Are you stuck deciding between 3rd-person limited or 1st-person epistolary? Or are you simply trying to decide which point of view would work best for the story you’re telling? Either way, let’s explore each POV and their strengths and weaknesses.
Point Of View – A Definition
Narrative point of view: The position of the narrator in relation to the story.
Simply consider who your narrator is and where they are standing. If they are a character in the story, then that is 1st-person. If they are describing the story about someone else, then that is 3rd-person. If they are communicating events that are occurring directly to the reader, then that is 2nd-person.
1st, 2nd, and 3rd-person each have different strengths and weaknesses. There are also trends within specific genres that may be important to your decision. So be sure to do your research in your chosen genre.
Why Is The Right Point of View So Important
Your POV changes the look and feel of your entire story! Being in a character’s head as they dictate their experiences is different from a 3rd-person perspective. So this decision requires consideration, but don’t get too tied up in deciding. Pick a POV that you enjoy and that serves the story well and get writing. You can always change it later, but in order to hopefully avoid that work of changing it, let’s get into the different POVs and tenses you can use.
1st-Person Point of View
1st-person narratives are “I, me, we” stories. The narrator is a character in the story and things are actively happening to them. This allows you to ground each experience in that person’s mind. With 1st-person stories, usually, the reader experiences the entire story through one character’s eyes. They don’t change narrators as often as with 3rd-person limited, though this does vary greatly by genre.
This POV is most common in Young Adult novels and can be seen in all genres, but it can be very effective for horror (Looking at you Edgar Allan Poe). 1st-person also gives you the chance to add some of your character’s flair to the scene by having them provide commentary to the scene. There are two types of 1st-person narratives that differ by tense, 1st-person present and 1st-person past.
1st-person stories add some immediacy to the story. These kinds of stories are almost like we have a backdoor into the character’s minds as things happen to them. This can help with building suspense as the reader feels the story in the present.
“I step quietly through the hallway, the darkness of the place fills my head with thoughts of creeping things and stalking creatures.”
Using past tense can be used to suggest the illusion that a character is sharing their past experiences. For example, for the majority of The Name of the Wind, the narrator is actually sharing the events of their life. This can sometimes take away from suspense in relation to the narrator’s life because the events have already occurred and they lived to tell the tale. Often suspense can be built by risk to other key characters rather than the narrator themselves.
“I stepped quietly through the hallway, the darkness of the place filled my head with thoughts of creeping things and stalking creatures.”
This is letter writing. If your story is a collection of letters or simply includes notes written from one character to another then you’ve entered 1st person epistolary. This can be a great tool for making the story feel real because these notes are in-world artifacts the reader is now interacting with.
The other night I stepped quietly through the hallway, the darkness of the place filled my head with thoughts of creeping things and stalking creatures.”
3rd-Person Point of View
3rd-person stories are “he, she, they” stories. The narrator is somewhat distanced from the current events of the story. This allows you to mention things that the characters don’t see, or to explore the thoughts of multiple characters. Typically, stories with multiple POV characters are written in 3rd-person as the distance of the narrator allows for a smoother transition from one character’s perspective to another. This POV can also be found in all genres, but is more common for high fantasy and sci-fi, though that definitely isn’t a rule.
There are two main types of 3rd-person POV, Limited and Omniscient:
This means the Narrator’s knowledge is limited, usually by the knowledge of the character whose perspective is portrayed. This type of POV is great for jumping from multiple perspectives between chapters. This also allows your scenes to be colored by a character’s perspective.
“She stepped quietly through the hallway, the darkness of the place filled her head with thoughts of creeping things and stalking creatures.”
You can use present tense to provide more immediacy.
“She steps quietly through the hallway, the darkness of the place fills her head with thoughts of creeping things and stalking creatures.”
This one is less used nowadays. 3rd omniscient takes a practiced hand to pull off. If done wrong it can be ruinous to the pace and voice of the story. But for those who learn this subtle art, it is a great tool to point out key details that characters miss or to dig into multiple characters’ heads while in the same scene. If you choose this POV tread carefully and deliberately.
Omniscient has strengths for really immersing your reader in the moment. They will be able to fully grasp the different emotions and motivations of the present characters.
“She stepped quietly through the hallway, the darkness of the place filling her head with thoughts of creeping things and stalking creatures. The man in the shadows smiled menacingly, gripping the knife.”
You can use present tense to provide more immediacy.
“She steps quietly through the hallway, the darkness of the place filling her head with thoughts of creeping things and stalking creatures. The man in the shadows smiles menacingly, gripping the knife.”
2nd-Person Point of View
This one is a challenge and is rarely used for the entirety of a work. 2nd-person stories are “you, you’re, y’all” stories. This method essentially casts the reader as a character in the story. There are interesting ways to use this tense, but they are not as straightforward as the other POV options.
The easiest examples are Choose Your Own Adventure stories. Other uses include some kind of note to the reader, such as “If you’re reading this then…” 2nd-person can add some really interesting dynamics to stories, but be sure to use it with care. This is also usually in the present tense because otherwise, you are telling people about something that happened to them that you wrote. (Which actually could be really cool. If you write a story in 2nd-person past tense, send it to me. I want to read about my supposed past that I don’t remember.)
“You step quietly through the hallway, the darkness of the place filling your head with thoughts of creeping things and stalking creatures. The man in the shadows smiles menacingly, gripping the knife.”
Multiple Narrative Points of View
This can be extremely effective or extremely jarring to the reader. To clarify, having multiple narrative points of view is different than having multiple character points of view. If the whole book is 3rd-person limited but you change perspective from the hero to the villain, there is still only one narrative point of view.
A great example of this is The Martian by Andy Weir. The majority of the book is in 1st-person past, but from time to time it shifts to 3rd-person omniscient. These special chapters often explain scientific processes that occur outside our hero Mark Watney’s understanding. The readers learn why the next bad thing is going to happen and exactly what effect it is going to have. This provides a great deal of dread when the narrative POV shifts because it conditions the readers to know this spells trouble. But we also get the great snarky humor of Watney describing his own harrowing situation.
Common Point of View Mistakes
A common mistake early writers make is they change up what tense they are using. This can be really distracting and difficult to manage. Be sure to know what tense you are using, and if you make any tense changes, be sure that it works with the context of the story.
If you are writing a 3rd-person limited story that has been following one character the whole time, it can be really jarring to jump out of their head and point out that they didn’t catch that the butler was concealing a knife. Breaking POV can be an effective tool but take special care before doing so.
This one is probably the most common. As writers, we sometimes love to make lists rather than decisions. We list the conflicts we might include, and the characters we want to write, and the settings we want to explore. Sometimes we can read an article like this and put off deciding which POV to use. We all want to make the right choice but if you just pick one and start writing you will find ways in which it helps your story, and you can change it later if it really needs it.
It can be helpful to keep track of who your characters are and who’s eyes you are seeing through. Dabble’s character notes feature allows you to keep track of each character and how they see and react to different parts of the story.
Point of View is an important component of story structure, and this list will hopefully help you decide which of the options is best for you. Most of all, try things out! Test each one of these with a cool scene from your new project and see which one you like best. I personally like to add some snarky interpretations to my stories with 1st-person. Some of my other larger projects work better with 3rd-person limited so I can switch characters more naturally. As you practice a bit with each of them, you’ll find what works best for you. Get writing!