Point of View in Science-Fiction

Point of view isn’t just a choice of pronoun, it’s a tactical decision in the service of storytelling. The way we tell a story can make or break it, regardless of the marvelous genius of the plot or the unique personality of the characters. Point of view is a weapon, and it can be wielded with terrible effect — to increase tension, to widen or tighten the scope of the story, to regulate the focus on certain aspects, to make or break characters and give the reader an unmatched experience.

Each writer has a preference in point of view, mostly formed by what we love to read, and what flows easier from the tip of our pen. We tend to love what manages to create more tension for us, and offer a deeper experience of the story.

In first person point of view, tension comes from the immediate experience of the story as if it was happening to the reader, while in third person limited it comes from clashing perspectives to which the reader is a witness. In third person omniscient, tension comes from letting the reader know things that [most of] the characters don’t, and thus putting the reader in a superior position. Either way, a certain point of view works when it creates tension and facilitates a vicarious experience of the story, and when it offers the reader a way to experience the world differently than he does every day.

In science-fiction and fantasy, the choice of point of view is also related to the size of the cast and the amount of worldbuilding necessary for a full experience of the story. It also depends on the general atmosphere the writer wants to create, if it is one of wonder and exploration, of dread and terror, sorrow and melancholy, tension and suspense, of visceral emotion or philosophical contemplation.

When we set out to write a work of science-fiction, our choice of point of view depends not just on character, but also on setting.

 

First Person

First person POV works best when the character has a strong, unique voice, and an interesting perspective. This point of view lends itself particularly well to a protagonist who is at the center of the action, right in the flame, and personally invested in the outcome to an extent that failure would be his ruin. This is the maximum of exploitation of the first person point of view, exposing the reader to an experience of life versus death, on either physical or psychological level.

First person also works with unreliable narrators, and allows the writer to lie to the reader and create powerful distractions and shocking twists. But the more unreliable a narrator, the harder it is to write the story in a compelling and rewarding way, and this is the second greatest danger of first person point of view, apart from choosing an uninteresting, mundane viewpoint character who can’t sustain a story. Another danger is that everything becomes filtered through this character’s mind, and thus the exploration of the storyworld is limited, and the drawing of other characters becomes difficult at a deeper level.

Generally, this POV is most suited for stories where the experience is more important than the events being experienced, and the character’s inner world is more interesting and fascinating than the storyworld.

 

Third Person Limited

Third person limited (in all its gradients), is best suited for stories with multiple characters which have equal importance to the evolution of events, and where there is a more complex plot to bind them. Third person POV creates a larger view of the world, offers the reader more insight into circumstances, setting and scope of the story, and thus lends itself particularly well to stories where the world is almost a character in full right, and needs to be experienced through different pairs of eyes to convey the size and importance of it.

Third person POV loses some of the intimacy that first person POV has, because it takes the focus away from the character’s thoughts and emotions, and shifts it toward their actions and their surroundings. The perspective that is gained through the lifting of the veil from the reader’s eyes as he experiences the story through different characters, makes the choice of third person limited one of the most beloved and most effective POVs.

Third person limited has several flavors, depending on the depth:

  • third person objective — where the character’s actions alone are presented, but not his thoughts or feelings;
  • third person subjective — where the character’s actions and occasionally his thoughts are presented, and the feelings are easily deduced and play a role in the scenes;
  • third person intimate — actions and events are presented entirely through that character’s point of view, through experiential description, and his thoughts and feelings are woven into the narrative. It’s very similar to first person POV.

 

Omniscient

Is best suited for epic stories with a huge cast, covering large distances and spans of time, and offering multiple perspectives on the core of the story which is not the life of a character, but the life of a society, era or race. Sure, omniscient can be used with a small cast as well, but then it loses its advantage and becomes shallow, a poorer choice than third person limited. The strength of omniscient lies in weaving complex webs of motivation, causality, relationships and interests, not in exploring any one character or attitude in particular.

