Have you ever read a story that made you feel like you were experiencing it right alongside the characters?
Or maybe you’ve noticed that some authors show you the thoughts of multiple characters, while others don’t let you into any of their thoughts. And some books purposefully leave you knowing less than the main characters, while in some, you know more.
Now, as you write your own tales, you wonder how you can immerse your readers into the story. You wonder how you can choose the right angle to tell your story from. How you can get the reader to see things the way you want them to.
The key: point of view.
In this article, you’ll learn the variety of options you have concerning person, tense, and perspective and the assets and setbacks that come with them. Furthermore, you’ll find a handful of handy tips on how to choose the point of view best for your story.
Let’s get started.
What Is Point of View?
Simply put, the point of view in your story is the lens through which your reader sees the story. This affects how you reveal everything from backstory to character motives. It also determines which characters your reader knows best.
Who is telling your story? Is it a narrator, or one of your characters? Has the story already happened, or is it unfolding before the reader’s eyes? Whose thoughts does the reader know?
The answers to these questions are all within the umbrella of point of view.
Who is Telling Your Story?
Person is the facet of point of view that determines who narrates your story. Typically, you have two options: first and third person. Second person does exist, but because it’s uncommon and usually discouraged, we won’t be discussing it today.
First Person Point Of View
First person makes the reader aware of a person behind the narration. It uses the pronouns “I” and “we.” For example:
I strode through the midst of the ogres, looking neither right nor left.
When first person is used in a story, the narrator is most often a character, as in the example above. This allows the reader to see through their eyes and feel like they themselves are in the story.
However, sometimes the narrator is an observer only, yet still speaks in first person. You might notice that in a mostly third person story, sometimes the narrator sticks their head into the story to make an observation or state their opinion. C. S. Lewis does this in The Horse and His Boy when he notes that readers who have read his previous book will recognize some of the same characters in this one.
If it’s a character speaking in first person, it’s good to note that your perspective will have to be objective or limited. You’ll learn more about this later, but unless your point-of-view character is telepathic, the only thoughts your reader might get access to is that one character.
While first person might narrow the width of getting to know your character cast, it offers potential for depth. Your reader can get a sense of the character’s personality from their word choice and allusions. If you choose to have them reveal their thoughts directly, your reader will be able to discover more of what makes them jump or slump.
Finally, you can make your point-of-view character an unreliable narrator. This is when they don’t tell your reader the whole truth of the matter–whether that be from wicked schemes, unconscious distortion, or honest naivety. For instance, you might write:
Allie fixed me with a stare. “Don’t you dare try to follow me.”
I spread my hands. “Okay, okay.”
She nodded, satisfied, and strode off.
Allie stormed into my room the next day. “You followed me! I found footprints in the sand…”
“It wasn’t me!” I squeaked.
Allie narrowed her eyes. “It better not have been.”
When she left my room, I grinned and reached under my desk to finish cleaning my sandy shoes.
Notice how the reader thinks the point-of-view character didn’t follow Allie until the last sentence. This also shifts the way they view the character–from the wrongly accused, to the sneaky liar.
You’ll need to work a bit harder to keep your unreliable narrator compelling, but you’ll readily find ways to twist the plot and keep your readers guessing. Jennifer Nielsen’s The False Prince uses an unreliable narrator to throw her reader off of the trail and hide a crucial truth.
First person–when the narrator speaks directly to the reader–is great for delving into the depths of your narrating character and causing your characters to second-guess their hypotheses, but doesn’t allow your reader to know the other characters on the same level as your narrator.
Third Person Point Of View
In third person, the narrator is often less conspicuous and only uses pronouns “he,” “she,” and “it.” For instance, Lara gasped as she tumbled over the edge.
Third person gives the impression that the narrator is more “neutral,” since they are not a character in the story. You may choose to keep the narrator this way–or you can turn this assumption on its head to make them ridiculously biased–or anything in between.
Using third person often creates more distance between readers and characters, since the characters aren’t telling the story to the readers personally.
However, the third person does leave more options for perspective–whose thoughts your reader gets access to. In third person, you can choose to reveal the thoughts of several characters instead of being confined to one. We’ll talk more about this in a later section.
Perspective is the facet of point of view that determines whose thoughts your reader knows. There are three major perspectives: objective, limited, and omniscient. Each may serve different purposes.
Objective perspective is when your reader knows none of the thoughts that your characters are thinking. Think of this like watching a movie–you see your characters’ expressions and hear what they say, but you don’t often get inside their heads. For instance:
Allie stared silently at the ogre in front of her, her eyes wide. The ogre circled her and chuckled.
Objective perspective can be used with any person–just as long as you don’t quote anyone’s thoughts.
Using this perspective can be tricky, because you don’t get to show any of your characters’ thoughts. Because of this, it’s not very common nowadays–many authors use limited perspective instead.
Limited perspective is when your reader has access to only one of your characters’ thoughts. This character will often be the protagonist, though that’s not required. For instance:
Allie stared at the ogre in front of her. Who are you? What do you want with me? But she couldn’t speak. The ogre circled her and chuckled.
