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Point-Of-View for Beginners, Part 1

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about point of view (or POV as you will often see it abbreviated).  I was recently asked to write a book in a point of view that is not my usual (first person rather than third) and it has been a challenge, but also made me hyper conscious of the pros and cons of various styles of point of view.   

We’ve had pieces here about deep third POV & challenging POV, but I wanted to take it back to the basics today and look at what kinds of POV there are and how they impact the kind of story we’re telling.  

What is Point Of View?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, point of view (noun) is:

  1. a person’s opinion or particular way of thinking about something:
  2. (in literature) the voice in which a story is told and its relationship to the events in the story.
  3. (in art) In a painting or photograph, the place where the artist chooses to stand and what this tells you about the subject.

For our purposes, the second definition is definitely the most pertinent, but I included all three, because they all lend themselves to what point of view can be in a book.  It is, essentially, how we choose to tell the story.  And that choice, like all the choices we make in our work, impacts our reader’s experience.

What kinds of POV are there and why use them?

The primary types of POV are first person (“I wake up” or “I woke up.”), second person (“You woke up.”), and third person (“He woke up.”) – but there’s a lot more to it than that.  Let’s start with the most common POV in the romance genre:

Third Person Limited

This is the big one, boys and girls, at least if you’re writing a traditional romance novel.   Deep third person limited alternating past tense is what most romance novels have historically used as POV. 

Lets break that down.  

Deep – this refers to the fact that you want to not just show your characters actions, but their emotions and thoughts.  

Third person – “He walked” “she said” “they kissed”

Limited – as opposed to omniscient, this refers to the fact that we as the reader know only what the character whose POV we are in knows.  If she doesn’t know who built the bomb, neither do we.  If he doesn’t know why his mother has always hated the Red Sox, neither do we.  

Alternating – we jump back and forth between the protagonists’ points of view.  In a m/f romance, often there will be a chapter in the hero’s point of view alternating with a chapter in the heroine’s, but some authors can transition smoothly in the middle of a chapter.  Villains sometimes have their own POV too, depending on how you roll. 

Past tense – “he was tired” rather than “he is tired”

There are approximately seven bajillion excellent examples of third person limited, so in the interest of shameless self promotion, I’m going to drop a tiny excerpt from my upcoming release here as a sample of third person limited:

The new bodyguard smiled too much.

Alexa could practically feel him smiling behind her as she led the way to Callie’s wing. He looked like a badass—all muscle and tattoos—like the kind of bad boy who’d always been her kryptonite, but that smile said that you could trust him, even as it promised mischief.

Which was why she’d amped up her keep-your-hands-off-buddy frostbite performance.

Victor would say she had trust issues. That she didn’t like new people.

Victor would be right, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have very good reasons to have trust issues.

Miracle on Mulholland, Lizzie Shane

Note that my heroine, Alexa, doesn’t know why the bodyguard smiles so much. We aren’t “head-hopping” (i.e. jumping from one POV to the next in a jarring or disjointed way) to see that he uses his reputation as an easy-going, smiley guy as a shield to protect himself in his own way.  We won’t learn that until we go into his POV.  Alexa’s POV gives us an opportunity to see her side of things – and the more deeply wrapped up in her own issues she is, the juicier that is.  Perspective is key.  The more different your various perspectives, the more depth you can give your story.

If you are writing in an alternating perspective, also consider who you want to be with during each scene.  You can do something I have heard referred to as “scene/rescene” where you show a scene in one character’s point of view and then recap the emotional resonance of that scene in the other character’s POV later so you get a sense of where they both were at that pivotal moment, but I think it is always best to be in the POV of the character who is having the biggest emotional breakthrough.  Me watching you discover the identity of your long lost father is probably not as impactful as being inside your discovery of your long lost father… unless I know a secret about that identity that I am afraid to tell you.  I like to use as a general rule that whoever has the strongest emotional arc in that scene owns the scene.

Third Person Omniscient

The flip side of third person is third person omniscient, aka I KNOW ALL.  In this god-like narrative perspective, the author knows things even if the characters don’t know them.  Some of my favorite books have this POV (Pride & PrejudiceHitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) but I think when we are learning to write we have a tendency to fall into this POV out of laziness or lack of experience rather than by choice.  We want the reader to know everything we’re thinking right away – and we forget that there are times when it is much more exciting not to know things yet and to discover them than it is to know everything right up front.  

I haven’t seen third omniscient used much in modern romance, but if you have omniscient romances that you love, please be sure to mention them in the comments!  

My favorite part about third omniscient? The footnotes and parentheticals can be fabulous.

And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, one girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.

Sadly, however before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terribly stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost forever.

