What Is POV And Why Does It Matter

What Is POV And Why Does It Matter

I’ve touched on the subject of POV (Point Of View) a few times in the blog here, if you check my backlog. Notably, I brougth it up in context of a discussion on head hopping a little while ago, but I realized I’ve not apparently discussed it at length, and that should change since it’s a thing I’ve noticed is a common and significant struggle for a lot of writers who are just starting out.

In school, we are taught about “person” in terms of language. I, you, he/she/them–first, second, third.

E. Prybylski.

In school, we are taught about “person” in terms of language. I, you, he/she/them–first, second, third. Right? Okay. With that refresher out of the way, let’s take a look at the way these are related to POV. The first thing is, there are (more or less) four types of POV in writing and they mostly coincide with person. You have first person POV, second person POV (used rarely and almost exclusively in chose-your-own-adventure-style stories), third person limited POV, and third person omniscient POV. The last two are the stickiest, so we’ll address them after we handle the first two.

First Person

First person is simple enough. It’s written in (as the name implies) first person. The Dresden Files books are like this. As are To Kill A Mockingbird and Moby Dick. It’s written from the deep and exclusive perspective of the POV character. Typically there is only one POV character in books like this, though there might be two. With it being first person, you aren’t using the characters’ names to differentiate between who is what and where, so it can be more confusing to have multiple POV characters. I’m not telling you you’re not allowed to do it, but definitely have caution.

Writing in first person is pretty easy. It’s all from the “I” perspective, and you don’t really run into the temptation to switch POVs because the narrative style just doesn’t have room for that.

E. Prybylski

Writing in first person is pretty easy. It’s all from the “I” perspective, and you don’t really run into the temptation to switch POVs because the narrative style just doesn’t have room for that. So, for that reason, it can be simpler than the thirds. Though it does require a deep degree of knowledge and intimacy with your character(s), so make sure you’re prepared for that when you get into it.

I like writing in first person because it gives me a deep degree of intimacy with my characters, and it lets me create that intimacy in the reader. Of course, emotional journeys and such are a big part of my writing, so getting as up-close and personal as possible with my characters lets me do that.

Second Person

Second person is, as stated above, used with rarity. Typically it is used in short literary stories, erotica, or choose-your-own-adventure style novels. I don’t advise its use in novel format because it’s also very “telling” and kind of puts the reader into the shoes of the character in a different way. It would be difficult to use effectively for a long work. I’ve never heard of it being done, anyway, and I don’t think it would be effective.

Now into the difficult ones that folks struggle with.

Third Person Limited

This POV is starting to get stickier. Third peron limited (TPL) is much like first person, except you are using different pronouns. With TPL, thoughts are typically written in italics when they’re written like dialogue. (Gee, Edwin thought, this POV stuff is complicated.) If POV is a camera through whose lens we see the world, TPL is perched on top of the POV character’s head (where first person is through their eyes exactly). With third person limited, we know ONLY what the POV character knows and nothing else. At all. Ever.

If POV is a camera through whose lens we see the world, third person limited is perched on top of the POV character’s head.

E. Prybylski.

This is the POV from which the vast majority of modern novels are written. You may have multiple POV characters (whose POV must be separated by a scene or chapter break), but you are in one character’s head at a time, and you cannot know things outside what they see, know, or experience. This means you cannot write a scene between two characters and tell the reader what they’re both thinking. That habit is called head-hopping, and I refer to it in another blog. It’s confusing for readers and likely to cause literary whiplash. While it happens in certain genres (romance most notably), it’s not a good practice to get into.

If you need to be in multiple characters’ heads at once, then that brings us to the last type of POV.

Third Person Omniscient

While it has fallen out of favor in many circles, third person omnisicent (TPO) was a very common POV some time ago (mostly Victorian and a little after). If the camera is perched on top of the POV character’s head in TPL, in TPO it is hovering above the world like watching a battle shot in Lord of the Rings. You can see the bad guys hiding in ambush around the corner if the camera pans that way. You can see all the main characters at once. You’re not really deep in any of them, but you know what they’re thinking.

This style of writing still has a place in the world, and it’s how a number of book series that are widely-beloved are written. The Lord of the Rings books were written in TPO, as was the Harry Potter series (as much as I try to avoid that as an example these days, it’s widly-known and a good example of this POV). You aren’t following any one character too closely, and the story is often about a small group whose thoughts and actions you are always aware of. Ultimately, it’s kind of about narrative distance. With the camera analogy, you’re further away in this POV than you are in TPL.

Third person omniscient tends to have more “tell” than show in some ways. I’m not saying it’s bad by any stretch, but it is different.