This perspective is the most common nowadays because of its ability to give the reader a glimpse inside your character’s head without overwhelming them. Limited perspective is similar to first person in that it provides depth on one character. However, while first person is often in limited perspective, limited perspective doesn’t have to only be in first person. In fact, it can be in first or third person, as long as you only reveal one character’s thoughts.
You as the writer can use limited perspective to keep the reader in the dark. If they only know the viewpoint of one character, then they likely don’t know the whole truth. You can magnify this with a naive character.
Omniscient perspective is a third-person point of view which lets the narrator convey the thoughts of multiple characters in one scene–not just one of them. The omniscient narrator summarizes thoughts instead of quoting them directly.
Allie stared at the ogre, wondering what it would do to her. The ogre circled her and chuckled. He hadn’t eaten in three days.
Besides disclosing multiple characters’ thoughts, an omniscient narrator can also reveal facts hidden from some characters. For example, in the last sentence above, it isn’t necessarily the ogre’s thoughts that are being told, but it isn’t plainly obvious that it hasn’t eaten in three days either.
However, many newer writers who try this complex perspective end up “head hopping.” Head hopping is when you bounce around and show the direct thoughts of multiple characters in a single scene instead of summarizing them. And although Jane Austen might have used this perspective in her novels, it’s becoming less popular, and more people favor limited perspective instead.
Because your reader isn’t immersed into one characters’ viewpoint, omniscient perspective is more distant than the others. However, it offers a great opportunity for foreboding, or silly humor.
Happening Or Happened?
Tense is the facet of point of view that determines when your story occurs. And no, we’re not talking about whether it takes place in the ancient times or in the far-off future. We’re talking about the present or the past.
Present tense is when the story is unfolding before your reader’s eyes. I see Lara as she tumbles over the edge. I stand shocked for a moment. Past tense is when it already happened. I saw Lara as she tumbled over the edge. I stood shocked for a moment.
So which to choose?
There are two things to consider when choosing your tense: pacing and audience.
Present tense tends to give the impression of a faster tempo and higher stakes. Although past tense can certainly convey those things, they are more inherent to present tense. Another thing to consider is that present tense is less popular when written in third person. Consequently, it might be a great choice for a high adventure in first person, but not for a soothing third person slice-of-life.
An important thing to note is that past tense was the convention for a while. This means that if your ideal audience is in the older age-range, they might find it more difficult to slip into a world of present tense. But if your readers are kids or young adults, they will probably accept either past or present tense.
Multiple Points of View
Multiple points of view are possible in third person, and sometimes in first. This is when several characters take turns being the point of view characters. The transitions will occur between scene breaks.
For instance, using the story with Allie and the ogre, you might have Allie wondering if the ogre will eat her in the first chapter, but in the next show her best friend Jade following her trail to rescue her.
Be careful, though–having multiple points of view does not mean that your reader knows the thoughts of several people in one scene. Don’t head hop!
When Jade shows up at the ogre’s lair to rescue Allie, your reader will either know that Jade thinks Allie looks dreadfully pale, or they’ll know that Allie wondered how on earth Jade managed to find her–but your reader won’t know both, unless the girls say their thoughts out loud.
However, switching points of view can deflate tension built up in the previous scene. For example, say just as Allie is about to get eaten, you switch to Jade studying her footprints. When you go back to Allie’s point of view, you’ll need to remind your reader that the ogre’s teeth are inches from her head, or else they won’t feel the intensity like Allie does.
Multiple points of view must add to the story. Don’t tell a scene from Jade’s point of view, and then retell it from Allie’s unless you need to. Make your points of view distinct. Let your point of view characters express their different voices and personalities.
Kara Swanson’s Dust does an admirable job of peppering the narration with words and phrases particular to her point-of-view characters, making them distinct from each other.
Multiple points of view provides your reader with a variety of viewpoints. This makes your reader more aware than if your story had only one point of view character. You can use this to build up anticipation or irony, since your reader likely knows more than any one character.
How to Choose the Right Point of View
Now that you’ve seen your options for point of view, which do you choose?
One of the first things you should consider is the level of intimacy you want your reader to have with the characters. First person immediately sets a more confidential tone, while omniscient perspective may remove your readers from close attachment.
Another important aspect of point of view is how much you want your reader to know. Do you want them to be in the middle of it with your protagonist? Do you want them to reel in shock when they discover that the point of view character has been hiding something under their nose?
Or do you want them to laugh when two characters finally realize they’re scheming for the same thing? The answers to these questions might determine if you use limited perspective, an unreliable narrator, or multiple points of view.
Try out different points of view for your stories. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
But when you do choose a point of view to use, be sure to stick with it. Be consistent and learn the ins and outs of that person, tense, and perspective. Be aware of both its limitations and its advantages.
Your Next Steps
You have a lot of points of view to choose from. It might be a little overwhelming at first, so we’ve created a questionnaire to help you discover which point of view is best for your next story. You can download it by clicking the image below.