Point of view is one of the first things you should think of before you start writing your novel. It’s literally impossible to write a story without any point of view, so you need to know what yours is right from the beginning.
In this post, you learn what the points of view in fiction are and how to choose the right one for your story.
Related reading: What tense to write your novel in
What is point of view?
Point of view is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the point from where we get to view the story and it dictates how we get to see everything.
In fiction, there generally are three different points of view (POV): first-person, third-person intimate, and omniscient. Sure, second person also exists, but it’s generally reserved for experimental short stories rather than long-form fiction. We’re not going to talk about that in this post.
All of these points of view have their own rules that you need to follow to be able to create a good experience for your readers. There isn’t really one that is “easier” than others and it’s often down to personal taste which one is “better”.
Writing in first-person point of view
First-person POV is when you hear the story straight from the character and they say things like “I said” and “he was looking at me”. Basically, your reader agrees to become this character while they’re reading your story.
First-person POV presents a challenge to some writers because you need to stay inside a single character’s mind and you can’t have them think things about themselves that a person generally wouldn’t think. You’ve probably read books where the POV character is like “I have big blue eyes and blonde hair”, but have you ever thought such a thing about yourself, ever? You just know what you look like unless something has changed.
Some writers try to get around this by having the character stand in front of a mirror and describing themselves there, but I can promise no actual person does that and I think I can speak for the majority of readers when I say that we don’t want to read that kind of thing ever again. Read this post instead to learn how to describe your characters.
When you’re writing from the point of view of your current POV character, you can’t present your readers information that the character wouldn’t know. For example, your character wouldn’t know what her husband is currently thinking of while he’s at work.
When you’re writing about the thoughts and observations of your first-person POV character, there’s no need to include things like “I thought” or “I saw”. Your readers will understand that these are the character’s thoughts and observations.
Instead of saying “He was going to be late again, I thought” you can just say “He was going to be late again.” And instead of writing “I saw the woman kissing her girlfriend across the street” you can just say “The woman kissed her girlfriend across the street.” Including anything extra will put distance between your story and your reader, which you don’t want to do.
How to write in third-person intimate point of view
The third-person intimate POV is very similar to the first-person POV because you’re sticking with one person and their inner world – the only difference is that you’re saying “she said” and “he was looking at her” instead of “I said” and “he was looking at me”.
Because the omniscient POV has similar word choices, we call this one third-person intimate to make a proper distinction between them. The same principles apply to this POV as to the previous one: you can’t give your readers information that your POV character wouldn’t know at that point and you need to pay mind to how real people think.
Thoughts and observations work the same way in third-person intimate as they do in first-person POV. You can leave out the “she thought” and “she saw” and everything similar, and your story will be stronger for it.
I’m currently rewriting one of my novel manuscripts from third person to first person and I’ve realised how easy it is to slip from third-person intimate to omniscient. If you’re not sure if you’re really staying in third-person intimate, see what you’ve written sounds like in first person. That way you can almost always see if you’ve accidentally slipped into someone else’s head.
What is omniscient point of view
Most modern novels stick to the other two POVs but the omniscient POV can still be used. Your omniscient POV is literally all-knowing and it can access information from every level of your story world, including all the places and times and all the thoughts and feelings of your characters.
One of the cool things about the omniscient POV is that it lets you zoom out and zoom in. What this means is that you could start a scene by telling your readers what is happening on the other side of the universe, then pick a town on planet Earth and tell us what’s happening there, and then pick one character to describe superficially before diving into their inner world and thoughts. You can also do that the other way around.
You probably know a few classic novels that are written in the omniscient point of view, but even they don’t tell you about what’s happening on different planets or even different countries. You have to choose the levels of information that are available to you as a narrator.
For example, if you write about a family that all live in the same house, you could be able to say that “while Mother was in the cellar organising jam jars, Fiona was in the attic reading her old journals” but still not touch on what happens in other houses or inside the characters’ minds. The choice is completely up to you, but choose you must and then stick to your choice.
