Point of view (PoV) is how a story is narrated, usually through the eyes of a main character. If writers are doing PoV right, it shouldn’t even be noticeable, it fades into the background. But when it’s done wrong, it’s a slap in the face. First-time authors don’t give PoV the attention it deserves. They treat it like the short kid when picking basketball teams during P.E. because there are better athletes of storytelling: setting, character, and plot. But we need the short kid to have a full team, and ignoring PoV is like not having a full team. Viewpoint is important because it affects how the story is told and the connections readers feel with the characters.
Let’s define a few terms:
- First-person–Uses “I” to tell the story. Not used as often as third-person because it isn’t as flexible, but when done right is fun to read (prevalent in thrillers, YA, Urban Fantasy, and the ramblings of narcissists).
- Second-person–Uses “you” to tell the story (Choose Your Own Adventure, RPG adventure primers, technical manuals, and lectures from your parents).
- Third-person–Refers to “he” and “she” to tell the story. Most commonly used viewpoint in SF&F (as well as Vulcan mind melds). Styles include “limited” (one head per scene) and “omniscient” (sees and knows everything within a story).
- Alternating viewpoint–When you just have to be in everybody’s business. Switches viewpoints between characters within a story (i.e., first-person for one character, third-person limited for others…seen most recently in RESIDUE! First-person PoV alternating viewpoints appear in books narrated via letters, such as DRACULA).
The Short Kid Is Telling Your Story
The characters you choose to tell the story affects how the story is told. The story of a monster under the bed is vastly different when told from the viewpoint of a child versus the mother versus the monster. This is why, for example, Mary Stewart’s THE CRYSTAL CAVE was so cutting-edge when it was published in 1970. The PoV was narrated by Merlin, who is usually a secondary character to Arthur. As a result, readers learned more about Merlin than the usual Arthurian legends told, which was a great draw.
When books depart from the cliché then readers will notice and it can change the tone of your story or lead it in a different direction. For example, PALADIN OF SOULS by Lois McMaster Bujold is told from the point of view of a middle-aged widow–not your typical heroine–who others believe should be sitting in front of a fire knitting, but instead she has the overwhelming desire to escape her life of luxury. We feel her urgency from page one and are carried along in her adventure.
The character you choose to narrate the story also affects the readers and their ability to relate to the story. I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER by Dan Wells is about a sociopath, a mental condition that most of us don’t experience. And yet how the narrator John Cleaver tells the story from his viewpoint–his observations and narration of events–help us understand his experience. It’s his internal struggle that captivates us, because we all struggle in some way, even if we aren’t sociopaths ourselves.
The kind of story you’re writing also affects who tells the story. For example, epic fantasy uses multiple characters, and third-person makes the most sense in this case because of the scope of the story–using a large cast of multiple first-person narrators would be confusing. Look at WAY OF KINGS by Brandon Sanderson, for instance. It has a handful of major characters told in third-person limited: Kaladin, Dalinar, Shallan, Adolin, and Szeth. These are the central characters of the story, around whom the bulk of the plot rotates. Occasionally secondary characters have an important viewpoint readers need conveyed–in this case there are about a dozen–but for the majority of the novel the story is told from a few main viewpoints.
Here’s where The Great Self-published Fantasy Blog-off entries got dicey. Sometimes we didn’t understand why certain characters were chosen to narrate. If we can’t relate to your main characters, we need to see their flaws and internal struggle. If your main characters spend too long clueless about what’s going on, choose a narrator with a brain. If your character is like the many characters we’ve read before, find a unique PoV. If your characters feel the need to tell buckets of back story, remind yourself: would any normal person say/think something like this on a regular day? On my trip to Target do I think of the life history of the car that I drove there? No, I’m thinking about my shopping list and maybe listening to the radio on the way. Your characters are regular people in extraordinary situations. They need to narrate it that way.
The Short Kid Has Better Style Than You
The viewpoint style has a major impact on how readers relate with characters, which is why first-person and third-person limited are so widely used. Authors use these viewpoints to tell the story via the characters–what they’re experiencing, their thoughts, their opinions, some knowledge about what’s happening–and the result is readers getting to know the characters at an intimate level. This is where connection takes place. Readers will continue a story if they understand and care about the characters. In HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS the pacing and plot are a hot mess, but because we love Harry, Hermione, Ron, et al we keep reading. Third-person limited takes discipline, though, because it forces authors to narrate the story through one character’s eyes at a time. This is where a beta reader will help you stay on task.
Another big problem we found with the Blog-off books is how omniscient was used. Third-person omniscient gets a bad rap because most times people don’t realize they’re using it. The story will be primarily told in the third-person limited and then the author will mistakenly go omniscient. It’s brutal because of expectations. The reason it doesn’t work is because the shift from character to character is not clearly done or there’s no transition. Good authors who use omniscient won’t jump heads mid-paragraph. It’s like a reader is a cat chasing a laser pointer–and then the author points the red dot at the ceiling. Don’t treat your readers like the cat. Good writers wait until a full thought is complete, switch paragraphs, give a transition, and then tell us what’s in the other head. There are many classic SF&F writers who use this style to great effect, such as Frank Herbert in DUNE and Robert A. Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND.
Third-person omniscient is highly prevalent in Horror–and it can work if you do it right. Look at Robert McCammon (see EBR’s review of SWAN SONG). Many of his classics are told in the omniscient PoV, but you know that going in. It takes a deft hand to steer the narrative in a clear and concise manner when using this narrative form. If you can’t pull it off with expertise, don’t even bother. Poor handling of omniscient will make us put the book down after a chapter.
The Short Kid May Become Your MVP
There is a cost to each PoV. Good writers understand what they lose when they pick one. Third person cinematic doesn’t allow for inner dialog. First person draws in some readers right away, but is less flexible when telling the story. Second person annoys everyone after ten pages. Good writers try to mitigate those costs.
What this all amounts to is practice, and reading the authors out there that do it right. Are you reading the types of books that use the narrative style you want to use in your writing? You should. Are you practicing that style and having people read it to make sure you are doing right? You should. Think of PoV the same way Beatrice Ward does about typography: a good font is like a crystal goblet, beautiful but invisible. The story’s PoV should make the story easier to read, not harder–which was one of the major pitfalls of some of the books we received for the Self-Pubbed Blog-Off.
We want to love the characters in your story. We want to feel their joys and sorrows. Experience their adventures as though we’re there with them. And perhaps we can discover that the short kid has a great free-throw arm, after all.
A few books worth looking at if you need more information: