Point of view (POV)  is one of the more challenging areas for new writers. It allows discernible characterisation to develop and be sustained throughout the novel or short story. By telling the story from one or more characters’ point of view we learn about the characters themselves and understand events from different perspectives.

There are various possible approaches:

  • Omniscient narrator -  the writer reporting the story explicitly, knowing all perspectives. This used to be common in children’s books, where the narrator became like a parent reading the story aloud.  An omniscient narrator can tell you what two characters are thinking at the same time. Eg ‘John watched Lucy eat and marvelled at her delicate fingers. Lucy marvelled at how loudly John chewed.’ An omniscient narrator may also step back from the action and comment on the characters’ actions, or drop hints about what is to come. (See, for instance, Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children.)
  • First person (‘I saw’) – character only able to see, know and tell the story from their own observation and information. This can be the best way of exploring the mind of your main character as you and the reader are right in their thought processes.  The limitation is that you can only show action or conversations that your point of view character is involved in.
  • Second person (‘You saw’) – writer being directive to the character and the reader. It isn’t common to tell a story this way for obvious reasons. Iain Banks uses this technique in Complicity.
  • Third person (‘He/She/They saw’) – telling the story from the perspective of one or more characters, but only one at a time. The closer the writer gets to the experience of the point of view character, the more involved the reader will be with the story. Think if it like a driver cam as used in the coverage of Formula 1 racing. Third person allows you to use more than one point of view character and tell a broader, more complex story. For example, War and Peace is told from the perspective of five main characters whose stories interweave. It is common in romance novels to alternate between the perspectives of the hero and heroine, in order to show their developing feelings for each other.

 Some important things to watch out for:

  • Always be clear whose point of view a scene is being told from. Make sure to mention the point of view character in the first sentence or two and use a verb that relates to their thoughts or emotions. Saying ‘John walked into the room’ doesn’t tell us whether we are with John or seeing him walk in from someone else’s viewpoint. Whereas ‘John walked into the room, unsure what he would find’ tells us we are in his head.
  • Be very careful about switching between point of view characters in the middle of a scene. It is normal to stick to only one viewpoint at a time (unless you are taking the omniscient narrator approach).
  • The closer you stick to your point of view character, the easier it will be for the reader to identify with them. If you are ‘in character’ then every word will be assumed to be the PoV person’s thoughts. For example: All Rollo knew was that he was on the last green and he intended to finish in style. Lay up safe for three putts? No chance. The reader assumes that these are the thoughts going through Rollo’s mind.
  • Consider whether you want to write partly in your own voice, using the language you would use, or in the PoV character’s voice, using the language they would use. If you are using multiple PoV characters, varying your language for each of them can help to bring them more to life. It can be particularly effective, for instance, to adopt a childlike voice when your PoV character is a child. If your PoV character is a twelfth century peasant, you might want restrict yourself to metaphors and idioms that fit with the twelfth century. (You might be surprised at how difficult that is. A fairly innocuous phrase such as ‘he felt knocked for six’, for instance, draws on the game of cricket, which wasn’t invented until the eighteenth century.)
  • Bearing all the above in mind, sustaining a character’s point of view or perspective must be checked as part of your final edit in long or short fiction.

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