Point of view is the perspective from which a story (either fiction or nonfiction) is written. It affects the tone of the story, the connection readers develop with the characters, and the amount of information that can be shared. While often confusing, especially for new authors, it isn’t nearly as complicated as it might seem. And as always, Stephanie and Angela are here to help!
Stephanie: Angela and I have been editing collectively for 31 years, and in this podcast, we try to take some of the confusion out of writing and publishing your book. Today, we’re going to talk about points of view, the different types of it and which to use, how you can go about choosing which to use.
Angela, do you want to get us started in this?
Angela: Sure. Let’s just start with something easy, and talk about the four main points of view. Basically, point of view is the person who is telling the story. You’ve got first person, second person, third person limited, and third person omniscient, and we’ll go through each of those in just a second.
But basically all it is, is the perspective from which the story is written. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or nonfiction. Every story has a point of view. Right?
Stephanie: Yep. I think a very important thing, a lot of authors don’t give much thought to it I think, because you just take off and start narrating.
Stephanie: But it really is important, point of view. It affects the type and amount of information that you can share. Sorry. I was trying to say three things there at once. It affects the type and amount of information you can share, which we’ll get into a little bit. Oh, my gosh, I cannot speak. Which we will get to in a little bit.
Angela: There we go. There we go.
Stephanie: This is why I work better on computer and the written word.
Angela: Amen to that. Revision, revision, revision. But all of that to say, there’s not really a wrong choice as far as point of view goes. The biggest thing is going to be realizing that you’re going to have some challenges with whatever you choose, and just to be aware of that as you go through your writing. Things sneak in, and we’ll talk about those in a minute. As long as you are comfortable and keeping an eye on the way that you’re writing the perspective, you can pretty much pick any kind you want.
Stephanie: Let’s start with first person. First person is pretty common, especially I think in fiction, but, also, in autobiography obviously and memoir.
Stephanie: But it is pretty common, and it really allows you to start establishing a really good connection, an immediate connection. It’s intimate. It’s like you’re sitting down and just having a chat with someone. It’s really easy to do that.
Stephanie: Of course, if you’re writing fiction, it can be a challenge to really put yourself in the place of the narrator I suppose and say I instead of … I think it’s a bit of an exercise to really get yourself into really feeling what the character is feeling. Maybe that’s just my experience. But I find when I write that way, I have a more intense connection with the character I’m writing I suppose. Kind of strange.
Angela: No. That makes perfect sense. I mean I’m thinking about books that I’ve read that are written in the first person, and that’s actually what I like about them. You can tell that the author has really stretched themselves to tackle this point of view, that probably is nothing they really are in real like. But it feels like you’re having a conversation, almost like a confessional. Sometimes it feels like a friend, or it can take a darker side, and it feels like you’re sitting in the back of some dimly lit bar talking to this shadowy person. I don’t know. It can be incredibly immersive that way.
Stephanie: Yeah. I think you’re right. I hadn’t really thought of it in those terms before, but I think you’re right. I’m thinking of The Hunger Games, which is written in first person, and in that one, I remember the first time I ever read The Hunger Games. Sometimes I was so infuriated with Katniss.
Stephanie: Part of it is the first person, but part of it is, also, Katniss doesn’t delve into a lot of introspection in that first book.
Angela: Right. Right.
Stephanie: That part threw me off. But you end up learning that’s just her character, and that is one thing that was done really well in that book. Yeah. Again, that just gets into talking about different characters, but that is an example of how first person is actually done very well, and can help there. Oh, my gosh. Sorry. Go ahead.
Angela: I was going to say I think first person is a really interesting way, too, especially if you’re writing things like mysteries, or even nonfiction, where you don’t want to tell the reader the big secret for a while. As they’re going through the first person’s perspective, and that person is learning a little bit at a time, it makes it a little bit more natural that they don’t know the big secret, so the reader can’t know the big secret.
Stephanie: Oh, yes. I agree. I think that some of the best mysteries I’ve ever read have been written in first person.
