Gail Anderson-Dargatz  

Resources for Writers

On Deciding on Point of View

Point of view (POV) is the eye or camera lens through which the reader views the story. For a writer, choosing what point of view is right for your project can be difficult. Maintaining it can be even harder. And if you find you have to change the point of view of your story half-way in, you have to change everything. Changing POV means a full rewrite. So, you really want to give it some careful thought from the start.
Broadly, your choices when it comes to point of view are:
First person: I flew off in a spacecraft.
Second person: You flew off in a spacecraft.
Third person: She flew off in a spacecraft.
Head SwapingWe’ll look at each point of view in more depth below. But first, let’s talk a little about the importance of choosing the right POV for your project from the start.
I originally wrote my literary novel A Recipe for Bees from the character Rose's point of view. But another character, Augusta, was my protagonist; the story was about her. Rose was her friend who had a limited view into Augusta’s life. And yet I had chosen to write the story from Rose’s POV. While you don’t necessarily have to follow the protagonist’s POV to tell a story, Rose couldn’t offer the depth of perspective that Augusta, who had lived the events, could. So, Rose wasn’t a great choice as a POV character. What was I thinking? Predictably my editor pointed out the problem. My immediate feeling was exhaustion. Again, a change in point of view changes everything in a project, so what I was facing was a complete rewrite of the novel. But my editor was right. I had kept the reader at arm’s length from the action of the novel by writing Augusta's story from Rose's point of view. Ugh. So, I got to work and rewrote the novel from top to bottom from Augusta's point of view. Believe it or not, I got that next draft written in about six weeks. The book went on to be a finalist for the Giller Prize, and I'm still proud of that book, but geeze I wished I'd started writing the darn thing from Augusta's point of view in the first place.
So, the moral of the story? Choose your point of view and POV narrator carefully. In my case, the novel really was about Augusta, so it needed to be told from her perspective. This could have been accomplished either through a first or third person narrative. I chose the third person limited POV, which follows the actions, thoughts and feelings of just one character, as opposed to omniscient (or all-knowing), which follows the actions, thoughts and feelings of many characters within the story.
IggysWorld3Sometimes choosing POV is confusing (or we make it confusing!), as in my example above. Other times it’s an easy choice. For example, in my novel Iggy’s World, the story is about Iggy, a guy who loves bugs and wants to be accepted for who he is. It made sense to tell the story from his point of view as, obviously, it's his story. It’s also a middle school novel, which are largely, but not always, written in first person. And the novel is all about Iggy’s podcast. So, I chose a first person POV for that novel, viewing the world from inside his head as he records events from his own life for his podcast.
Deciding on your narrator's point of view is often a matter of experimentation. Very early in a project, I'll take a passage written in one point of view and try it in another, to see which works better for my story, as in my examples below. And, as in the case of my novel, A Recipe for Bees, it might be necessary to write the whole project from one point of view and then change it to another. For example, if you're writing a story about an event that happened to you personally, it may be necessary to write the initial drafts in the third person, to gain some distance from the material and allow it to transform into fiction. Once you've done that, you may want to rewrite it as first person to achieve the effect you're after.

Again, simplified, your choices when it comes to point of view are:
First person: I flew off in a spacecraft.
Second person: You flew off in a spacecraft.
Third person: She flew off in a spacecraft.

POV First PersonFirst Person:

First person is cool because we get right under the skin of the character, seeing and feeling what they experience, almost first-hand. Writers often say that first person gives their story "immediacy," meaning we're right there inside the protagonist. We identify with the first person POV closely. A lot, if not most young adult (YA) novels are written in the first person. Chances are your project will be too as most apprentice writers begin their careers working in first person. It's generally easier for newbie writers to understand and use.
First person has some downsides, though. It can lead to the overuse of interior monologue and exposition as, again, we're inside the protagonist's head and they are telling us about what they are going through. In other words, there is a tendency with first person to fall into the trap of telling, rather than showing. First person narratives can also suffer from "I, I, I" syndrome, where the narrative is littered with "I did this," and "I felt that," leaving the reader thinking the narrating protectonist is all about "me, me, me." You know that friend of yours who only posts selfies? Yeah, that. As the link below points out, the trick here is to get rid of the overuse of "I" through word choice, and to focus on what's happening outside the protagonist's head. But, of course, getting the protagonist's thoughts first-hand is one of the appeals of the first person POV.
Here's an example of first person POV from the opening of my middle school novel Iggy's World:
Testing, testing. One, two, three. Is the mic on my phone working? Check, check. I'll have to keep my voice down. My dad's filming a show right now. I'm recording this podcast just off the set.
     Here we go! Welcome to Iggy's World.
     Hi! I'm your host, Iggy Zambini, and you're listening to episode one of Iggy's World, a podcast about insects. I know, I know. Insects make your skin crawl. But don't tune out yet. This podcast isn't just about bugs. For example, today I'm recording this from the set of the sci-fi web series Great Big Bugs in Space. Because, you know, the show is about great big bugs in space.
Here's How to Write First Person POV.

