Making a start
It’s all so simple, right? You have a story sketched out, you already know the characters, you’ve got a great idea for an ending. So, let’s just start...
But, woah there, hang on. So you start writing and let’s say you’re writing in third-person POV – he said, she said, they thought. Things are ticking along nicely. From here, you can jump from this character to that one and back again because third-person let’s you do that, right?
Well, yes, technically it can... But is that really the most effective way to tell your particular story? And what if readers get confused jumping from one person’s viewpoint to another? What if you get confused and start inadvertently switching between points of view? What if there is no one character your reader can empathise with and the story is shaping up to have less impact than you thought it would? Arghhh...
Stop for a minute and think.
If you wrote two books, each with the same storyline but from a different point of view, you would end up with two very different books. Likely, one will be more effective than the other. As I’m sure you don’t want to try this in order to find which version you’d prefer, it’s imperative you take time at the start of your project to determine which will work best for you and your book. Once you've committed, it'll be hard to turn back. Think carefully through each of the options, keeping your characters and storyline in mind. Imagine how your story might be interpreted differently with each style.
Where does the reader stand: Inside the narrator’s head
Useful for: Character-focused narratives
First-person is one character’s viewpoint. It’s personal, up-close, and usually – but not always – the main protagonist. Your reader will get pretty familiar with the narrator-character and this should help build empathy across the invisible divide. The reader has intimate access to the character's thought processes and opinions.
But, the reader only has this character's viewpoint to go by. This person could turn out to be biased, a liar or untrustworthy maybe, all of which can add an interesting perspective to your story if this is your intention. Unreliable narrators are great but hard work - they must be presented in such a way that the reader understands the space between what is being said and what is reality or truth. On the other hand, this narrator-character may be just as normal as you or I (you are normal, right?), but events conspire to send this person on a journey that could best be described through an intimate - first-person - portrayal.
There can be more than one first-person viewpoint in a novel. Perhaps your story has multiple voices, allowing your reader to make a whole host of intimate connections, and see events unfold from a myriad of standpoints. Be careful, though, too many voices and careless ‘head-hopping’ will have your reader in a spin and will likely put them off altogether. If you’re going to have more than one first-person viewpoint, handle them with care and clarity. Alternating chapters is a commonly used technique for switching between points of view.
Third-person subjective (limited/multiple POV)
Where does the reader stand: Outside a character’s head but with access to their thoughts, feelings and experiences
Useful for: Character-driven narratives
This is either one character’s viewpoint (limited) or multiple key characters' viewpoints, told from a hidden narrator’s perspective. There is still an intimate connection between character and reader, but with a little extra distance to allow the reader a broader perspective. From this position, the reader can witness both the inner and outer personas of the character - what they think versus what they actually say; how they feel versus how they present themselves. Using limited POV you will be restricted in your movement around scenes and settings, but will be able to create a focused and intimate account for your reader. Using Multiple POV, you will have the advantage of telling the story from different angles, e.g. the killer versus the detective, although you will need to make clear at all times whose viewpoint is taking centre stage and when (again, alternating chapters is a common and effective technique).
Where does the reader stand: Outside the characters’ heads, as observer of all characters and action at any time
Useful for: Plot-driven narratives
This is the least intimate viewpoint, and thus you may have to work harder to gain your reader’s empathy for the characters. Whilst you have greater movement to pass between scenes and events here, without intimate thought access you will need to connect your reader to your characters through dialogue, action and description. In other words, your readers will need to draw their own conclusions based on what they observe to be happening before them, or on the way the narrator guides them.
Where does the reader stand: Outside the characters' heads and alongside the narrator
Useful for: Using the narrator as an additional character, or a simple relaying of events
An omniscient narrator is identified as all-seeing and all-knowing. This narrator has access to all events and all characters' thoughts in your story and thus can move about at will. They may have a personality of their own, injecting the narrative with their own opinions, or they may take a step back, merely informing you how events unfolded. Personally, I think omniscience really works best when your narrator becomes the extra character, directing your thoughts (reliably or not) and putting an additional spin on the story. Here is an example from Alcott's Little Women (Good Wives):
"And here let me premise, that if any of the elders think there is too much 'lovering' in the story, as I fear they may (I'm not afraid the young folks will make that objection), I can only say with Mrs March, 'What can you expect when I have four gay girls in the house, and a dashing young neighbor over the way?'" (Oxford University Press, 2008 ed.)
Where does the reader stand: Face to face with the narrator
Useful for: Creating a sense of speaking directly to reader
This point of view is rarely used throughout an entire fiction novel, mostly because it’s a difficult perspective to maintain and keep fresh over a long body of work. Here the reader is almost implicated in the story, becoming a character in the story, even if the ‘you’ being referred to is another character in the book or another side of the narrator himself. It’s a more commonly used point of view in non-fiction or instructive text, such as this one where I’m directing my advice to you, the implied reader.
Stream of consciousness
Where does the reader stand: Inside a character’s consciousness
Useful for: Capturing the subconscious mind; experimental
Okay, so here’s a tricky one, descending from the modernist period (Richardson, Joyce, Woolf). It can be highly effective (see Ulysses), highly confusing (see Ulysses), highly amusing (see Ulysses), or a mixture of all three (see ... well, you get the picture). As it involves a delve into the thoughts of the inner mind and all its equally connected and disconnected wanderings, it's a wonderful technique for capturing subjective thought and motivation, but off-putting and too meandering for some readers. Your intended genre and audience is key here (otherwise it'll stand out like a sore thumb), as is the duration of stream-of-consciousness narrative – short bursts are generally preferable to hold the reader’s attention and understanding.
Where to now?
If you’re still unsure, try writing a scene or one whole chapter from each of the above perspectives. This way you’ll get a real feel for how the different viewpoints could impact your book and how your story is told. Make sure you find the right fit for you and your story – you'll be sticking with it for a long time. And when you've made that decision, be consistent with your choice from beginning to end. Take notes if necessary to remind yourself what your chosen point of view will and won't allow you to do.
Remember, how you present your story will affect how the reader perceives it, so it's not a step to take lightly.
References and Recommended Books
Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings (2006), Edited by Linda Anderson, Routledge in association with The Open University, Milton Keynes.
The Creative Writing Workshop (2001), Edited by Julia Bell & Paul Magrs, Macmillan Publishers Limited, London.
The Five Senses of Setting
How to Self-Edit: Common Issues & Solutions
Creating Chaos: Techniques for Developing an Unstable Narrator