Omniscient POV also brings the presence of the author closer to the reader than any other POV. If the style and voice of the author is very strong and visible, he might get even closer to the reader than he likes, and the story can lose immediacy and verisimilitude. Another danger of omniscient POV is the episodic storytelling that can create a feeling of inconsistency, fleeting focus and inconsequential characters.

 

I don’t have experience with second person point of view, and every time I’ve stumbled over it, I couldn’t bare to read it for more than a couple of pages. It just felt completely unnatural to me, and so far this hasn’t been my cup of tea. But I’m sure there are some fairly well executed second person stories out there. Maybe you know some good examples, and why it worked for those particular stories?

Science-fiction has developed a tradition for third person limited, and for good reason. It’s the most flexible point of view, and it allows the world to be an important part of the story. Worldbuilding plays a huge role in most science-fiction, and while the larger the cast, the more objective the POV becomes, and the more rational the world is described, there are a lot of great stories with intricate worldbuilding where the cast is fairly limited. There’s no hard rule. The use of third person subjective, for example, ranges from hard science-fiction with a small, confined cast and setting (like my all-time favorite, Destination:Void by Frank Herbert) to enormous epics with a cast of dozens (like the amazing Pandora’s Star by Peter Hamilton). Ultimately, the choice of POV is one of artistic preference and strategy.

I love first and third POV in equal measure, because they each have their special story-boosting powers. First person allows for almost unlimited possibilities to create character, while third person limited can highlight and intensify conflicts by showing the perspective and stakes of all sides involved.

In the case of my novel (currently square in the middle of draft #2), the choice of POV was determined by the demands of the story and my unwillingness to compromise the concept for technique. I used first person point of view for the protagonist, and all three variants of the third person limited for the other viewpoint characters. It is very much the story of one character, but also of how that character impacts others and inadvertently changes their lives. My crazy choice of POV felt like the only way I could tell the story fully, so I threw caution and tradition in the wind there. Maybe it’ll come back and punch me in the neck, but so far, it feels like the only sound decision for this particular story.

And what about you — what’s your favorite POV, and which one do you use in your writing?

33 Replies to “Point of View in Science-Fiction”

    1. Your writing voice is objective and at times contemplative, so you’re practically cut out for third person limited. You’re in very good company there, most science-fiction is written in third person. 🙂

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  1. Usually third person with me, though in my Clay Cross novel, surprisingly called ‘Clay Cross’ I combine both. As you say First person works with a strong or idiosyncratic character, but I found third person balanced things out very nicely via Clay Cross’s reluctant scribe and eventual collaborator, Roy Evans. The book begins third person and then alternates between first and third on the arrival of Cross.

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    1. Yes, definitely, some stories work very well with a combination of first and third person POV, and I have no doubts yours does to, Mike. The first person POV of the interesting protagonist can be rounded up really well by the perspective of other characters, and it can make him stand out even more and add importance to the way he sees things, by contrasting him to other perspectives. I love this interplay between first and third person, that’s also why I used it and it feels so natural to my story. 🙂

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  2. Like you, first person and third limited are equal favorites of mine, which probably has mostly to do with the stuff I read. I enjoy reading third omniscient when it’s done well, but the prospect of writing it usually terrifies me. Of the three, it’s probably the easiest to screw up. My favorite flavor of omniscient is the “storyteller” POV, in which the narrator is a separate character to itself, and can thus use tools like the unreliable narrator trick to color the story and still remain omniscient (or, perhaps, false omniscient).

    I have played around with second person a little, but only as a framing device. One of the stories I’m shopping around now is told from the perspective of one character recounting a story to his daughter. In the framing narrative, this character speaks to the reader as though he/she were the daughter, then it shifts to third limited for the majority of the story as he tells his tale. I’m having trouble placing this one, despite several kind remarks from most of the editors that have seen it, and I’m thinking the second person bits might be one of the reasons.

    A good example of second person narrative done well (and the most recent that popped in my mind while reading this) is a story called “Read This Quickly, For You Will Only Have A Moment” by Stephen Case in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I really enjoyed that one, though it’s worth noting that one of the reasons it works so well in this particular story is due to the epistolary narrative employed.

