for the rest of us! Great post - thanks.

  3. Absolutely comprehensive post on this issue - and your point is well taken - it is hard to do either successfully, but when it is done well, it's a perfect choice. Reading 50 Shades in 1st person present tense is an example of an author who made potentially disastrous choices, but they work. Thank you as always for sharing your experise! And I agree with Jeanine too - the big boys and gals get away with a lot of rule breaking, don't they?