Stephanie: Yeah. Then, of course, you do have a couple of problems that can come up. If you are writing mostly from one person’s perspective, and then you want to offer someone else’s perspective, if you’ve written an entire book in first person point of view, it can be challenging then to figure out how to incorporate that information about someone else.
Angela: That’s right. You have to get pretty creative with something like that. But I guess that’s the …
Stephanie: Right. Because it’s obviously …
Angela: Go ahead. Your turn. Your turn.
Stephanie: Obviously the person who is speaking can’t just know what’s going on in some other character’s head, and that can get challenging.
Angela: Well, I think that’s the time, too, to consider does this detail have to be known at this moment. There are a lot of creative ways to deal with those kinds of things. One way we don’t recommend, we run into this a lot as editors, it’s something called head hopping. It’s where the person who is narrating, the sentences switch, and, all of a sudden, the reader learns something that the narrator couldn’t have possibly known.
We wrote an article, an Editor’s Corner article about it. We were talking about a story that was written entirely from the point of view of a hamster, so just go with this. We all think hamsters are cute and cuddly. We’re just going to go with it today. Then in the middle of the book, the sentence is, “Looking at the mess, the humans felt angry.” We hopped from the head of the hamster, who has told the entire story, and now we’re in the head of the human. That’s where the head hopping comes in, because the hamster can’t know the human felt angry, unless the human has said it or done something to show it outright.
Any time you’re using any kind of perspective or point of view in a book, you have to be very careful with that, because it’s really, really easy to just … I mean you don’t even realize you’re doing it a lot of times. Those things sneak in, and, again, that’s where editors come in, to get that third person point of view going in and going, “Nope. This isn’t going to work and here’s why.”
Stephanie: Right. You can run into that as well … This is a little tangential, but I ran into something yesterday in which an author was writing … It’s an autobiography, memoir, and so she was writing about something that happened, and she looked at someone, and called them quiet when she was laying eyes on them for the first time. That’s problematic, because that’s not something she can know yet, and really that’s more an issue of timing than point of view, but that is an example. You have no idea of whether they’re quiet or not, not really.
Angela: Exactly. Exactly. Especially if you’re just using one point of view, you’ve got to have another character say something or react in a way that makes it obvious.
Stephanie: Right. In this case, she could have said that she had learned from someone else that this was a quiet person and whatever. There is where that creativity gets in where you say, “Oh, well, they looked quiet,” or, “I would later learn that they were quiet.” But, yeah, that’s where you really have to be careful with your point of view.
Stephanie: Then, of course, head hopping can, also, occur in second person.
Angela: Absolutely. It can happen pretty much in any perspective. But we’re going to tell you about second person now, because this is a cool one.
Angela: I don’t see this one very often. Do you?
Stephanie: No. I really don’t. It’s challenging, and I was trying to think of an example. The best example I could come up with was Choose Your Own Adventure books. Do you remember those?
Angela: Oh, yes. I’d forgotten about those. That’s right.
Stephanie: I think most of them were in second person. I mean I haven’t seen one of these in years. But I seem to remember they used the second person, “You do this,” and it’s just so awkward, because you’re trying to make the reader a participant in the story beyond the way they normally participate, but you’re trying to make them a character in the story. I think it’s tricky, because you may end up losing a reader who is like, “No. I would never do that.”
Stephanie: I think that was one of the most interesting features of Choose Your Own Adventure I think.
Angela: I’m thinking, too, a lot of the video games that I have played are kind of second person perspective.
Stephanie: That was another example. Yeah.
Angela: Honestly, in a video game setting, for me, it’s immersive, because you’re taking on this role, usually this savior of the world. I’ve got my armor strapped on, and I’m going out to beat everybody. But I actually don’t think it would be as immersive for me in first person or third person.
I think it really just depends upon the context and the type of readers you’re trying to reach. I wonder if you’re going to be writing in a specific genre, maybe researching the most popular point of views that the bestseller novels are written in to give you an idea of what the readers of those genres are looking for.