When you’re omniscient, you can describe your characters differently than in the other two points of view. You can now say something like “Judith had the same nose as her father, but she had long black hair and she was always dressed in black”. Also unlike in the other points of view, thoughts and observations need to be clearly assigned to someone because otherwise they could belong to literally any character.
All of this sounds easy, right? Well, it’s not. When you lack a level of intimacy between your reader and your characters’ point of view, you’re in danger of distancing your reader completely. When you’re writing in omniscient point of view, you can’t just be a neutral observer – your narrator needs a voice of its own if you want your readers to be interested in your story. If you choose omniscient just because it seemingly has fewer rules and you think it’s “easier”, you might not have the skills to pull it off!
How to write multiple POV characters
By now you might be thinking that you’d like to choose the first-person or third-person POV but still tell the story from multiple points of view. You can! Having multiple POV characters is totally possible, but you need to remember a few rules:
- You can only have one point of view character per chapter/scene. You can show the same events from a different POV but you need to do that in a different scene/chapter.
- Each character knows only what they know even if your readers know more. If they share knowledge about events that happen over the course of the story, we need to be able to know why. (Were they in the same location? Did one of them read about it in the newspaper? Did character A call character B?)
- You don’t need to indicate whose POV we’re getting in each chapter with a chapter title, but the points of view need to be so distinct that we have no doubt that they’re different people.
- Your scene goal should pretty much always belong to the POV character.
If you want to tell your story this way, I recommend reading something with multiple POV characters so you can learn how to best use this technique. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik is a fantastic example of how it can be done right.
Warning: do not fall into head-hopping
“Head-hopping” happens when a writer switches the POV character in the middle of the scene and we get someone else’s thoughts out of nowhere. It can be tempting to dip into someone else’s thoughts just so your readers will know exactly what they’re thinking, but you have to figure out a way to do it differently.
For example, if you were writing from Darcey’s point of view the whole time, you’d be head-hopping if you did something like this:
Darcey looked at Georgi like she wanted to eat him. “Did you just come from the gym?”
“No,” Georgi grunted. He thought Darcey was being annoying and wanted her to go back to get equally annoying sister.
If all your scenes require you to get into the thoughts of someone other than your main character, consider switching to omniscient POV or using multiple POV characters. Just remember to follow the rules for those techniques or you will seriously confuse your readers.
How to choose the right point of view
Only you can tell what’s the right point of view for your story. Many contemporary novels are written in first person (and also in present tense) but if that doesn’t suit your story or if you simply don’t like it, you don’t have to do the same.
Which point of view do you like reading the best? That could also tell you which one you should choose.
If you’ve still got trouble choosing, pick an important scene in your story. Then write the same scene three times trying out different points of view and pick the one that feels most natural or the one that simply makes sense.
Can you mix different points of view in the same story?
You CAN, but it’s a different thing if you should.
For example, some of The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell is written from two character’s points of view, one of which is in first person and the other is in third person. They’re also written in different time levels, as one of them happens “now” and one unreveals what happened in the past.
If you want to do something like this, you need to have a reason other than “I think it would just be kinda cool, I guess”. You’d also need to be extra diligent in making sure you don’t get your POVs muddled.
What to do when you struggle with staying in the same point of view
I get it, point of view can sometimes feel complicated. The good news is that if you find yourself slipping, you can fix any of your mistakes during editing. Don’t let POV slow you down when you’re writing your first draft.
If you’re not always sure if what you’ve written is in the POV that it’s supposed to be, you could always ask another writer to read your scene and tell you if you’ve stayed consistent. Sometimes we become so blind to our own writing that it’s hard to tell when we read it ourselves.
Taking some distance from your writing can also help. I’ve definitely found some glaring POV mistakes from my own stories months after writing them. When you read other people’s books more, it becomes easier to understand how POV works, so don’t be afraid to take time off to do some learning before you continue writing your story.