How Your Novel's
Point of View Affects Your Characters
by Jason Black
Perhaps nothing is as fundamental to
the reader's experience of your novel's characters as the novel's
point of view (POV). The exact same story will feel entirely
different if written once in third-person POV and again in
The array of POV choices at the modern
novelist's disposal is somewhat dizzying, and each leaves its mark
on a book and on that book's characters. Making the right choice
means understanding how each POV presents your plot and characters,
and how each one shapes the connection between your readers and your
This is the classic external-narrator
POV, in which an abstract and omniscient narrator tells the reader
everything that's happening. In this POV, the writer can literally
show the reader anything at any time.
Third-person omniscient is a great
choice when you have a complex plot with several main characters and
minor characters who follow multiple story lines until things meet
up at the end. It is ideal if your goal is to allow the reader to
watch everything unfold even though the characters aren’t aware of
all that’s going on.
However, third-person omniscient is
emotionally very cold because it is the most distant from your
characters. Third-person omniscient often flits about from here to
there, jumping into and out of different characters heads, giving
the reader a much more difficult job in forming any close emotional
ties with the characters.
Third-person omniscient is often the
best choice for books where the plot is the central attraction. If
you're writing a so-called “Plot monster” novel that doesn't have
much in the way of character arcs, this could well be the way to go.
The only difference between this POV and
third-person omniscient is that you funnel the entire story through
one character’s viewpoint. You can show what the POV character sees,
hears, thinks, believes, and feels. But you may only show those
things. Nothing else. Showing anything the POV character doesn’t
directly experience is dis-allowed.
This disciplined viewpoint gives the POV
character and the reader exactly the same information. It closes the
emotional distance between them, and is very effective at letting
the reader share the character's experience of the story. It is an
excellent choice for linear plots with a single main character who
experiences all the important plot events.
Third-person limited offers a nice
balance between a plot-driven story and a character-driven story. It
is often a good choice when the outer events of your plot are
closely tied to the protagonist's inner growth.
This is when a character is the narrator
of his or her own story, relayed in present tense as it unfolds or
in past tense from after the events have transpired. Because of the
reliance on a single main character, first-person stories usually
require the same type of linear plots as third-person limited POV.
First-person POV presents the smallest
emotional distance between the reader and the main character. Thus,
first-person is a great choice when the story is more about the
inner character arc than it is about the outer plot. It is also the
hardest POV to write well because it demands a very strong,
Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010
The presentation of information is very
different between first-person and third-person limited. In a
first-person story the reader’s perception is that the narrator—a
character—is telling them the story. Implicitly, that narrator
chooses what to tell the reader, what to omit, and what spin to put
on events. Readers know the character may not be telling them the
whole truth. In third-person limited, the reader perceives the
writer more directly as the one providing the narration, and the
writer isn’t supposed to lie to the reader. That’s cheating.
Finally, there are a few unusual POV
choices and variations on the above choices that bear mentioning:
First-person plural: This is when the
narrator is a group of people and the story is told from a “we”
point of view. A good example is the classic Cheaper by the Dozen,
by Frank Gilbreth, which is about a family’s father but is told from
the collective point of view of the children. Very few novels have
a premise which permits this, but for those that do it can give the
reader a sense of inclusion in the group, as though the reader were
included in the collective “we” relating the story.
Second-person: This is when an author
puts the reader directly into the story by using “you” as the main
character: “You walk into the cafeteria, wrinkling your nose at the
smell of mystery meat and canned peas.” Second-person stories are
rare for good reason: this can easily feel more like a gimmick than
a good writing choice. However, if done well this POV nearly
eliminates the emotional distance between the reader and the main
Multiple POVs: This is when you apply
the techniques of the above POVs to multiple characters in the same
book. The danger here is in giving the reader “POV whiplash,” by
switching among POV characters haphazardly. Generally, don't switch
POV characters unless you're at a scene or chapter break.
Finally, when choosing your novel's POV,
consider the above guidelines and ask yourself these questions:
1. Does the structure of your story
force you into a particular choice?
2. What's more important: your plot, or
your characters? Or are they about the same?
3. How close do you want the reader to
feel towards your characters?
Give some careful thought to these
guidelines, and take your time in answering those three questions.
After all, choosing the right point of view is important, even
critical, to the success of your novel.
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Jason Black is a book
doctor who actively blogs about character development. He recently
appeared at the 2009 PNWA Summer Writers Conference and was the
featured speaker at the March 2010 PNWA members meeting. To learn
more about Jason or read his blog, visit his website at