Friday, June 22, 2012

Let the Story Rule: Determining the Best POV

I've said it before and it bears repeating: The best point of view is the one that works best for your story. Now, I definitely think we tend as writers to gravitate toward what we feel most comfortable with, and our instincts can often be right. As a friend, Amber West, put it:

"I automatically always write first person. I think I approach it like acting. I become a character, making it so much easier to write in first person."

That makes sense, doesn't it? I act scenes out too, but somehow for me, I still end up writing in third person, unlike Amber. So, go figure.

Another friend, literary agent Nephele Tempest, has pointed out that she considers first person harder to work with. She says:

"Personally, I think the first person is more difficult to write and keep consistent, but regardless of your choice, it should flow smoothly and have a distinctive voice." (Find her whole post here; it has a lot of advice beyond POV, too, and it's worth reading.)

Of course, keeping your POV consistent, writing in a smooth flow, and having a distinctive voice to your fiction are all things that "work best" for your story, which brings us back around to the main point of today's post:

How do you figure out what is the best point of view for your story?

Pauline Baird Jones shared with me that in figuruing out what to do with point of view, she asks the question, "Whose head is this?" That's a good question both for deciding what to write and how to write it. Remember, readers see the story world through one person's interpretation, noticing the things that character notices, ignoring the things he ignores (or noticing them and wondering how the character could ignore it).

It's like "looking around" through someone else's eyes. (Being John Malkovich, anyone?)

And it's important to bear in mind that POV has two manifestations in your writing. One, it relates to the viewpoint character, the one whose vantage point we're looking from. And two, it is connected to the grammatical tense you choose to tell it in, first or third person, and all the things that using first or third person entails.

Also, as you settle on POV, consider the points that writer Nancy Kress addresses in her article, "The Best POV for Your Story" (included in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, 2nd ed. Copyright 2010 by the Editors of Writer's Digest, a book worth buying). Among other things, Kress notes that:
  • Your point of view character (the person who tells the story) doesn't have to be the same as your protagonist (the hero or star of the story)
  • Consider all potential POV characters, and see which one will give you the story you want to tell
  • Try to choose a POV character who will be affected emotionally by what happens in the story
  • Pick a character who is present at the climax (which is one thing I hate about Twilight; Bella passes out before the big fight happens, and that equals a big letdown)
  • Make sure your POV will have good scenes to be present in
  • And (echoing what Pauline Baird Jones said above), whose head do you want to be in as you're writing?
I'd add that as you decide which point of view to use, you should consider your theme and who might express that theme the most effectively. Let that person be your POV character. Kress suggests that in To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout has an innocence about racism that no adult would have, which allows Harper Lee to address the issue in a special way.

Do the same with your story. Use the character who best raises the issues you want your readers thinking about. 

Imagine, for example, how different The Hunger Games would be if told by Peeta, who is relatively naive yet has a set of principles he lives by, and who would die for the girl he loves. But he isn't the viewpoint character. That's Katniss, who is also the hero. She's cynical, tough, willing to play the audience, and yet not completely sure of herself. With her telling the story, the reader definitely sees the irony in how Katniss despises the cameras and the crowds, yet is pragmatic enough to use them to survive rather than being idealistic enough to refuse to change, even if it means dying, which Peeta nearly does.

As far as choosing the grammar and style of POV, if you use first person you'll want to choose a character who likes to talk or at least has a reason to share the story. Be sure your speaker is appealing enough that your reader won't want to put the story down; you can achieve this through voice as much as through what's happening.

Let me show you an example of how voice reveals character and influence the tone of a first person POV. I asked friends on my personal Facebook page, "What do you think of when you read or hear the phrase point of view?" Here are their answers, and they all sound unique to the person:
  • Punto di vista (this is from my non-writing but Italian-loving friend Regina)
  • Man-on-the-street interviews, and getting people's opinions (Karen, who used to work in TV news)
  • From the perspective of... (Andrell, my editor friend)
  • Stepping inside someone else's shoes, whether that someone is fictional or real (Rebekah, who is both a writer and a pastor)
  • Vantage point. Since we are all unique individuals, we see things from different perspectives (Erick, who is studying to be a life coach and consultant)
  • I should pay more attention to it, but I've never been critiqued poorly for how I handle it (Joe, a fellow writer and a down-to-earth guy)
  • Grace Jones...or the scope of a gun. Get to the point and let's move on (Phyllis, an artist, a realist, and a no-nonsense type. I believe she's referencing James Bond, A View to a Kill. Which I love!)
You see how each person brings something different and interesting to the discussion, and your point of view character should do the same. Even if you decide to go with third person instead of first person, embrace the things that make that character unique, and let it come through in the writing. A character's voice can still be heard in third person limited.

This is a lot to mull over. But it's well worth taking the time to give point of view serious thought. It can open up the story to you in a new way. It can illuminate theme. It can add flavor to your fiction. It can help readers connect to the character and keep them turning pages. Point of view is a tool like any other, and the more adept you become at wielding it, the better your writing will be. And that's what it's all about.
Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.


  1. Good post. Also, we shouldn't be afraid to try different points of view to make sure we're writing in the write one. For example, I remember Teresa Miller talking about completing her second novel in third person POV, then have another author read it (I think Nancy Pickard). After finishing it, the other author told her, "You do realize this needs to be in first person, don't you?" Teresa said she fought the idea because she didn't want to rewrite the whole book, but when she finally gave in and tried first person it was exactly what the story needed.

    So, I always try a couple of POV options--not right at the beginning, as I want to get a little deep into the story pool before trying different strokes. But once I start realizing the tricks and traps that may come up in the story, I switch POV just to see what kind of energy I get from the change, and to see if it makes for a better outcome.


  2. That's an excellent idea! I don't usually have the guts to switch POV like that, but I might try that on my current WIP to see what happens. Thanks!

  3. Theloneous SweetleafJune 26, 2012 at 6:41 AM

    Great article, but what you biggies always forget is that it is the FAIRY point of view that is most important.

    Sweetleaf, Bandleader of the Sweetleaf Swingers Fairy Orchestra.

  4. Ah, yes. Sorry, Sweetleaf. Didn't mean to make you feel left out. ;)


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