E. Prybylski

Now, there are a couple flavors of TPO which further confuses things. There’s the kind where you have an external narrator, as in A Series of Unfortunate Events, where the story is being told as though in an oral tradition by a person who interjects their thoughts, opinions, and views into the narrative. Then you have it where there’s just a great deal of narrative distance. Ultimately, TPO tends to have more “tell” than show in some ways. I’m not saying it’s bad by any stretch, but it is different. If you want your story to be more arm’s length to your characters then it may be a good POV for you.

Can You Mix POVs?

This is where things can get messy. The short answer is…sort of. I’ve read books where there are break-in chapters written as journal entries by the antagnist. Those entries were quite effective, and they really set those bits of the story apart from the others by doing this. However, that’s about the only way I can think that changing POVs from third to first and back would be a good idea.

The place it gets awfully difficult is between TPL and TPO. A lot of writers drift between the two at random without really settling, and that’s an issue. If you write mostly in TPL and have a chapter or scene in TPO it can work, but note the thing here: you must have some kind of break between POV characters and POV styles. Mixing them without that break is a huge no-no. It’ll give readers whiplash, and it’ll damage your narrative. If you need to have a character guess at another character’s thoughts while in TPL, you can have them observe body language or use what they know of the character. Heck, they might even be wrong.

If you need to have a character guess at another character’s thoughts while in third person limited, you can have them observe body language or use what they know of the character.

E. Prybylski

What’s The Best POV For My Book?

This isn’t a question I can answer without knowing more about your story. Short of mixing POVs badly, there’s no real right or wrong answer here (except maybe second person) for most applications. A lot of that is up to your personal taste as a writer. Some genres tend to be more one style of POV than another, but there’s no one-size-fits-all category here, so choose which one you like the best and have at it.

The key here, however, is to be consistent. Outside of changing scenes or chapters (with a break in between, to be clear) you should choose a POV and stick with it. A lot of new writers find the idea of not telling the reader what’s going on in everyone’s head at once daunting, but you don’t need to in order to tell your story. Trust me. We humans walk around all day without a psychic link telling us what everyone is thinking at all times (and thank God for that). If you want to write in TPO, that’s okay. But make sure you do it with intentionality. The narrative distance from your characters and your story will have an impact on the way the story is told. And it will change your story some.

Some genres tend to be more one style of POV than another, but there’s no one-size-fits-all category here, so choose which one you like the best and have at it.

E. Prybylski

While there’s no wrong answer in general, your story may be better served by a specific kind of POV over another. Romance, for example, is typically told in TPL or first because we want to get deep and intimate with the characters. A spy novel that is more focused on the big-picture politics might be best told in TPO (I’m thinking Fist of God-style novels). While you certainly could tell those stories in other ways and with other POVs, they will have an imact on the way these stories come out. So it’s worth really considering before you start writing.

Of course, you can always go back later and try rewriting it in another POV style if you don’t like what you wrote the first time, but you will probably figure out whether a narrative style is working for you pretty early on, so chances of you deciding to rewrite it from the ground up is relatively slim. I say relatively because I have several friends and clients who have done it because they weren’t satisfied with a project after finishing. It happens sometimes, but it’s not something you’ll deal with constantly.

Ultimately, POV is a complex choice, but it’s not usually a difficult one. Most writers know roughly what they want to write in before they start writing, and a lot of that comes on instinct. Just make sure that when you are writing in a POV you do so with intentionality and don’t just jump around POVs because you aren’t sure what to do. That’s when things get dicey. As with many things in writing, your choice of POVs is a decision. It’s not just something you do based on vague ideas on gut instinct. While you might follow your gut instinct on what POV you want to use (and I won’t tell you not to), you should study it enough that you can evaluate why you’re having that gut feeling. And it sometimes takes work. Be mindful you’re not slipping from POV to POV.

As an editor, helping writers sort out their POV is something I’ve had to do a lot of. And since it can require such high-level work (as in all-encompassing and a lot of rewrites) it behoves you to understand it and save yourself the time and cost of having a professional cull it out for you. Having someone like me fix those problems can be expensive. While I absolutely am equipped to do it, and if you want to pay me to fix it I will, it can tack on hundreds of extra dollars to a job in billable time, so learning how POV works can save you a lot of trouble.

Don’t get me wrong–if you’re still struggling to understand it and have questions and want help, let me know. That’s what I’m here for. I want to help you. I’m not going to talk down to you for not understanding it. Not at all. But learning it before you hire someone and fixing it on your own if you can is definitely going to save you money and headaches in the long run!

Also, no judgement if you’re one of my authors who’s wrestled with it. I got’chu, friend. It’s okay. We don’t wake up one day as writing experts, and it’s my job to help you as best I can. Plus, I love doing it. (And I love you. You folks are the best. <3)

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