    Anyway, great POV breakdown! POV is important for any work, but it’s critical in SFF, where worldbuilding and character voice intersect so frequently.

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    1. I have the same respect for omniscient point of view as you, James. I love to read it when it’s done well, but I sincerely doubt I can do it well enough to be satisfied. It doesn’t really fit the way I perceive stories in my own imagination, so it would be a strain to try to write it, and nothing truly good ever results from forced style.

      I think you might be right about that story with a second person POV frame. Even with the best of stories, most agents and publishers don’t like it. If you can rewrite it effectively without using second person, I’d give it a try if I were you. 🙂

      Thanks for the story suggestion, I’ll read it as soon as I can. And thanks for the comment!

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  3. Great post. 🙂 I initially wrote my MS in third person objective not even knowing it was a “thing.” I wrote down the movie I saw in my head. Then I heard an editor say “If you tell me your MS is like a movie playing in your head, that tells me you don’t have a good grasp of (nor depth of) POV.”

    I’ve heard it said the written word is the only way to tell a story that gives insight to the character’s thoughts and feelings. I’ve written a thriller, so I wanted to show everything through action and dialogue. I have been

    So I went back and made it what you classify as third person subjective. It allows the reader to have more empathy for my characters and makes the POV more clear. At least, that is the hope. We’ll see as this query process progresses.

    All best to you as you continue your rewrite!

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    1. Third person objective is rare, and usually mixed with other types of third person POVs. It’s no wonder some agents and editors are averse to it. It can also be a mark of a poor writer, one who can’t get into character’s heads, but really, not all novels need that kind of depth to function. And third person objective (and subjective) are fairly common in crime and thriller novels.

      I wish you the best with that novel, Courtney! I’ll be the first to buy it!

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  4. I came to like mixed POV stories, like first and third. They’re hard to do though.

    Great overview, by the way, and also, where the heck do you find such cool art? 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Ana, I love mixed POVs more and more too, and not just because I write them. 🙂

      The art and pictures I use for the posts are mostly self-shot photography and free stock pictures I dig up online. I love interesting pictures, and have like a gazillion tons of them on my computer. 😀

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  5. I like the first person POV or third person limited. I love writing both. It all comes down to the story and the character to make a choice; usually the character starts to introduce himself/herself first — in whatever POV it happens, this is it, that’s the voice. Nothing to experiment with. Keeping it simple is the best way to write complex things, at least for me.

    As for reading, I’m not a fan of multiple POVs that take frequent turns each chapter within the story, because the tale breaks down into pieces and some of them are just not that fascinating, so I wouldn’t care about that part of the story, even if it is important. Well, two heads are OK, but I will read only the part of the character I like the best and skip the rest of the heads, if more than two.

    What the hell is mixed POV? I’ve never read a book like this. And if I did, I probably wasn’t paying attention. I don’t pay attention to techniques if I enjoy the story, tho I prefer books that stick to one type.

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    1. Mixed POV is really interesting if done well, and you don’t really notice much of the switch, only that you seem to know more than each character does, and yet you’re intimate with some of them as if it were their story alone. 🙂

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  6. Third person POV is what I like. When I mess with first person, I start blathering on like I’m writing in my journal or some letter to my mother. And then, I’m all, “Who’d want to read this crap? Who really cares?” It’s a big deal to me, but not to anyone else – like a reader.

    So, what I really want to know, Vero. What’s that graphic at the top of the page here? Honestly, it looks like some kind of space age bra. But, I think I like it!

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    1. Don’t sweat it, each writer has a good hand at one particular POV over all others. Stick to what feels natural and flows well, and you’re fine.

      LOL — the picture at the top is the dew-beaded face of an insect. But a spacy bra made from some high tech material sounds really neat. 😀

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  7. Most of my writing tends to be 3rd person limited (intimate and episodic). I find that I’m able to give the reader some intimacy between them and the characters, although the fact that the perspective is changing might hinder some of that. Even in a big 100,000 word novel, I probably only give the reader maybe 6 or 7 different viewpoints, and a majority of the time, it’s only 2 or 3 main viewpoints. I don’t want to give the reader too much.

