How to Choose Your Novel’s Point of View (According to Brain Science)

Before you draft, make your life easier by deciding on what point(s) of view and narrative distance to tell your story through.

How to Choose Your Novel's Point of View

How to Choose Your Novel's Point of View

You’ve got an awesome story premise, you’ve planned it all out, and you’re ready to start drafting! …Or are you?

As soon as you open your drafting document, you realize you’re not sure if you’re starting with the character’s name or if it should be written with the first-person “I” pronoun. You also realize you’re not sure if it’s best told in the present-tense to keep action super immediate or if it will work better in the more traditional past tense.

It’s really helpful to be able to move into your novel draft knowing what point(s) of view and narrative distance to tell your story through. But how do you choose? That’s what I’ll help you figure out today. Let’s start with defining the latter.

What Is Narrative Distance?

I like to envision narrative distance in a series of concentric circles. In the center is the character’s mind—and heart and soul. The different point-of-view narrators can either be in the innermost circle of intimacy or on the outer edge, as if viewed from afar. Others fall somewhere in between. See visuals here.

In order, here is the hierarchy of narrative distance in story points of view (POVs) from highest and most removed to closest and most intimate:

Narrative Distance: Level 5: Third-Person Omniscient  Level 4: Third-Person Limited  Level 3: Deep Third-Person Limited  Level 2: First Person  Level 1: Second Person  Level 0: Character’s Mind/Heart/Soul Itself

Level 5: Third-Person Omniscient

Level 4: Third-Person Limited

Level 3: Deep Third-Person Limited

Level 2: First Person

Level 1: Second Person

Level 0: Character’s Mind/Heart/Soul Itself

Whose Point of View Should You Choose?

So when you’re trying to figure out what’s best for your novel, consider whose story you’re following and who is telling that story. Some questions to ask:

  • Does your novel follow one character only? Stick to that character’s POV.

  • If you’re tempted to add more POV characters,
    • will they usually be in the same scenes or area? If yes, consider paring it down to just one POV.

    • will they feel as important and integral as the main POV character carrying the story’s theme? If not, keep it to one POV character—or just choose those few that will meet these expectations.

    • will they serve a unique purpose and inextricable insight to the story? If yes, consider adding the additional POV(s).

    • do they stay within the appropriate age expectations (for middle grade and YA only)? Yeah? Additional POVs may work. If not, find a way to add the information/perspective they provide without jumping up an age category.

  • If you’re pretty sure you need to show different POV characters, do the different POVs’ stories impact one another without creating redundancies? Are you prepared to complete the character development and planning work separately for each one while also intertwining their impact on one another? It’s great for epic fantasy, but it’s epic for a reason!

Get brutally honest with yourself when you ask these questions. Remember that it’s easier to write a strong story from one POV than multiple (because writing multiple is basically writing multiple stories…). Multiple POVs can dilute a story quickly unless you’re willing to do the deep character/story arc work multiple times and integrate them in a compelling way.

Note that I’m really not trying to discourage multiple POV tales. I’m quite the fan! But notice how quickly this choice can get unwieldy for tight plotting (and I like to have it all craft-wise in stories I read!), such as with the sprawl George. R. R. Martin created. (Seriously, can he ever rein all of that in?!)

I just want to keep expectations realistic because I was one of these kinds of writers—I wanted my stories to be epic, so I attempted things such as four equal-ish POVs while only doing things a bit more properly for maybe one of them. Multiple POVs simply seemed to be the thing to do to fit the genre. While observing genre expectations is not a bad thing, I obviously should have had a better reason to add so many POVs and a better plan to make them fit together well for the point of the story.

My perspective shifted drastically from such habits at some early point when I was made aware of the quote attributed to E.B. White: “Don't write about Man; write about a man.” This deceptively simple bit of advice is loaded with implications.

At face value, it might seem to mean not to generalize. But taken further, I grasped the wisdom of sticking closely to one character, making the story ring with truth and authenticity. As a writer, I can certainly do so for multiple characters. But there’s also something here that speaks to the strength of a single POV narrative.

Now, I’ll still write multiple POV stories when it’s best for the story I want to tell, but I’m much more selective. I also rigorously test each new POV bunny that feels so inspired initially. Sometimes these ideas for additional POVs can sustain full arcs, but if it doesn’t serve enough of a separate purpose from the other POVs I have, I force myself to scale back and pare down.

Enough of multiple POVs for now. If you want more guidance on constructing a story or series with multiple POVs, I’m your book coach! Give me your epics and your involved, interlaced arcs. I thrive on making sure they resonate with readers on the page instead of running out to dead ends, feeling unbalanced, or slogging like filler. But that gets beyond the scope of what we can do in this article alone. So let’s move on to figuring out how to choose narrative distance!

The Narrative Distance Choice

If the character whose story you’re following and who is telling that story is one and the same, you might use a first-person POV.

If you need a little distance—maybe because you know you can’t tell your story without multiple characters’ POVs—then a deep third-person POV for each character might be a better choice since having the character names mentioned often and immediately makes a smoother experience for readers having to follow your POV switches. Yet, you can still achieve an effect quite close to first-person intimacy.

