Writing points of view in fiction

Novels aren’t films – yet some writers forget this.

MGM made a film called The Lady in the Lake, in 1947, where the camera rolled along as though it were the eyes of the narrator. When the narrator smoked, cigarette smoked curled around the lens, but the effect was gimmicky and stale.

Movie cameras are promiscuous, pervasive, and whilst novels can have multiple protagonists, novels deal closely with the interior worlds of characters. A good book can’t leap in the same way as a camera without losing momentum – perhaps heart – and even third-person narration is intrinsically linked to character perspective.

Here’s what to consider when it comes to points of view (POVs, in jargon), no matter your preferred narration style.

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First-person narration

Single perspective

First-person narration shares action as seen through the eyes of your narrator. A narrator can only narrate scenes in which he or she is present, though.

Coming-of-age novels – Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower – work exceptionally well in first-person narration, as can romances, or ghost stories with a sense of claustrophobia like Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black.

You cannot as a rule, though, mix first-person scenes with third-person scenes. If the book is being narrated by your central character, how can they know what’s going on if not there to witness it?

Break that at your peril.

Multiple perspectives

Again, action is seen through the eyes of your narrator, and the same rules apply – but there’s more than one protagonist – or there’s an antagonist speaking, and a protagonist speaking, perhaps. You need a good reason to be writing like this – why does it work for your story?

John Fowles’ thriller The Collector, for instance, is narrated by a kidnapper, Fred, and the girl he kidnaps, Miranda. It only works because the story facilitates the narration. It’s a shared experience. Readers live it, literally, as good-versus-evil.

Approach this narrative strategy with care – and look up our rules coming up for third-person omniscient narration, too, as lots apply here.

Other things to think about with first-person narratives:

  • You’re acting, writing in character. Your tone must fit with the character of your narrator. Before opting for first-person, make sure your character will write the prose you want to write. If in doubt, read up on building characters.
  • You may need to adapt your plot to handle a single viewpoint. Your narrator can’t talk about things not seen.
  • You may be onto something. First-person narration probably offers fewer pitfalls than alternatives, and much of the world’s great literature has been written this way.

Third person narration

Third-person limited (with a single perspective)

Third-person limited narration from a single perspective – e.g. Harry Potter – offers comparative flexibility compared with first-person narration. This allows you as narrator to write prose different from what your central character might think, might say themselves.

If your protagonist, for instance, is not introspective, then third-person narration allows you to get inside thoughts and feelings more than you might have been able to if the character himself were describing things.

In J.K. Rowling’s example, Harry is the lens through which we see the magical world unfurling. It’s why her style of narration works so well for her story.

Why, though, might you want to stick to a single perspective through most of a book?

The answer is that with focus on one single character, you will get more deeply into their thoughts, feelings and inner journey than if your focus is scattered. Occasionally, the rule gets broken (George R.R. Martin being the obvious example), but it’s rarely broken well.

We’re sometimes asked if it’s possible to use secondary points of view in a book where there is one primary focus. The answer is yes, if use of such POVs is sparing. Another example is J.K. Rowling’s dipping into the thoughts of antagonist Voldemort, or minor characters Uncle Vernon or Frank Bryce, but her time away from Harry is purposefully fleeting.

Prolonged time away from your main protagonist creates loss of intensity in writing. It’s fine if you have a crucial development to recount, and clear why this development impacts the protagonist.

The more time you spend away from your area of focus, though, the greater the loss of impetus.

As a rough guide, if you spend more than ten short sections away from your protagonist, you are losing momentum.

Third-person omniscient (with multiple perspectives)

Third-person omniscient narration sweeps over different characters’ viewpoints, never spending too long tagging any single perspective. George Eliot’s classic Middlemarch is a famous example.

This narration can cause many novels to lag, but could work well in, say, a novel like Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us, a series like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. We’re meant to understand and empathise with multiple protagonists, just one reason such books can be emotionally compelling.

Arguably, this is a level up from third-person limited narration, and its use should be justified by your story. Ask yourself if it is the best structure to use?

Some manuscripts that come our way are written in the third person, with multiple points of view. Often, such manuscripts lag, writers having just not understood the difference between written fiction and film.

So here’s the rule.

Fiction is about inner worlds and inner journeys. If you use any POV repeatedly, the character needs a fully developed inner life, a fully developed arc, a full set of challenges, encounters and personal change – and relevance, too. Is this person relevant to your collective story material?

If you work from a POV where the character in question is only partially developed, this part of your writing will never come to life.

This rule has an important consequence. Few books can tolerate more than three or four POVs. It’s so difficult to accommodate more than one internal world in any book and do it properly, let alone three or four, and you risk fracturing narrative drive, so please take care.

And finally, here is a last handful of no-nos.

  • Don’t switch POVs in the middle of a scene. If you start with Emma, don’t end with Harriet.
  • If you’re writing from Mr Knightley’s perspective, don’t relate from Emma details only Mr Knightley could have seen.
  • If you’re writing a scene from Emma’s perspective, you can’t share emotional information about another character. If you want to tell us something about Mr Elton, or anyone else, you can only do this via information Emma either perceives or could plausibly have access to.

There’s also second-person narration, sparingly used in literary fiction – like Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain – or sparingly in genre fiction, such as YA novel Stolen by Lucy Christopher. When written well, the effect can be dazzling, though second-person narration is often best avoided. It can lead to confusion or pretension, the last thing you want being to patronise readers.

Finally, if in doubt, look up selecting the best narration style for your book, or ask us about it. It’s good to get feedback if you need, and we’re here to help.

Happy writing!

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