The power of a story lies in how it’s told. The narration needs to hook the reader, while at the same time delivering a message or effect intended by the author. The most important factor in every story’s narrative style is whose viewpoint we’re engaging with, assuming it is a person at all. Now, what I want to talk about is not what the different points of view are, but what your goals should be as you choose a POV.
What Are the Four POVs Again?
- First person
- Second person
- Third person limited
- Third person omniscient
POVs can also refer to the viewpoints of different characters within the plot. Each of these perspectives can offer something to a story. However, it can also take something away, especially if the POV is unsuitable for the narrative.
Choosing Your POV
The first thing to remember is that it involves finding a balance between what makes the narrative strong and what it can live without. For example, going for a first-person perspective typically sacrifises the bigger picture, only giving you information that the selected character knows. On the other hand, what does it give to, say, a coming-of-age story? Immersion. Suspense. Sympathy for the protagonist. A compromise can improve the narration.
Before we go on, here are four interesting questions to ask yourself about your narrative:
- What genre is it really?
- Is its message intellectual or visceral?
- If it were a film, how would you visualise it?
- Could and should it be driven by more than one character’s viewpoint?
Establish The Story’s Spirit
Thrillers, for example, come in all shapes and sizes. A crime novel like Lisa Gardner’s imminent When You See Me, living more in the here and now while hunting down a serial killer, needs a POV that grabs the reader by the throat and makes them look at nothing but the gritty action and mind games. This makes a visceral story, one that tries to directly stimulate your emotions. First person or third person limited perspectives are perfect, perhaps even second person with careful planning.
If, on the other hand, you have a historical thriller involving the turbulent lives of its characters within their Victorian society, a different POV may work better. Looking at the individual circumstances of each person, moving in and out of different perpectives, paints a multifaceted portrait of the same community. Emotions can still be evoked and quite powerfully, but in a more intellectual, roundabout way. Third person, either limited or omniscient, is the POV most writers choose.
Of course, none of these genre-POV combinations are set in stone. Knowing exactly where your story stands in terms of structure and purpose, makes it easier to choose a perspective that frames and strengthens it perfectly. It also boosts your courage when deviating from the literary canon.
Establish Your Vision
I don’t know about you, but I do actually visualise my stories as films. I look at each setting, character, or sequence from different angles. Depending on the kinds of perspectives that come closest to the effects I want to create, I choose a POV and tailor it accordingly.
Putting yourself, more or less, in the action opens your eyes to exciting details and connections, sometimes on the level of a character’s psychology or environment, others on a grander thematic scale. And, if a particular feature or angle of your vision thrills you, isn’t it possible your readers will have the same reaction?
Your POV is, in fact, born from this vision. All you have to do is harness both these elements. Harder said than done! A solution that always helps is making actual plans – colourful mind maps if need be – of the narrative’s key aspects.
Don’t Fear Multiple POVs
Some argue that more than one per narrative can confuse the plot, but, if mixed cleverly, a single story can use 2-3 perspectives to enthralling effects, The Arsonist by Stephanie Oakes being an excellent example. Be warned, however, that it is a technique that can easily trip you up, especially if you don’t have that detailed awareness of your story’s spirit and vision discussed above.
If you do go down this path, make sure that the multiple perspectives’ existence in the narrative is justified and that the transitions between them are clear. Basically, don’t throw in a random person’s viewpoint in the middle of a novel just for the fun of it. Unless randomness is the very essence of your story. Or you simply enjoy messing with readers… Both perfectly respectable and entertaining pursuits!
The POV you choose can make or break a story, so getting it right is worth the time and effort. This idea of rightness may be subjective, mostly determined by your goals as the author, but effective narration through the written word does need a fair degree of care, planning, and practice, practice, practice.
What’s your experience with POVs? Share your wisdom in the comments below.
And keep exploring how other authors use multiple perspectives…