Reading Like a Writer – Different Points of View (POV)

A determining factor for the  story and tone in every book is the POV, or point of view.

This is certainly no news to any reader. When you read like a writer, though, the POV can help you predict how the story will develop and with what pace. Being aware of the pros and cons of the different POVs means you know right away what you will get and what you will not from a book.

It’s so straightforward it can actually ruin reading for you. Well, ruin is a strong word – let’s say it can take the surprise out of the majority of books. But that is a done deal if you are an avid reader anyway.

I will briefly go through some of the most popular POVs in fiction (excluding Second Person – you get enough of that in this blog post ; ) ).

First person

This seems to be the POV of choice for most of contemporary literature. Many a great novel have employed this type of POV – The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, the Bell Jar, The Handmaid’s Tale, Gone Girl, Me Before You – to name a few.

What it tells the reader: First person POV means you get the most genuine authentic self of the character, but not all the facts. You cannot learn anything or witness any scene without the main character being there at the same time. If a door closes and your guy/gal is left on the wrong side of it, no juicy details for you. If they get hit on the head, you are gonna see stars and hear muffled voices until they get well again. A lot of ceiling staring, a lot of dreams and pondering, unless they are on their feet.

It also means that you can expect a couple of important secondary characters to feed you the information you need to actually enjoy the story. A skilled writer knows how to ensure diversity, so besides someone telling the main characters things they need to know, there probably will be quick summaries of such tellings that you don’t need to read through, just to speed up the story.

Rookie writers seem to prefer writing in first person, because it sounds dramatic and authentic with almost no extra effort. ‘Sound’ being the key word. Take a beginning paragraph in first person, turn the I‘s into She‘s and all bad prose is stripped to its underwear. Frilly or stinky, it is not presentable.

Third Person

Here we have three options – Limited, Multiple, Omniscient.

Limited means you get pretty much the same deal as with the First Person POV, only instead of I you read he or she. You will still move very closely to the protagonist and you will need their senses to explore the story.

There is a slight difference in the way descriptions will work. They will sound slightly more objective, although not much. For example, a heroine thinking about her beautiful, voluptuous hair might tell us she is narcissistic, and we can not be sure her hair is not actually mousy brown and dull. If we read the same description in third person, we might take it as an objective fact that she is aware of, but a fact nonetheless.

Multiple is the same as Limited, only different characters get to be the POV in different parts of the story. Most often the POV switches with a new chapter. A notable example is George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

For a reader this means you will always need some clue that the POV has switched to another character. An easy way for an author is to put the name of the POV in the chapter title (again – ASOIAF). If the writer is not very skilled in switching POVs you will have to live with some awkward sentences that are obviously there to establish who is speaking (and they might add a bit of a ‘retard’ nuance to their personality).

Omniscient! Ah, the wonder. This is a peculiar one. It’s both the most and the least ordinary. It was absolutely the guy of the hour before the 19th century.

In this POV the author is the God, they know everything there is to know and may decide at any point of the story to divulge information none of the characters knows or is supposed to know. They can also hop from head to head and reveal what any character is thinking.

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With Omniscient Third Person the reader gets a lot of POVs that might change in a matter of sentences. Also, while you are reading about a conversation in the kitchen, the writer might intercede to tell you what is happening at the bus station. Or they might just tell you their opinions on the plot development. You know, like those DVDs with director’s commentary.

The Big Mix

Mixing First person POV with Third Person Limited POV is not rare, especially in contemporary fiction. In my experience, it most often happens when the writer has started in first person and then decided to write sequels. It is much harder to build complex parallel plot lines if you have to always have one specific character in the room. A good example is the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. The first book is told entirely from Claire’s perspective, but as the volumes stack up we get the third person POVs of Jaime, Roger and Bree.

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Mixed POVs for me means the story can go anywhere and that’s good. The downside is that changing between first and third person can feel like getting a cold shower between chapters. Or is it just me?

What the mixed POVs approach tells a reader is that they are going to get the measure of the writer sooner rather than later. It is a tricky thing to write and has to be done with a clear purpose, not just because you got tired being in the head of a certain character.

Do you prefer books told in first or third person? In what way does the POV make a difference to you? Please, share in the comments 🙂

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