A good friend of mine, who also loves to write, recently asked me if I’d spend a little time talking about POV. She said she likes to write in first person, but she’s gotten the impression that’s not acceptable. So let’s chat about that storyteller, shall we?
First, let’s make sure we’ve got the definitions down. (And a disclaimer here: these are fairly basic descriptions for the purpose of talking about how to choose.)
A first-person narrator is a character in the story, and they’re telling the story using the pronouns “I, me, we, us, our, my, mine,” etc. In other words, we get the story through their eyes as they see it, feel it, think it, do it. It’s a close method of storytelling—we’re right there with them as the readers. There’s only a page-width’s distance between us and the events of the story.
When you choose third-person narration, you have options. You can choose third-person limited, which is similar to first person in that the story is told basically from the point of view of one character, but not as intimately as with first person. With this POV the reader watches and listens to the events of the story from this character’s perspective, but the reader doesn’t experience them as the character as with first person. This type of narration uses pronouns like “he, she, they, them, their,” etc.
If you choose third-person-multiple POV, then instead of getting the story from one character, you’re getting it from more than one. You’re following several characters through the story and watching and listening to the story from multiple points of view.
Third-person omniscient is the point of view that allows you to write as if you’re God because with this one, you can see and hear absolutely everything. You know—and share with the reader—everything every character is doing and saying and thinking—within reason, of course. When I say “everything,” I mean everything that needs to be shared to propel the story and keep the readers interested.
So with that very basic description (and I’m happy to answer questions about this if you want to email me or leave a question in the comments below), let’s talk about how in the world you pick a POV for your book.
It all boils down to who is the best person—or who are the best people—to tell your story? AND how much do you want your readers to know?
You see, with first person and with third person limited, the reader can know only what that particular character knows, thinks, feels, sees, hears, and does. Think about it like this: Someone steals another person’s iPhone from their hand on a busy city sidewalk. The only person who shares the story is the person who lost the phone. That person could tell the police who they were texting or calling when the phone was taken and even what they were talking about. They could tell the police where they had been prior to the phone being snatched and where they were going. They could tell the police how much they paid for the phone, which carrier they use, and what the phone looked like. MAYBE they could describe the person who took it. Maybe.
Do you see how much of the story would be left out? We have no idea why the thief took the phone. We don’t know if they were stalking the victim, waiting for them to pull out the phone, or if it was right place, right time (for the thief) and wrong place, wrong time (for the victim). We don’t know where the thief ran. We don’t know if this was his or her first theft or 127th.
If the police talked to the many witnesses that saw it happen, think about what else they could learn. Maybe someone got a good look at the thief. Maybe someone even knows the thief. Maybe someone else got hurt as the thief ran into them and knocked them down or knocked them into traffic.
What story do you want to tell? What needs to be kept secret (if anything) from the reader (and from your narrator?) and how can you accomplish that through your choice of POV?
One more important element to consider when you’re choosing your narrator and POV is trust. If you use first person or third person limited, you need to ask yourself if that character is trustworthy. Will they tell the story honestly (albeit through their own personal lens)? Will they twist the story to serve their own needs in some way? Will the readers know they’re twisting it if they do? Is the narrator unreliable and do your readers know that? Is that the kind of story you want to tell?
If you choose to use a multiple POV of some sort, you can really play with trust because then your readers have to sort out for themselves who is honest, who is less so, and who is downright unreliable and dishonest. That can be fun.
POV is a great topic and I’d love to revisit it if this has spawned questions for you that you’d like me to address. Please leave your comments and questions below or send me an email.
We write because we like to tell stories, so choosing our storyteller is critical. That’s one of the myriad of things I can help you with as your editor. Ready to talk about your book—either the one you’ve finished or the one you’re thinking about writing? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me about it. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!