Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Getting the Point of View Right

Warning this is a little bit of a rant.  Usually I don't have an issue with POV when I'm reading.  I have my preference, and I'm sure other writers have their preferences as well.  For the most part, I don't care if a story is told through first person or third as long as the story is interesting, but I'm reading a book right now that is annoying me in the choice of the point of view (POV) character, so I decided to blog about my POV preferences and why.

Brief overview of POV
Just making sure we all know the terminology I'm using.

Third Person vs. First Person

Third person has always been my favorite POV in both reading and writing.  I like the ability to be in any character’s POV at any time as the story dictates.  Some times story-telling is hampered by being forced to be in one character’s POV through the whole novel.

For example:  First person POV worked great in Hunger Games and Catching Fire.  In both of these stories, Katniss was the focus and was present for all the important events in the story, but Mockingjay didn’t work as well (warning spoilers).  So much of the story had to be told second hand because Katniss wasn’t there to experience it (the rescue of Peeta, the hearing on whether to execute Katniss for killing Coin, etc.).  Of course it would have been unrealistic for Katniss to be involved in all these events, but the story would’ve been stronger and more interesting if we could have experienced these important events through another character’s POV like Peeta or Haymitch.

When a story is limited to one POV, sometimes an important scene can only be shown through some sort of eavesdropping, which can be a bit ridiculous if it happens too often or if the situation feels forced.

For example:  In Eclipse (spoiler warning), there is a scene when Bella is camping in the woods to hide from Victoria when a freak snowstorm hits.  Jacob cuddles with Bella to keep her warm, and as she drifts off to sleep, she listens to Edward and Jacob discussing her.  So she is in this half-sleep state not really aware of what is going on just so the readers can hear this conversation between her two love rivals through her POV.  The situation feels contrived and pulled me out of the story.  I became acutely aware that this was something that the writer was trying to show me--it almost felt like it was being forced into the story.  It would’ve been much better, much more natural, if that scene could’ve been shown from Edward or Jacob’s POV.

Of course POV shifts can occur in first person.  I’ve read several novels with alternating first person POV, and they work well when done right.  But this is more challenging than POV shifts in third person.

First of all, it needs to be very obvious from the start which character is narrating, which is a little more challenging in first person than it is in third because the character isn’t likely refer to him/herself by his/her name.  Also since first person is narrated by the character, it has to be in the character’s voice.  Sometimes the two first person POV characters sound too much a like, and that can detract from the story.  I thought Stephenie Meyers did a great job distinguishing the voices of Bella and Jacob in Breaking Dawn.  Jacob didn’t sound anything like Bella.  But this is difficult to pull off, and you have to have a really good grasp on both of your characters' voices.  And finally, because first person POV is more intimate, you can’t have too many first person POV narrators without the risk of annoying or confusing the reader; whereas, in third person, you can have as many POV characters as you want (as shown in many epic fantasy novels).

I know this seems like I’m really pushing third person POV, and while it is my preference, I do recognize that first person allows a closer POV, and if that is important to the story, then that is the POV that should be used.  But third person really is more flexible.

Choosing the POV Character

But POV isn’t just about choosing first or third person, it is also important to choose the right POV characters.  Picking the wrong POV character can be the kiss of death of the story.  Of course there are notable exceptions, but most stories need to be told predominantly from the character who has the most to lose, the character who is the most active, the character whose life is irrevocably altered. 

This book was amazing.
I’m currently finishing the Demon Lexicon Series.  I loved the first book.  It was amazing with great characters, awesome dialogue, and a twisty plot.  But mostly I loved the relationship between the main character and his brother.  I’m a real sucker for familial relationships, and you just don’t find very many well developed sibling relationships in young adult.

I was so excited for the second book, but when I got it, I realized that the author had switched POVs.  Now instead of being in the head of the younger brother, the story was told through his love interest's POV.  This drove me nuts.  She was a good character.  I liked her in the first book, but in the second book, she was completely passive.  She’s not a passive character, but her role in the story was on the sidelines, and she was watching her boyfriend’s story unfold instead of actively being involved in it. 

