Choosing Points of View for Your Novel

Choosing Points of View for Your Novel

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What point of view should you use for your novel? This has given me some serious problems in the past. An earlier attempt at a thriller failed partly because I couldn’t decide on the point of view. After several chapters in first person, I realized some action would need to happen away from the main character. I tried having the protagonist go over to the other side. The story could continue in first person, but the character was now out of character. I think you see the problem.

My solution at the time was to write the whole thing again in third person. Ultimately, that attempt at a novel failed because I didn’t write a full outline first. My current novel has a full outline and uses both third and first person points of view. There are other points of view. Let’s look at the options.

First Person – I

Writing in first person guarantees access to the main character’s inner thoughts. This is great for showing how the main character comes at the world. It can be difficult to show the difference between the main character’s self image and what others see. Read a Jo Nesbo novel to see how it’s done successfully.

Another drawback of first person is that the reader knows the narrator can’t write about their own death. Yes, there are exceptions like American Beauty and Sin City, but they are rare. First person makes the reader anticipate the protagonist’s survival.

Second Person – You

I don’t know of any novels written in second person. Who would the “you” be? A character that the narrator is writing to about what they’ve done? The reader? Weird.

Second person is a non-fiction point of view. You, the reader, want to learn how to do something and this is how you do it. It’s the only use of this point of view that makes sense. It’s also the POV for most blog posts.

Third Person – Main Character

This is writing about what happened to the protagonist. Their inner life is hidden, but can be shown through their actions and what they say. Their thoughts may also be given, in italic font, provided they are clear sentences and not attempts at psychoanalysis. Few people know themselves well enough for that.

Like first person, you are limited to what happens to the main character. The solution is third person outsider or god mode.

Third Person – Outsider

The narrator is not one of the characters in the story and has no access to their thoughts. They tell the story as if they have interviewed many of the people involved. They may have heard some parts of the story second hand. Dostoevsky’s Demons (aka The Possessed) is a great example of this.

Third Person – God Mode

This is the outsider point of view but the narrator is like we might imagine a god to be. They have access to the inner thoughts of everyone. Many good books have used this point of view. Stephen King uses god mode.

Multiple POV – I and They

When switching point of view, it’s necessary to make some kind of revelation early in each chapter to show who is speaking. The first person chapters only need to use “I”. The third person can reveal themselves because of the difference in the narrators voice.

I mention voice several times in this article. What do I mean by that? It’s the way a person tells a story. A simple way to show two different voices is to have one that uses slang and swear words constantly and another that writes like a professor. Another contrast would be a narrator who writes short action oriented sentences versus one who writes full descriptive sentences. You could also use a positive versus negative world view as two distinctive voices.

Multiple POV – I

You must be able to write with a distinctive voice for each first person narrator or this will fail. I recently read a novel with many first person narrators all writing in the same voice; rich, poor, cops, and crooks all sounded the same. It wasn’t good.

Most books with multiple first person narrators stick with only two and you notice the switch as soon as you start a chapter. The chapters may start with the narrator’s name to help you notice who is talking.

I’ve heard that examples are helpful. How about a couple of paragraphs of narrative as an example of two voices?

That scumbag cop is still there. Another narc at the back, no doubt. I ain’t hurting no one. Not now. Need a new supplier. I ain’t going to jail for nothing. Thinks he’s invisible. He’s wrong. Nothing for it. I’m outta here.

I’m starting to wonder if I’ve been made. Lombard has passed by his supplier’s apartment building four times now. He never looks my way but I feel like he knows I’m here. I told the lieutenant I needed a second detective for this job.

Choosing Your Point of View

When choosing your novel’s point of view or views, consider what is necessary to tell the story. Can you tell the whole story from one point of view? Action that takes place away from your POV character can be told by another character, within limits. If half the story takes place away from the narrator, you need to use multiple POVs. How do you decide before you’re 20,000 words into your manuscript?

When you create an outline of your novel before beginning, you have a quick method of testing points of view. Write the first paragraph or two for several chapters. Try writing the lead paragraphs using different points of view until you find what works.

With a good outline and an effective choice of POV, you are ready to write the rough draft of your manuscript.


Article by Ivan Izo.

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