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 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.
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?