I understand why the author wanted to tell the story through her eyes.  There are parts where it works, scenes that belong to her and are shown best through her eyes, but most of the time, she wasn’t involved in the action and decision making, and too much of the story was told off page or through her watching passively as the brothers encounter and try to solve their problems.  It frustrated me as a reader, but still I got through the book because I was emotionally invested.

What annoys me the most is that the story is in third person.  The author didn’t have to stick to one POV.   Some of the scenes could’ve been shown through her POV while the others, that she wasn’t involved in, could be shown through her boyfriend’s POV.

 Recently, I’ve started the last book in the series, and I’m not enjoying it.  This time the story is told from the POV of another female character who had been minor until now, and once again, I feel like this is not her story.  She is reporting on someone else’s story, and I’m missing that connection to the main characters who I’ve cared about in the first two books.  I want to know what happens to them and how they feel about it.  Honestly, I’m not sure if I will finish the story.  

Readers want to connect with the character who the story is about and see that character struggle and fight and hopefully win.  They don't want to be told what is happening from the sidelines even if it is through the eyes of the someone who is emotionally invested in the outcome.


Many times a story will work whether it is told in first or third person, but I think it is worth carefully thinking about what kind of POV best fits the story we are trying to tell.  If the story is better suited for a intimate POV and can be told through one or maybe two characters, then first person might be best choice.  But if the story needs the flexibility to be told through multiple characters, including minor characters, then third person is needed.  And always, always, always think carefully about whose story you are telling to make sure you chose the best POV character for the story.



  1. I sometimes have the feeling that 1st POV is a current fashion trend. Everyone seems to write in it, and some agents suddenly only want to accept it, claiming that it is the only way to get close to a character.
    Like all tides, I'm sure this one will turn too. :)

    1. I've noticed that there is a lot of 1st person POV in YA, but I didn't know that agents only want that POV. I think it is easy to have a great voice in 1st person especially if the MC has an engaging voice. But I think you can get have a really close third person POV, and that is the one I personally prefer.

  2. I've written in first person and limited third. (Honestly, I find third omniscient scary to write.) I think it's especially important no matter what POV you're using to take POV into account when you're plotting. You have to realize that you can't use the "drifting off to sleep" scene because it doesn't work given the POV. Instead, you need to find a different way to plot it that works for your POV. Hard stuff.

    1. I'm scared of third omniscient too. I'm thinking of studying it and seeing how it works just because I'm curious, but I don't know if I'll ever be brave enough to try it. I think it is really hard to pull off.

      I agree completely. POV needs to be carefully considered while plotting.

  3. Have you ever read any of the Sherlock Holmes novels? They're written from Dr Watson's POV even though Holmes is the MC. However, the idea is that Watson is Holmes' biographer.

    1. I haven't read Sherlock Holmes, but I have read The Great Gatsby, and Nick's POV was perfect even though Gatsby was the main character. I know the observer POV can work, but I think it has to be a special situation and requires serious writing talent to pull it off.

      JMO, I'm sure there were plenty of readers of The Demon's Lexicon series that wasn't annoyed by the POV of the latter books. But I do think it is important to think about these things when writing.

  4. I think that different points of view work for different types of stories. I think action and lot of fantasy books work better in third. If the story is really about one character such as a drama then first person gets into the characters head. Red Fern Grows (I believe) was first person and it is about the love of a boy and his dogs. I think you feel the loss more.

    1. Yes, definitely the size of the story should be considered in choosing which POV to use. First person does work better in some situations like in your example.

  5. I'm currently working on a story that has started to make very complicated POVs. When I'm done, I'm putting you up to be my beta reader, MaryAnn. I want an expert's opinion. :D

    1. LOL, I'm far from an expert, but let me know when it is done. I'll let you know what I think. :)

  6. Awesome post, MaryAnn, and I second Martin. :)

  7. I loved this post, MaryAnn. I have read several books that I could have loved, if they'd been in the right point of view. I've also written at least one story that I decided I'd done in the wrong point of view, and had to go back and make huge alterations to fix it. Great advice!


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