This is not her story.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

My personal favorite way of imparting omniscient information is to have an omniscient narrator figure.  For example, in The Book Thief (I freaking love this book), the story is about Liesl Meminger, but the omniscient narrator of the story is Death.  This book is technically in first person, because Death refers to himself and tells the story, but because it is Liesl’s story, even though Death interacts with it, I feel like this book belongs down here since Liesl’s story is sort of in third. 

The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness.

Earlier, kids had been playing hopscotch there, on the street that looked like oil-stained pages. When I arrived, I could still hear the echoes. The feet tapping the road. The children-voices laughing, and the smiles like salt, but decaying fast.

Then, bombs.

This time, everything was too late.

The sirens. The cuckoo shrieks in the radio. All too late.

Within minutes, mounds of concrete and earth were stacked and piled. The streets were ruptured veins. Blood streamed till it was dried on the road, and the bodies were stuck there, like driftwood after the flood.

They were glued down, every last one of them. A packet of souls.

Was it fate?

Misfortune?

Is that what glued them down like that?

Of course not.

Let’s not be stupid.

It probably had more to do with the hurled bombs, thrown down by humans hiding in the clouds.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

Another popular example of this is the television show Jane the Virgin – it has a narrator who periodically catches you up or gives you hints, but it isn’t his story (which would make it more first person) it is Jane’s.  Again, I think this POV is a lot of fun – but it is rarely used in the romance genre.

But not nearly as rarely used as…

Second Person

Second Person (“You are”) is definitely the least frequently used of all POV options.  I, personally, find it hard to connect with second person narrative style, but it can be powerful when done skillfully.  (Though it is rarely seen in genre fiction, being more the purview of the literary side.)  For example:

The whites of your eyes are yellow, a consequence of spiking bilirubin levels in your blood. The virus afflicting you is called hepatitis E. Its typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral. Yum. It kills only about one in fifty, so you’re likely to recover. But right now you feel like you’re going to die.

Your mother has encountered this condition many times, or conditions like it anyway. So maybe she doesn’t think you’re going to die. Then again, maybe she does. Maybe she fears it. Everyone is going to die, and when a mother like yours sees in a third-born child like you the pain that makes you whimper under her cot the way you do, maybe she feels your death push forward a few decades, take off its dark, dusty headscarf, and settle with open-haired familiarity and a lascivious smile into this, the single mud-walled room she shares with all of her surviving offspring.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamin

I was originally going to go through first person and how POV can impact your story, but this blog is already getting to be epic poem length, so I’m going to cut it off here for today and pick up with the rest tomorrow in Part Two – so please come back! 

And in the mean time:  

What POV are you most comfortable writing?  Is that also your favorite to read?


Lizzie Shane is the award-winning author of the Bouquet Catchers series.  Her upcoming release, Miracle on Mulholland, comes out November 13th!  She also writes paranormal romance as Vivi Andrews. Find more about Lizzie and her books at www.lizzieshane.com.

16 responses to “Point-Of-View for Beginners, Part 1”

  1. Great breakdown!

    I love to read mostly deep limited third person, but I do love first person for certain types of stories; ie suspense, memoirs. some women’s fiction. I read a contemporary romance a long time ago that was written with the hero’s POV in third present time and the heroine POV first person in the past. It worked! And it inspired me to do first person for my villain POV in several of my books. Chilling to know what runs through their minds.

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  2. Rita Henuber says:

    VIVI!!!!! This is perfect. Thank you. Off to share in writers groups.

    1+
  3. Tamara Hogan says:

    –> Villains sometimes have their own POV too, depending on how you roll.

    *raises hand* That’s VERY MUCH how I roll – so much so that in my second book, CHASE ME, I wrote a love scene from the (male) villain’s POV. My (trad pub) editor didn’t tell me to cut it, so I guess it worked. 🙂

    Awesome post!

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    • I actually thought of you when I wrote that about the villain POV, Tammy. I love the way you give the antagonist just as much thought as your protagonist. 🙂

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      • Paula Huffman says:

        This made me think of a U2 song, Cedars of Lebanon, so I had to share…

        “Choose your enemies carefully cos they will define you
        Make them interesting cos in some ways they will mind you
        They’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends
        Gonna last with you longer than your friend”

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  4. Elizabeth Langston says:

    My published books are all in 1st person past. But my WIP is 3rd person limited, and I’m getting used to it. But it was hard. I’m not sure which “conversion” would be trickier–but going to 3rd person has been weird.

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  5. Paula Huffman says:

    Thank you, Vivi! This is great! I can’t wait for the next installment. When I started writing, I put everything in deep, third person limited, but then I wrote a story that begged to be done in first person present. The transition was tough for me, but now FPP is my POV of choice. I write YA, and it seems to work better in that market than it does in others.

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  6. Addison Fox says:

    Vivi – what an AMAZE-BALLS post. Seriously – this is a freaking class here.

    You rock for putting this together and weaving the lesson so seamlessly!!!!

    Addison

    1+

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