Stephanie: Right. I think I end up seeing second person used … I don’t want to say sporadically, but it’s used very carefully I think. I think in nonfiction, when you use an example, I could see there’s where we use the you, where you use an example. It’s used more for illustrative purposes I think in nonfiction than it tends to be used in fiction, so less in the narrative form, and more in I guess …
Angela: It’s hard to talk about, right?
Stephanie: It really is.
Angela: We just don’t see it very often. I’m trying to think of a book I’ve edited. I’ve never edited a book that’s in second person. Have you?
Stephanie: Not that I can recall. Like I said, other than the Choose Your Own Adventures, when I was trying to come up with those examples, it really was video games, because, like you said, that’s where you’re the character in the game, and they say, “You, I need you to do this.”
Angela: That’s right.
Stephanie: But then it’s really when they’re speaking to you though more.
Angela: Yes. And you have that visual.
Stephanie: To make you a part … Right. They’re, “Hey, you do this.” Again, there’s not that narration typically that, “You do this.” It’s speaking to you.
Angela: That’s right. Let’s loop on then to a more common one. Let’s talk a little bit about the two different kinds of third person. We’ve got third person limited and third person omniscient. The main difference is going to be that a third person limited is written like, “She woke early in the morning to the sound of birds.” A third person omniscient would include she, but then, also, bring in the perspective of another character.
Angela: You and I have been discussing which we see more often. I think in our original article, we were talking about how third person limited is very common, and then when we were actually having a conversation about it today, we’re trying to think of do we see that many books in third person limited?
Angela: Not really, because so many people want to include the points of view of different characters. You don’t just want that one narrator. It feels limiting that way, right?
Stephanie: Right. When I was trying to come up with examples here, I’ve just finished listening to Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone again. I listen to audiobooks as I do my chores about the house. Primarily, it’s from Harry’s point of view, primary. I mean third person point of view obviously. But then occasionally you get, “Hey, this happened. Ron and Hermione did this.”
Angela: That’s right. Or Voldemort.
Stephanie: Yeah. You occasionally get that other character thrown in, not from Harry’s perspective, where he wasn’t. That’s a thing I think a lot of people forget about. With third person limited, you pretty much always have to be in the head or in the vicinity of that person. If you’re thinking Harry Potter, if it’s happening where he’s happening and that’s it, it’s third person limited.
Angela: That’s right.
Stephanie: But then when you end up seeing a scene, where Harry isn’t, for example, then you’ve stepped into third person omniscient.
Angela: That’s right.
Stephanie: I really can’t come up with an example of third person limited. I’m sure I’ve read one, but I can’t recall the title of a particular book that is completely third person limited.
Angela: That’s right. I can’t either actually. We did some research before we began today, and nothing obvious comes up. I always run into a lot of 1800’s literature that were written in all these different styles. We’ll say nothing like recent or well-known.
Stephanie: Right. That was back still when the novel was new I think, right?
Angela: That’s right. But I like the third person omniscient point of view, just because I think it lets you expand on this idea that there is this danger out there, and this main narrator that you’re coming to know and feel some kind of connection to, he doesn’t know about it. So you’re getting this inkling, and you start going, “Oh, my gosh. What’s going to happen?” You start getting nervous for the main character, because he has no clue. It propels you and makes you want to keep turning pages and moving forward with the story.
Stephanie: I’m, also, a fan of third person omniscient. I really like seeing the same scene from different views.
Stephanie: It’s different in a movie. Vantage point, for example. I don’t know.
Stephanie: Where you see the same scene from all these different view points. But in books, it’s sort of the same thing. I keep thinking of the Song of Ice and Fire, rhe series where you’ve got all these different view points, and I love that, because you get to know all these different characters. I’m a huge fun of serials. That is my … Not what you eat. I love series. I love series. I find that my favorite authors are those who have written series, because I just get so immersed in all of these characters, and third person omniscient really lets you get into the heads of all of these different characters, right?
Angela: That’s right. That’s exactly right.