POV Second PersonSecond Person:

Most apprentice writers take a stab at second person somewhere along the road. I have. It can make for some interesting effects on the page.
But working with second person is troublesome because at best it can sound like stage directions (“you take three steps across the room”) and at worst like orders (“You jump off the bridge”). Your reader will not want to be told what to do (especially if it’s to jump off a bridge!). If it’s clear that the story is about someone else, say, a younger self, or in the case of a story I wrote, my mother (so "I" was putting myself in the shoes of "my mother") then you can pull it off. But it’s very hard to sustain for long and I don't recommend it for a novel project. Second person often annoys the reader and that's always a bad idea. But it's always worth experimenting. Play!
Here's that example from Iggy's World rewritten in the second person:

Testing, testing. One, two, three. Is the mic on your phone working? Check, check. You'll have to keep your voice down. Your dad's filming a show right now. You're recording this podcast just off the set.
     Here you go! Say it: Welcome to Iggy's World.
     You're the host, Iggy Zambini, and somebody out there, somewhere, is listening to episode one of Iggy's World, your podcast about insects. You know insects make people's skin crawl. But you tell them: don't tune out yet. This podcast isn't just about bugs. For example, today you're recording this from the set of the sci-fi web series Great Big Bugs in Space. Because, of course, the show is about great big bugs in space.
Hmm. I don't think I like that. It changes the tone, doesn't it? Makes it sort of ... sad, or something. Given my project is about a kid recording a podcast about his life, the second person doesn't fit at all.

Here's What Does it Mean to Write from a Second Person Point of View?

POV Third PersonThird Person:

Third person POV can be the all-knowing viewpoint that gets into the minds of all the characters (frequently used in the past; less used today). That's third person omniscient.
Or third person POV can see the world from just one character's perspective (more used today). That's third person limited.
Either way, the narrative perspective is a bit distanced. It's like the viewpoint is watching events over the shoulder of the character. Here's a section of that example from my middle school novel Iggy's World rewritten in third person limited:
Iggy tested the mike. "One, two, three." Is the mic on the phone working, he wondered? "Check, check." He would have to keep his voice down as his Dad was filming a show right then. Iggy was recording his podcast just off the set.
     "Here we go!" said Iggy, into his phone mic. "Welcome to Iggy's World. I'm your host, Iggy Zambini, and you're listening to epidode one of Iggy's World.
You'll see in this example that, just as you can in first person and second person, you can still listen in to the character's thoughts. It's just that the point of view is standing back a little. To keep Iggy's voice, I used dialogue. That's because the third person POV voice is different from the character's voice.
Third person wasn't right for Iggy's World  because Iggy was recording his story, as it happened, as a podcast. So first person was a much better fit. But I still find third person limited the most versitile point of view and used it in my literary novel The Spawning Grounds, largely because that novel was a multiple POV project. Third person allows for seemless jumps from one character's POV to another. And third person offers that outside perspective which in many ways gives us a deeper understanding of character. Think of it this way: in real life, we often have a clearer perspective on others than we do about ourselves. In the same way, third person allows the reader to step back and view the character with a bit of detachment, to see what they are really about, from the outside. With first person, we're often limited to what the character is willing to reveal, or admit, about themselves.
Third person also gives the writer more freedom to choose the style and tone of the prose as we aren't limited to the character's voice as we are in first person, where the character is telling their own story. In short, the prose can be a whole lot prettier than how the character talks. And when it comes to process, third person is especially useful when an author writes from personal material; it gives the writer the necessary distance to transform that story into fiction.
On the downside, that narrative distance means we don't get the up-close-and-personal experience of first person. And, of course, third person can lead to the head-hopping problem you'll see discussed in lesson two of this unit. Even when using third person limited, following just one character, it's easy to accidently drift into another POV when using third person.

Here's The Basics of Point of View for Fiction Writers from Jane Friedman. Check out what Jane says in the bottom paragraph about how the kind of project you're writing dictates point of view.

And check out deep point of view, which offers the advantages of both first and third person point of view.

Swapping Heads BackYou don’t have to stick to one point of view to write a novel or short story. You can write from two or more points of view. Sometimes that means alternating point of view chapters, where we get character A’s POV in one chapter, then character B’s POV, back to character A and so on. Other times we can write more than one point of view within the same chapter. Either way, writing a multiple POV narrative is tricky and takes a lot of skill, but you can learn how to do it, especially if you take the time to study multiple-POV stories by other authors.

When working with any kind of multiple POV narrative, transitions are so very important. You really need to make it clear to the reader that you’re switching to a new point of view. A common problem when shifting POV is head-hopping, where we jump from one character’s head to another within the same scene or even within the same paragraph. As the link below suggests, head-hopping is one of the most common problems writers face. So, even in a multiple POV narrative, you want to focus on just one POV at a time.
My approach in The Spawning Grounds, for example, was to stick to one point of view per chapter, for the most part. When I had two points of view within the same chapter, I sometimes indicated the change in point of view with a space and then made it clear which POV we were now following. Example really is the best teacher. Look at the books on your bookshelf and you’ll likely find multiple POV narratives there. Read carefully to see how the author accomplished the transitions between points of view.
Want to know more? Here's Most Common Writing Mistakes: Head-hopping.

Resource Categories

Blogs on Craft

On the Building Blocks of Fiction

Tips on how to craft vivid scene that allows the reader to experience events right along with the characters.

On Finding Your Big Idea

Insights into the writing process and what a writer's day really looks like, as well as perspectives on research and writing from real life.

On Getting to Know Your Characters

Advice on the many ways you can make your characters come alive on the page for both you and your reader.

On Deciding on Point of View

What is the best perspective from which to tell your story? Writers discuss how they made choices on point of view and voice.

On Choosing Your Situation and Setting

Writers talk about how they use situation and setting to build story and convey emotion.

On Developing Conflict and Structure

From how to work in different genres to finding the real story, writers offer good advice on building conflict and structure.

On Revising

Tips on how to gain distance from your work and to how to re-imagine your next draft.

On Publishing

Writers offer practical advice on the business of writing and promotion, and on the importance of finding a writing community.

On Making a Living as a Writer

Writers offer words of wisdom on living on less.

On The Writer's Life

Writers talk about their life as a writer.

About Gail

Gail's novels have been national and international bestsellers and two have been short-listed for the Giller Prize, among other awards. She works with writers from around the world on her online teaching forums.