Point of view can be a tricky subject. Basically, it refers to how we decide to relate our story, the perspective from which we see it. Which character(s) will communicate the story most effectively? Do we want to tell the story from one person’s perspective?
A short story is often told from one perspective because of the limited length of time to develop characters. A novel, on the other hand, may use several perspectives to relate the story.
Will we choose first person or third for this narrator?
This is first person: “I can still feel the heat of the fire.”
Consider the story To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, told in first person through the eyes of a young girl called Scout. Her every observation, every judgment, is sifted through her limited experience and perception, but it’s enough for the reader to grasp the greater significance.
And this is third person: “She could still feel the heat of the fire.”
Lord of the Rings uses this perspective.
Comparison of the Two
The first person approach is the most intimate but is also limiting as to how much the first person character can know and observe. The third person is less intimate but allows for more than one character to share the point of view focus.
Besides that choice, we must decide whether the point of view character(s) will be limited to what they alone can perceive or will be privy to other characters’ thoughts and feelings? This latter POV is known as omniscient, for obvious reasons.
This is an example of omniscient POV: “Alice saw the woman duck behind the counter when she entered the store, so she decided to investigate. Meanwhile, the woman crouched in fear, wondering where to hide.”
Here we see from Alice’s point of view as well as the crouching woman’s. It’s like a bird’s eye view narrative.
Currently, the omniscient viewpoint is not commonly used in fiction, as it distances the reader from the characters and fragments the focus.
If we’re unsure of what point of view to use in our story, we are free to try several options to see which works best. The experiment takes time and effort but is worthwhile.
This is a good tip: Once we decide which perspective to use, we must be consistent. If, for example, we choose third person for a longer story, we have the option of seeing the story through the eyes of several characters, thus giving us a broader vision, but we must be clear in each instance which character is “seeing.”
The rule of thumb, at least for novice and intermediate writers, is that only one point of view should be employed in any given scene. The late Ron Benrey, agent/editor/author, suggested envisioning a camera on the head of the point of view character to help us remember that he or she can only see what the camera sees.
If we are writing about what Alice saw, then for that entire scene (one place or time in the story—think of a scene in a movie), we should only record what Alice senses or knows. If we wish to portray the story from another character’s point of view, we must create a new scene and maintain that character’s perspective throughout that scene.
Jumping from one character to another within a scene is known as head-hopping, and is generally frowned upon because it makes the story difficult to follow.
Another tip gained from Ron Benrey’s workshop is to make sure the reader is well aware of who the point of view character is. Mention the name at or very near the beginning of each scene so the reader isn’t left wondering.
Lack of understanding regarding point of view is one of the most telling signs of amateur writing. There are many books available that clarify this crucial element. Check out Writer’s Digest Books, specifically Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.
For a more in-depth look at the various point of view options and how they work, check out this site.
Janice Dick writes historical and contemporary fiction,
inspirational articles and book reviews.
She also edits and presents writing workshops.