Writing Masterclass: Point of View and Perspective
Which POV of view should you use? How many? How often? Should you be writing in first person, third person… or even third?
The easy answer is “whatever works for your story” but how do you know what that is, especially if you’re new to writing?
I have fourteen books under my belt now, and still this question plagues me every time. The one I’m most comfortable with is 1st person, present tense… which is my least favourite to read but feels the most natural to write. I slip into this other character’s head and write them like an actor performing a role. But sometimes, this isn’t what’s best for the story. Perhaps I need a reflective narrator. Perhaps I’m using multiple POV and know jumping in and out of people’s heads will be difficult. Perhaps I want to mimic a certain style or genre.
I started “Of Snow and Scarlet” in the 3rd person, as I knew parts of the story needed to be told from the LI’s POV. But 30% in, something wasn’t quite clicking. I switched to first and suddenly everything fell into place. The narrative was smoother, slicker, more emotional. I knew the MC better.
I still kept the LI’s POV chapters in 3rd. They were all flashbacks, so it worked. I employed something similar in my Little Mermaid retelling. In this story, I knew from the start that the MC had to be 1st person, because she literally loses her voice. It was imperative that I returned this to her, but I also knew that two other perspectives were required to tell the story. The general advice is not to mix perspectives, but there were zero concerns from my beta readers. Diana Galbadon’s “Outlander” series does the same, with only Clare being 1st person despite several other POV characters. Lydia Russell’s “Far Beneath the Wicked Woods” has two first person perspectives and a 3rd, the villain’s, in 3rd. It works perfectly, showing the distance between Niven and the reader. It would feel entirely too strange to be too far inside her head.
I’m mindful of lists of “dos and do nots” because there’s always an exception that pulls it off. I would say, if you’re new to the game—listen to the advice. I’ve heard many people say, “but x does y and they’re a best-seller!” without realising that x wrote four novels first and have spent 12 years perfecting the craft. You have to know why something works and doesn’t work before attempting. That, alas, just takes practice!
Lots of POVs can make it hard for the readers to identify with the characters and form a connection. It can also slow down the plot. “Game of Thrones” features numerous POVs and is often used to rebuke this rule, but most people don’t realise that despite the different POVs, they’re all moving towards the same plot, and each chapter isn’t to introduce a concept or set-up, but to move towards something cohesive. I once read a multi-pov story that I DNF because 100 pages in we were still being introduced to characters, there was no clear plot, and all the stories seemed separate.
Similarly, a lot of first person POVs can be incredibly jarring. The preferred number seems to be no more than three. All voices should be distinct and it should be clear who’s speaking. First person should have a subtitle at the start of their segment. 3rd person can usually get away with using the POV character’s name in the first sentence. (Cassandra Clare does this well in The Last Hours)
If you’re switching POVs, ask yourself why. Is it adding to the story in a meaningful way, progressing the plot etc?
I tend to steer away from omnipotent 3rd person, where the narrator seems to know everything about everyone. It’s very hard to do successfully and too often results in head-hopping which throws you in and out of the story like a yo-yo. Think very carefully about using this one; it’s much easier for the reader just to adopt multi-POV in designated chapters.
At the end of the day, do what feels right for you and your story—just make sure you have your reasons!