The following originally appeared on my Defunct Blog, Battlestar Grammactica. It was intended to be a Science Fiction and writing blog, but never took off (ha!). It is reprinted here as I shut down the other site.
Obi Wan: Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is evil.
Darth Vader: From my point of view, The Jedi are Evil!
Obi Wan: Well…Then you are lost.
“Revenge of the Sith “
Point of View is one of those basic things that writers understand is important, recite back to you, post on the wall, and then ignore in the heat of the moment while drafting.Â The rules of Point of view are simple:
Pick one POV and Stick with it to avoid confusing your readers.
If you must have multiple POV, make it clear where one POV ends and another begins.
What is POV?
POV is related to your narrative voice as the author. If you think of your main character as your viewppoint character, POV tells us how closely the narrator (That’s your role) is following that character around. Luckily, their are only five main POVs worth worrying about:
The first person POV is the closest to the viewpoint character : It’s their story told by them using “I” and “Me”. The author is pretending to be his main character, and letting us in on their thoughts and emotions. It’s the most immediate POV and instantly brings us into the world of the story. A lot of classic Science Fiction is written in this POV- Wells, Verne, Burroughs- they all used the immediacy of someone telling this amazing tale to give their fantastic stories veracity. However, it can be limiting. Your character cannot know the motives, thoughts or emotions of the other characters.Â If you have a grand, sweeping war story to tell,you’re limiting yourself to one small part of the action. Not that this hasn’t been done before:
All this time I saw no human beings, and no signs of the Martians.
I encountered a couple of hungry-looking dogs, but both hurried
circuitously away from the advances I made them.Â Near Roehampton I had seen two human skeletons–not bodies, but skeletons, picked clean–and in the wood by me I found the crushed and scattered bones of several cats and rabbits and the skull of a sheep.Â But though I gnawed parts of these in my mouth, there was nothing to be got from
them.Â Â Â Â — H.G. Wells”The War of the Worlds “
The second person is tricky. It is seldom used, although science fiction readers probably remember it from the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. In the Second Person POV, the narrator directly addresses the reader as the main character. “You do this and You Feel That,” the narrator says. “Oh Yeah?” you respond. There have been a few successful books written in the second person, notably “Bright Lights, Big City” and “A Prayer for the Dying,” but second person works better for short forms: Stories or connective passages:
You sink down and muffle your head in the clothes, shivering all the while, but less from bodily chill, than the bare idea of a polar atmosphere. It is too cold even for the thoughts to venture abroad. You speculate on the luxury of wearing out a whole existence in bed, like an oyster in its shell, content with the sluggish ecstasy of inaction, and drowsily conscious of nothing but delicious warmth, such as you now feel again. Ah! that idea has brought a hideous one in its train. You think how the dead are lying in their cold shrouds and narrow coffins, through the drear winter of the grave, and cannot persuade your fancy that they neither shrink nor shiver, when the snow is drifting over their little hillocks, and the bitter blast howls against the door of the tomb.—Nathaniel Hawthorne “The Haunted Mind”
Third Person Limited:
In the third person limited, the narrator follows the viewpoint character around from somewhere over their right shoulder, kind of like their guardian angel. The Narrator knows what they are thinking and doing, and can notice things that the viewpoint character might miss, but is still attached to them. Important plot points can happen offstage, other characters can have hidden motives and feelings, but we’ve put a little distance between the reader and the character and can get a little larger picture:
He heard shouting, quarreling voices, but nothing made sense through the
haze of his agony. He felt someone grab at him–more than one person–and they were dragging him willy-nilly across the ground. Something was clutched around his throat, almost choking him. He opened his eyes just as something clicked behind him.Â Â —Lester Del Rey “The Sky is Falling”
Third Person Objective:
A little farther out, and we’ve lost the psychic connection we had with our viewpoint character. Third person objective is still focused on the viewpoint character, but now our narrator can no longer see inside that character’s mind. This POV is journalistic and cinematic. the author can spend time on description and action.
Manning waited for him to finish, then he turned back to the rest of the men in the room and spread his hands. “Now that, gentlemen, just shows how much weâ’ve found out so far.”
He looked over at Rynason again.
“Has it occurred to you, Lee, that if these horses are the Outsiders, that maybe they know a little more than we do? I suppose you’re going to say you had a telepathic hookup with one of them and you didn’t see a thing to make you suspicious ; but just remember that they’ve been using telepathy for several thousand years and that you hardly know what you’re doing when you try it. —Terry Carr, “Warlord of Kor”
Third Person Omniscient:
And finally, farther out, we have the narrator as God. Third person omniscient is just that: The narrator can switch characters, knowing all thoughts and feelings. He can view things away from any characters, knows what’s happening on the far side of the world. While this POV gives the author the most leeway, it can be confusing to the reader. Perhaps it’s best to narrow your scope a little?
Jellico, with Van Rycke at his shoulder, halted before he stepped from the ramp so that the three Inter-Solar men, Captain, Cargo-master and escort, whether they wished or no, were put in the disadvantageous position of having to look up to a Captain whom they, as members of one of the powerful Companies, affected to despise. The lean, well muscled, trim figure of the Queen’s commander gave the impression of hard bitten force held in check by will control, just as his face under its thick layer of space burn was that of an adventurer accustomed to make split second decisions–an estimate underlined by that seam of blaster burn across one flat cheek.Â —Andre Norton “The Plague Ship”
Which should I use?
Well, That all depends on you.Â Each POV has it’s advantages and disadvantages. Generally, the wider the POV, the less connection with the main character. Each story has a unique POV that suits it best. A war story can have either a first person POV, in which we’re stuck in the mud with the main character, or an omniscient POV where we can see the generals make their errors, the politicians bicker, and our characters suffer.
The main thing is to try to stick to one. Switching point of view is confusing to the reader. The narrator becomes a character, and changing narrators is like changing characters:
I had thought that Ben had the egg, but he didn’t. Instead the Dark Lord, high in his obsidian castle, chuckled to himself as he stoked the velvet shell. Ben was scared that i would find out, of course, but I hadn’t yet and if he kept up the ruse, there was a chance that he would get my egg back from you.
Huh? I guess I know what I was trying to say there. But it’s hard to follow. If you have to change POV, Do it on a chapter or page break, and let the audience know the POV is Changing: Go from first to third, go to a character we haven’t visited before, do something that let’ss us know something fundamental has changed about how we view this world.
Which one’s right for your story?
It all depends on your point of view.