How Your Novel's Point of View Affects Your Characters
by Jason Black
Perhaps nothing is as fundamental to the reader's experience of your novel's characters as the novel's point of view (POV). The exact same story will feel entirely different if written once in third-person POV and again in first-person.
The array of POV choices at the modern novelist's disposal is somewhat dizzying, and each leaves its mark on a book and on that book's characters. Making the right choice means understanding how each POV presents your plot and characters, and how each one shapes the connection between your readers and your characters.
This is the classic external-narrator POV, in which an abstract and omniscient narrator tells the reader everything that's happening. In this POV, the writer can literally show the reader anything at any time.
Third-person omniscient is a great choice when you have a complex plot with several main characters and minor characters who follow multiple story lines until things meet up at the end. It is ideal if your goal is to allow the reader to watch everything unfold even though the characters aren’t aware of all that’s going on.
However, third-person omniscient is emotionally very cold because it is the most distant from your characters. Third-person omniscient often flits about from here to there, jumping into and out of different characters heads, giving the reader a much more difficult job in forming any close emotional ties with the characters.
Third-person omniscient is often the best choice for books where the plot is the central attraction. If you're writing a so-called “Plot monster” novel that doesn't have much in the way of character arcs, this could well be the way to go.
The only difference between this POV and third-person omniscient is that you funnel the entire story through one character’s viewpoint. You can show what the POV character sees, hears, thinks, believes, and feels. But you may only show those things. Nothing else. Showing anything the POV character doesn’t directly experience is dis-allowed.
This disciplined viewpoint gives the POV character and the reader exactly the same information. It closes the emotional distance between them, and is very effective at letting the reader share the character's experience of the story. It is an excellent choice for linear plots with a single main character who experiences all the important plot events.
Third-person limited offers a nice balance between a plot-driven story and a character-driven story. It is often a good choice when the outer events of your plot are closely tied to the protagonist's inner growth.
This is when a character is the narrator of his or her own story, relayed in present tense as it unfolds or in past tense from after the events have transpired. Because of the reliance on a single main character, first-person stories usually require the same type of linear plots as third-person limited POV.
First-person POV presents the smallest emotional distance between the reader and the main character. Thus, first-person is a great choice when the story is more about the inner character arc than it is about the outer plot. It is also the hardest POV to write well because it demands a very strong, compelling voice.
The presentation of information is very different between first-person and third-person limited. In a first-person story the reader’s perception is that the narrator—a character—is telling them the story. Implicitly, that narrator chooses what to tell the reader, what to omit, and what spin to put on events. Readers know the character may not be telling them the whole truth. In third-person limited, the reader perceives the writer more directly as the one providing the narration, and the writer isn’t supposed to lie to the reader. That’s cheating.
Finally, there are a few unusual POV choices and variations on the above choices that bear mentioning:
First-person plural: This is when the narrator is a group of people and the story is told from a “we” point of view. A good example is the classic Cheaper by the Dozen, by Frank Gilbreth, which is about a family’s father but is told from the collective point of view of the children. Very few novels have a premise which permits this, but for those that do it can give the reader a sense of inclusion in the group, as though the reader were included in the collective “we” relating the story.
Second-person: This is when an author puts the reader directly into the story by using “you” as the main character: “You walk into the cafeteria, wrinkling your nose at the smell of mystery meat and canned peas.” Second-person stories are rare for good reason: this can easily feel more like a gimmick than a good writing choice. However, if done well this POV nearly eliminates the emotional distance between the reader and the main character.
Multiple POVs: This is when you apply the techniques of the above POVs to multiple characters in the same book. The danger here is in giving the reader “POV whiplash,” by switching among POV characters haphazardly. Generally, don't switch POV characters unless you're at a scene or chapter break.
Finally, when choosing your novel's POV, consider the above guidelines and ask yourself these questions:
1. Does the structure of your story force you into a particular choice?
2. What's more important: your plot, or your characters? Or are they about the same?
3. How close do you want the reader to feel towards your characters?
Give some careful thought to these guidelines, and take your time in answering those three questions. After all, choosing the right point of view is important, even critical, to the success of your novel.
Jason Black is a book doctor who actively blogs about character development. He recently appeared at the 2009 PNWA Summer Writers Conference and was the featured speaker at the March 2010 PNWA members meeting. To learn more about Jason or read his blog, visit his website at www.PlotToPunctuation.com.