What is point of view in writing, and why does it matter?

The following is a basic overview. If you want more detailed analysis of the various techniques a writer can use in POV, leave a comment and I’ll post more later.

Firstly, what is point of view (POV)? Essentially,  it is the person telling the story, and the way the story is conveyed. It can be the character within the story, a narrator observing and reporting on events from a distance, or you, the author. There can be multiple POVs within the one story.

Most writerly types will be aware of the 3 main POVs commonly used . These are first, second and third person POV. But what are they, and why are they important?

First Person

This is the ‘I’ voice:

 ‘I went to the shops.’

‘I am so in love with him.’

‘I don’t want to go to school today.’

The ‘I’ that is speaking, is the character. The reader more or less inhabits the consciousness of the character and experiences the story as the character does. For this reason, the first person POV is restricted in the information it can convey – it can only reveal information the character knows, observes, thinks etc. It can’t reveal information that is known only to another character.  Janet Evanovich writes her Stephanie Plum series in first person POV – the ‘I’ voice is Stephanie’s, and the reader can only know as much as Stephanie does.  As Stephanie solves the mystery, the reader does too.

Third Person

This is the ‘he/she’ voice.

‘He walked away from the crash unhurt.’

‘She put on her blue dress.’

‘He was late for work.’

Restricted third person POV is almost identical to first person POV – characters can still only convey what they know, and do not have access to the thoughts of other characters. Third person omniscient POV widens the writer’s options. This POV is really the writer’s POV. It sees all, it knows all. It can step inside the minds of other characters, look behind closed doors, and generally allow the reader to know more than the protagonist. It’s not commonly used in modern fiction.

Second Person

This POV is also not commonly used. It is the ‘you’ voice.

 ‘You said you were going to get a job.’

‘You don’t love me.’

‘You are an egomaniac.’

It has an accusatory tone, and can be uncomfortable to read in long works such as a novel. One writer who employs it to great effect is Nikki Gemmel, author of ‘The Bride Stripped Bare.’ The first line of her novel ‘With my body’ reads:

“You think about sleeping with every man you meet.”

My reaction to that is ‘No I don’t. Really, I don’t!’ The whole novel is written in the second person POV, which makes for an intense read. See why it’s not a popular one and why most authors stick to first or third person POV?

Why is POV important?

POV affects the whole story. Imagine you have a story about a marriage breakdown. The wife has been loyal, she’s raised the couple’s 4 kids and keeps the house in great shape. Her husband has cheated and now it’s all over. She’s devastated. This story is told from wifey’s POV. Poor, poor hard done by wifey.

Now, imagine it’s told from cheating husband’s POV. Suppose his wife is too busy looking after their 4 kids and house to pay him any attention. Suppose he’s lonely and feels unloved and thinks all he is to her is a pay check. It now becomes quite a different story.

POV affects the slant of the entire story because it will be coloured by the perceptions and beliefs of the character telling it.

POV slips

One thing beginning writers often do, myself included, is make POV slips. No matter which POV you choose to write in, you need to maintain consistency. Never forget that you are in the head of the character, and you can only convey what they can (unless you’re using omnipotent POV). What I often see in work sent to me for editing, is a slip in POV – suddenly it is the author speaking, not the character. Here is a recent example I saw on Facebook last week.  A friend  has been writing chapters about his attraction to a girl at work as though it were a novel:

In a random moment of serendipity, Cute Woolies Girl walked past at the exact moment I walked out of the café. She was helping an elderly customer with their groceries and, as our eyes met, she smiled warmly. There was a flicker of her eyebrows, a cheerful two-handed wave and an ever-present twinkle in her expression.

In return, I looked like a rabbit in headlights. This was unexpected and as a result, I was stumped. Luckily, I just about managed to smile and sputtered out a clumsy “Hi, hi, how are you” before she passed me by. I stopped, turned and let my eyes follow her slender figure out the Mall doors and into the car park.

The authorial POV slip here is this:

In return, I looked like a rabbit in headlights.

The character can’t see his own face and therefore can’t know what he looks like (unless simultaneously looking in the mirror!). This is the author speaking. The character could, however,  feel like a rabbit in headlights. Or some version of that.

The reason authorial slips are bad is because they shatter the illusion that the character is a living, breathing being, and remind the reader that there’s actually a writer behind the scenes working the puppet strings. You don’t want that.

There are also lots of reasons why you might choose first person over third, or even second, but that’s another thousand or so words, so I’ll address that next time. Tense also makes a big difference and I’ll explain that too.

Exercises

Here’s some exercises for you to try:

1. Grab a few books and open to a random page. Identify the POV character and whether first, second or third person POV is being used.

2. Take a paragraph of your own writing. Identify the POV, then rewrite it using a different POV. So, if you have a paragraph written in first person POV, try rewriting it in third person or even second person POV. See the difference it makes?

Happy writing.

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