Writing something more epic? Traditional third-person limited is a solid choice. The omniscient level can also be done well, but note that it’s mostly fallen out of favor due to the greater distance from characters, which makes it harder for readers to care (among other common pitfalls with this POV).

Hardly anyone ever recommends second-person POVs, but it’s actually one of my secret personal faves. It’s often the POV of choose-your-own-adventure-styled books. I also enjoy the reader experiences you can create similar to a guided meditation. While it’s definitely not the best choice for most of the usual genre novels, certain projects (such as interactive games!) can benefit from the effect of making the reader into the character.

Third-Person Depths/Variations

While I’ve covered narrative distance overall, I’ll break it down further for the variations on third-person points of view (that’s the POV using he/she/they pronouns).

A high-level, third-person omniscient POV can zoom in or out at will within the same story. However, this is a POV to be careful with. Zooming in and out can be used to achieve masterful storytelling, but it can easily come off as inconsistent, lead to head-hopping (switching character POVs frequently and not only at clear breaks), and feel too removed from characters for readers to really come to care about them. It can be used well in historian-compilation frameworks or for something that’s meant to sound like a myth or legend. But it’s not a POV currently in favor for modern readers who want to be immersed in story.

The third-person limited POV is the one most readers are used to. It thrives on consistency and allows for more intimacy with the POV character(s). This POV follows only one character at a time and is not privy to the inner thoughts, feelings, or intentions of other characters. That doesn’t mean readers can’t get a solid view of the other characters through what is shown from the POV character’s observations, however! Showing vs. telling is key for this POV. Third-person limited works well across any genre or age category, so it’s never a bad choice. But that doesn’t mean it’s always the most effective one.

Becoming ever more popular, the deep third-person limited POV is as close as the narrator can get to the POV character without using the “I” and “we” pronouns of first-person. Not only is this POV intimate and closely connected to the character’s innermost being, it also allows for All. The. Voice. If you have a character with a distinctive personality and plenty of opinions she may (or may not…) keep to herself, try deep third POV. This POV is the most immersive, removing filters such as “she thought” or “she knew” in favor of just coming right out and stating it in the very words she would use—often even without any need for italics to set it off as a direct thought.

What Is Perspective and How Does It Work with Different Points of View?

After exploring all things first-person, second-person, third-person, and their narrative distances, let’s turn to one more aspect of novel narration. I could write more about all these different points of view, but, while they still have some subjective components, there’s another piece that’s maybe even more important— and that is perspective.

Once you know which person to write in and the best narrative distance to tell the story you want to tell, then all the flavor comes down to how the character sees the world. So that’s what I’m highlighting now—that character perspective.

A character’s perspective encompasses a lot of things. Let me break them down.

First, the character has a basic identity. Male? Female? Young? Old? How might that change the way the character thinks, acts, talks?

Second, where is the character from? Where did this character grow up? Those experiences will affect how the character thinks and talks.

I’m currently finishing up some coaching for a book with a character from an island kingdom. The author is working hard to infuse everything from his comparisons to his curses with seafaring imagery and ocean life.

Similarly, think also of Siuan Sanche from The Wheel of Time, who, despite being the most powerful woman as the Amyrlin Seat, came from a fishing village. The phrases she uses and the ways she thinks are all tied to her upbringing in that fishing village.

OK, then third, what is the character’s worldview? This is a broad question, and it really combines everything else, too, but I’m thinking more like… what is the character’s outlook on life? Is the character glum or pessimistic? Opinionated and sassy? Super goal-driven or with a hard moral compass?

Think of the difference between two assassins: FitzChivalry Farseer’s pragmatic ways against The Ruin of Kings’ Talon, who is a bit more gleeful about murder.

Of course, also never forget any past traumas, betrayals, and hurts (and, I suppose the flip side of those… but who likes to coddle their characters???). Anyway, these strong emotional memories might cause a character to flinch at the littlest reminder or to have a personality shaped by such things. That will all mold your prose for the character’s POV too.

And, lastly, simply the style of prose itself. Is the character a rambler, going on for long sentences with lots of details? Or is the character not one to speak or use any words that aren’t absolutely necessary? Short, clipped sentences might work for the latter.

Abrupt honesty, or coy and hidden meanings behind every phrase are all ways to differentiate such voices—especially when writing multiple POVs. Then these nuances become even more important for helping readers know whose point of view they’re in the instant they see the words on the page. And, if you do it well, they’ll slip into the mindset of the character naturally rather than being pulled out of the story to think about who’s actions they’re reading about. And that’s what we’re really aiming for: that deep reader enchantment that fully transports to your world!

So remember, before you draft, make your life easier by deciding on who your point-of-view characters are while getting brutally honest about whether or not you need additional POV characters. Then decide how “in the head” of that/those characters you want to get.

Hint: the deeper in the character’s head your story allows you to get, the more immersive your story will be.

Categories: novel planning

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