What is Point of View in Fiction, and How Do We Use It?


Point of View (POV) and the narrator are key to the way everything is viewed and experienced in fiction.

POV defines the narrator, and the narrator, who is just as much of a character as the protagonist, has significant control over the story’s voice.

Below, we look at a number of  different points of view in depth, considering differing viewpoints such as first person, second person and third person, as well as choice of vernacular, setting and metaphors.

Read on for the keys to unlocking your narrator’s point of view…

Point of View Options

A story can change completely depending on the POV chosen, and each POV has its own unique relationship with the narrator.

Literary Devices: Point Of View is a great article for information on writing in the different POV options.

The choice of point-of-view will largely determine all other choices with regards to style, diction, characteristic speed of sentences and so on. What the writer must consider, obviously, is the extent to which point-of-view, and all that follow from it, comments on the characters, actions, and ideas.” – John Gardne

First (1st) person POV

First person point of view naturally leans towards developing the narrating character, because, as a participating character, their personality should already exist.

But actively merging the character and narration language with words and wording from the character’s perspective can make for an even stronger piece.

For best results when using a first person narrator, the character should be extremely well-developed in the writer’s mind, ideally the main character.

Although a generalised personality added to the mass appeal of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga by allowing readers to imprint their personality on Bella, Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games Trilogy received equal mass appeal with the strong narration of Katniss, plus greater literary acclaim.

Katniss was also particularly interesting given that she was essentially what’s known as an unreliable narrator.

An unreliable narrator is a character within a first person narrative who cannot be trusted. This could be because they are lying, have mental health issues, or are just not reliable for other reasons.

An unreliable narrator makes the story more interesting because the reader has to figure out what is true and what is not.

Lastly, it’s also worth noting that first person is a common POV used across the YA fiction genre in general.

Second (2nd) person POV

Second person point of view is considered the most difficult to use in fiction, but there are helpful resources, and successful novels, such as Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, to help you get a feel for the writing style.

After deciding whether the “you” is the narrator is referring to himself/herself, addressing another character or addressing the reader, careful word choices can portray the narrator personality and allude to the narrator-character-reader relationship.

This reduces a lot of confusion that can come from reading second person POV.

Third (3rd) person POV: unlimited, limited and alternating

Third person unlimited is the well-known omniscient narrator.

While a third person omniscient point of view unfortunately can’t be based on a character, the voice of a strongly characterized narrator can be used for that extra depth.

A great example of this is the narrator in Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who enjoys going off on quirky and often humorous tangents.

(Click here for some quick tips on creating a great narrator personality.)

Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now.” – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Third person limited has qualities of first person POV; the narration follows a single character’s experiences and thoughts, but without using first person pronouns such as “I”, “me” or “my”.

Instead, third-person pronouns are used, such as “he”, “she”, and “they”.

This type of narrator is often used in fiction to provide a more objective point of view, and can have a plain personality, a developed unique personality, or reflect the focal character through narration language as first person POV leans towards.

Matching wording to the character in the latter option is an invaluable tool for extensive and subtle character development, as the most basic descriptions become a window: the world is shown through the character’s eyes, and the character is revealed through their world-view.

Third person point of view alternating is the same as third person POV limited, except the focal character changes or alternates with scene or chapter breaks.

If the narrator reflects the focal character, the narrator can also change with the focal character.

Alternating narrators can produce some really unique and interesting effects, as author Sara Zarr explains:

When the reader and one narrator know something the other narrator does not, the opportunities for suspense and plot development and the shifting of reader sympathies get really interesting.”

Choosing the right vernacular

The narrator’s personality, whether based on another character or not, is the foundation for every word you write.

Likewise, the right vernacular can allude to the narrating character’s overall world-view, as well as their specific interests, hobbies and background information.

A single adjective choice can portray a very different narrating character; the invigorating runthe challenging run and the barely-survivable run all indicate different characters with different athletic abilities and interests.

This is where you really get to dig into that character profile — or start writing one up with some sample questions!

Setting and Description

If every aspect of a scene were described it would go on forever, so how do you choose what to describe and what not to?

Everyone sees the world differently. When describing setting, consider what the narrating character would notice.

Some features, such as a raging dinosaur, every character would notice and describe. However, some would be more likely to notice the colour, or the sound or the smell.

In addition, not all characters would notice a teddy bear sitting in a corner of a cluttered room, and their noticing could be mixed with a feeling of fondness, or of loss.

In this way, not only is a scene described, but aspects of the character’s personality or back-story is alluded to.

It is impossible to powerfully capture a place via a third-person objective description—at least to capture it in a way that readers will not skim. Only through the eyes and heart of a character does place come truly alive.” – Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction

Vocabulary levels, sentence structure and the use contractions and slang in description can convey the age, education and socioeconomic standing of the narrating character.

A seven-year-old is unlikely to use or even know the word “ornate” or “jugular”. Of course, breaking expectations can lead to great effects.

If a child narrator sounded very adult, he/she is likely to have a very interesting history, as long as it is established that the narrator isn’t an adult reflecting on their childhood.

Metaphors and Similes

Using metaphors and similes is a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears; you need to use just the right amount.

But that “right” amount is different for every story. Consider the dilemma through the narrator or focal character: how often would they use metaphors or similes?

If the character is a seasoned soldier, it’s possible the answer is never.

Unless the seasoned soldier has a secret passion for poetry, and, if that passion were immense and suppressed, the narration could be full of all the metaphors and similes bursting from within the character’s heart.

How a character uses metaphors and similes may also vary; one may often describe objects as animals (“the teapot was a broody hen”, “she walked like a panther”), and one may regularly use metaphors or similes to describe setting (“the tree was a skyscraper”, “the station felt like a cave”).

Dialogue

Learning how to choose the words that the character would is also important when writing dialogue.

Consider the same issues that arise with writing setting, description, metaphors and similes in the focal character’s voice.

Remember to consider interests, vocabulary levels, slang and what aspects of their personality they keep hidden.

Matching the narration voice with the dialogue voice of the focal character strengthens the credibility of the narrator and the depth that the narrator appears to reflect the character.

* * *

By adding to the POV choice with a strong narrator character, a piece becomes deeper and more personal.

People relate to people, and whether you are a character-driven writer or not, you can use narrating characters to portray your story in a unique and engaging way.

What is most important to me is that my narrator’s voice is believable, and that, though it is clearly an absolute fiction, it has the emotional resonance of memoir.” – Chris Bohjalian

POV is the starting point for everything; it plays such a foundational role in writing that simply taking the time to consider words through the narrating character’s personality brings the whole work to a new level.

Who will be the narrator of your next story?

Kyla Bagnall

Kyla Bagnall recently graduated from her QUT Creative & Professional Writing degree with distinction. At the astute age of 11 she announced her ambition to become an author, and hasn't looked back since. Her passion has led her through experiences with fiction, non-fiction, plus internships with a publishing house and a writer's festival. Aside from that, her favourite things are books, art, cats, tea and winter. You can find out more about Kyla’s passions at kylabagnall.wixsite.com/portfolio

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