Stephanie: And a good way of looking at one event and really getting to know characters, is seeing how differently they can all view the same thing that happened.
Angela: Yeah. Because every part about them brings a different perspective to the same scene. Even an optimist versus a pessimist, there are going to view things very differently, or they may notice things that the other person isn’t noticing.
But the other cool thing about the third person omniscient is that you can actually have different people in different places doing different things.
Angela: A murder mystery, you can have the point of view of the cop, and then another chapter can be the point of view of the killer and what that killer is doing, and then the next chapter is the victim and what’s happening to the victim. It doesn’t really limit you as far as I guess staying in the same scene or even the same time frame. You can hop back and forth between present and past and everything, too. It’s really dynamic that way.
Stephanie: Yeah. Because you can further the story, without getting stuck with, “This person’s not doing anything for two days,” instead of just saying, “Well, two days later, this happened.” You can go on and you can really focus on I think the story, the events more than the people as well.
Angela: That’s right.
Stephanie: I think you’re absolutely right. You can use it for so many different things.
Angela: Well, one thing that we need to be careful with, like with the transitions. If we’re hopping between … I don’t want to say hopping.
Angela: When we’re transitioning between characters, there needs to be something that makes it very obviously that the transition is happening. You don’t want to say, “Frank is smelling flowers,” and the next sentence is, “Judy is driving down the street.” You have to have a different setting, a different chapter. I’ve seen it done even in different fonts. So, again, the murder mystery. The cops point of view might be written in regular font, and then the next chapter is the killer, and it’s written in italics. There needs to be something that tells the reader very blatantly, “We’re changing now, and here’s where we’re moving to.”
Stephanie: Right. It can even be as simple as just a blank line space.
Angela: That’s right.
Stephanie: Or a line space with a few asterisks there. Yeah. Absolutely. I remember working on a book a few months ago that was wonderful, but then suddenly about halfway through, in one scene … It was an action scene in which a fight was going on, and we were in third person omniscient, but we kept hopping back and forth between characters in the same paragraph, and it was a little off putting.
Angela: Yeah. And confusing.
Stephanie: Probably most people would never catch it.
Stephanie: But I just went, “Wait, what?”
Angela: Yeah. I think though if it’s tripping you up even as an editor, I think it has the definite possibility to trip up a reader. I mean it’s confusing for one person, it’s very probable it’s going to be confusing for somebody else.
Stephanie: Yeah. Action scenes are definitely challenging to write in that respect, because you’re so used to, “He knocked the knife out of her hand,” and you kind of want to follow the knife, but you want to follow … And so it can be definitely challenging to write a fight scene or a back and forth very fast conversation, too, I think from point of view, so sometimes there it’s better to take that step back.
Stephanie: Yeah. I realize I opened my mouth and probably opened a whole new can of worms there.
Angela: What I was thinking, if you’re doing that, it’s important, too, to keep the things in that matter. I see a lot the point of view is written well, but it includes these things that just don’t advance the story at all. Even though they might be interesting, they’re just not relevant. You can do the third person omniscient and include a bunch of different characters, but they have to have relevance to the story you’re trying to tell.
Stephanie: Right. Absolutely. Do you have anything else to add? I think I just hit the wall. I think we’ve covered everything.
Angela: Yeah. I have actually checked everything off of my list. I mean I think the last biggest point is once you choose that perspective of how you’re going to write your novel, stick with it.
Angela: Don’t start in third person, then switch to first halfway through. Just go all the way through, and definitely use beta readers, and make sure whatever perspective you’re using makes sense to them and doesn’t switch around too much and cause confusion.
Stephanie: Right. Absolutely. And then if you do have a passage where there is some confusion, if you can’t sort that one out, we editors are usually pretty good at offering suggestions, because we’ve seen a lot out there in our time in the trenches.
Angela: We have. Yes, we have.
Stephanie: Okay. Again, since that’s all we have to say about third person point of view, and first and second person point of view.
Angela: That’s right. All of the points of views.
Until then, keep writing.