    I’m collaborating with another author, and since it’s YA paranormal romance, we’re doing it in 1st person. Neither of us use that POV very much, so it’s been a learning experience. I find myself wanting to fall back on 3rd person, as I feel I’m leaving so much out!

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    1. Yes, compared to third person, first person seems very limited and… blind-sighted. It’s tough sometimes, especially when things are happening that involve and affect other characters. But we can always balance out the shortcomings by exploiting the advantages of the chosen POV to the fullest. 🙂

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  8. Ah, so many POV choices, and so easy to right off the rails if you pick the wrong one. I have a particular fondness for a very tight third person intimate POV, because it allows so many options for glimpsing other characters and events through a skewed lens, but without the same constraints as first person.

    I struggled to find the right POV for my current WIP, and in the end decided to rotate through four characters, using third person intimate for two, third person subjective for one, and first person (epistolatory) for the fourth. I’m still not sure whether it’s working or not, and I may end up paring back to a single POV. Urgh. That’s a lot of rewriting, but on the plus side, I’ll have gotten to know my characters much more thoroughly. 🙂

    Great post, Vero–and not just for science fiction writers.

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    1. I started writing my novel with third person intimate too, back in the day, and when I was at about 60% of it I realized it’s not going to allow me to milk the story for all its got. So I tossed the draft, and started anew (that was in April this year) and wrote the thing through from start to finish with that combination of first & third person. I think it flows much better now, and is a more… rounded experience, but the bad part is, I have slipped into a very narrow first person POV — with practically minimal description, and I hate it! That’s why I’m rewriting it whole once again, in second draft. But I must say, I don’t regret using first person. Let’s just hope it’ll work out. 😉

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  9. POV has and will continue to be the mainstay discussion for any writing. I’ve discovered that the story I’m working on actually drives the POV. My current rough draft of my latest Tracker story started in 3rd person. But I’m going to shift it to 1st person. Even though 1st person often blindsides the character, I think it helps to build the tension better. Interestingly enough, a memoir I wrote last year is written in 3rd person. Go figure.
    Thanks for the breakdown of 1st and 3rd person. With your permission, I’d like to share parts of it with my college writing students.

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    1. First person does help up the tension, and it makes the stakes feel more personal to the reader. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment, Carolyn — share away!

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  10. I’ve tried almost all. I find half of my Kurt Vonnegut like short stories work best in first person if the word count is small while third person seems better for longer stories and my two novels. My next novel will follow a protagonist from present to ten million years into the future and I’ve been struggling with how to present it. You gave me the answer. I will mix first person with omniscient. Thanks for the idea.

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    1. That’s a great combination, Rachel! Omniscient is cool enough not to distract from the intimacy of a first person POV; the two are distinct enough to create contrast but not to bother each other.

      Mixing POVs is challenging to both writer and reader, but as long as the story is captivating, they easily slip into the background. 🙂 Good luck!

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  11. Wow, thanks for such a great post! I just stumbled upon your blog today, thanks to Ms. Elizabeth Spann Craig promoting it over at Mystery Writing is Murder, and I have to say, I’m really happy I did. I agree with you on second person–it doesn’t seem to work too much, whether you’re writing science fiction or not.

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  12. Omniscient is my favourite, includinmg first-person omniscient whose existence is carelessly denied by this site.

    A greast narrative distance is paramount for me, and it is easier to maintain with omniscient marration.

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    1. I never denied the existence of a POV. I frankly had no idea there was such a thing as first person omniscient, but thanks for letting me know there is. I’ve done some research on it, and it seems quite a few interesting books were written in first person omniscient.

      Though, I think you are mistaken in believing that first person omniscient is not character driven. I don’t see how that is even possible.

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  14. I’m struggling with world building in first person.
    The hero has no idea who she can trust; but her world needs alot of description that just doesnt seem natural in first person.
    Do you know of anybody who has done this well?

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