One of the first choices an author makes when putting pen to paper is point of view (POV). Although not always a conscious decision, it sets a key path for the story.
What is POV?
Point of view refers to who is telling the story. First person POV tells the story through one main character. We see and hear only what he/she sees and hears, and experiences (I did this, I saw this). Second person POV uses a ‘you, your’ construction, making the reader the protagonist. The most common POV is third person, with a he/she, him/her construction, where everything is seen through the ears, eyes and mind of the he/her of the moment.
Which one to use
There are variants of point of view – multiple third person POVs (Larry McMurtry demonstrates his mastery of this technique in Lonesome Dove), while other authors alternate between third person POV from chapter to chapter (frequently used in historical fiction, often going between present and past eras). POVs fall in and out of favor. Today, omniscient is deemed a bit old fashioned and second person is generally felt to be unwieldy and highly specific to a certain type of book. Last on my list is use of first person alternating with third person (lots of heads shaking at this one, but, while tricky, Diana Gabaldon uses this effectively in her Outlander series, varying the perspective chapter to chapter).
How to choose
I’m often asked by beginning writers – How do you choose POV? The answer is – Whose story are you telling? If you choose first person, are you prepared to limit your story to what this character experiences? Will we know too much if we can see into their mind? Or not enough? Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a master class in this. More recently, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl demonstrated other ways a first person narrator could be unreliable.
Never and always
Recently, online I’ve witnessed two different pleas for help understanding POV. One from a writer who was told never ever to write in first person. Another writer was told first person is the only way to write. Both of these individuals claimed to have received these dubious pearls of wisdom from writing instructors (not random people on the street).
The online reaction was marvelous. In the space of a few minutes the lists of first person and third person (and omniscient) POV books grew. Clearly both methods of storytelling (I’ll even grant an “all” methods) are valuable. The important point is to select the POV that fits YOUR story.
Read in order to write
A good way to muddle toward a choice is to read widely in the genre you are writing, and take notes. What is the POV in the book, why does it work. Be specific, dig into what you learn from the character’s perspective, and what is hidden. Imagine the story from another POV. What is gained and lost?