The number-one goal of writing fiction is to fascinate your readers. You want them to get sucked into a hole in the page and forget there’s a real world they have to go back to.
Yeah, I know that breaking the fourth wall is a thing and Deadpool and Shakespeare do it all the time. There are always exceptions, okay.
But usually when readers come across something that makes them remember somebody made all this up, they get pulled out of the story, and that makes them start to lose interest. Point of view is an important thing in this regard because mistakes with it can easily break your story. If the reader gets confused or irritated enough, they’re going to stop reading, and they might not come back to read anything else you write.
So here’s an overview of point of view techniques. None of them are inherently better than the others, and what’s best to use is up to your individual style and what works with the story, because each one’s going to have different effects on your writing and on the reader.
This is kind of the default for fiction, but there’s a lot of variation in how you tackle it, and the decisions you make will affect how strongly the reader identifies with the character.
If your narration includes language that the character would actually say, that closes some of the distance between the character and the reader. Language will vary from person to person based on where someone lives, how educated they are, what frame of mind they’re in, and what’s going on. You can insert clues to help the reader understand the situation and what kind of person the character is. For example:
Tina ran from the mutant rabbit, tripping over her feet. These stupid ever-loving heels, she thought. Why the hell did I wear them today?
That’s kind of “shallow” third person. If we remove words like “thought,” “realized,” and “wondered” (“barrier words”), we go deeper into the perspective because we’re reading the character’s thoughts as if they’re our own:
These stupid ever-loving heels! Why the hell did I wear them today?
A person’s background, personality, and state of mind are going to affect how they perceive things, what they notice, and what’s going on. Putting in description that’s colored by the character’s perspective is a subtle way to get readers further into their head. It also lets you inject some mood in the scene and helps keep the description from getting boring, by directly tying it in to the character and the action (part of the “show, don’t tell” thing).
Here are two descriptions of the same scene, one deep into the perspective and one not as much.
I know it’s around here somewhere, Tina thought. She strained to hear it coming, but all she could make out was the wailing of the wind. The camp was isolated, no one around for miles. The setting sun’s light reflected off the pointy metal structures dotting the hill.
I know it’s around here somewhere. She strained to hear it, but all she could make out was the lonely wail of the wind. The camp was isolated, no one around for miles. The red light of the setting sun glared off the metal structures dotting the hill. They looked like sharp gleaming teeth.
Basically, the deeper you go into a character’s perspective, the more your reader will understand and identify with the character. That’s usually a good thing, but not always. You might not want your reader to identify with your antagonist. Or it might not be practical, like how a killer’s direct thoughts might all be gibberish.
With third person you can tell a story from different angles and hit all the plot points because you can do scenes from the POV of different characters. Keep in mind that if you have too many POV characters, your reader won’t be able to identify as strongly with your main one(s). It can even make it hard to tell who the main ones are.
In first person, the narrator (always a character in fiction, not the writer, even if the story is based on reality) speaks directly to the reader.
I ran from the mutant rabbit, screaming at the top of my lungs.
First person has the advantage of immediately putting the reader inside a character’s head, but it’s restricting on the writer: you can’t tell the reader anything the narrating character can’t know. Depending on the story, you might have a hard time hitting all the plot points. And you might automatically lose tension if the character is in danger, because they have to survive to tell about it (unless it’s framed as a diary, or it’s a ghost talking, or something). If your reader doesn’t like the character or can’t connect with them, and your whole book’s from the POV of that character, they’re in for a slog.
However, you can do some interesting things with first person, like an unreliable narrator. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis is a good example.
This is going to make people think of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. It’s not usually recommended, and it would probably get old in a novel, but it could work great in a short story if done well. This perspective is going to naturally be sort of shallow because it’s hard for readers to believe it when they’re outright told that they’re feeling something. It’s also probably going to need to be in present tense, unless you’ve got a really good reason to tell your reader what happened to them in the past.
You know it’s around here somewhere. You strain to hear it coming, but all you can make out is the wailing of the wind. The camp is isolated, no one around for miles.
Omniscient is the god-view. The narrator isn’t a character in the story, so the narration can cover lots of things without the filter of a single character’s mind. This will probably be simpler to write, but you’ll lose the immediacy of a single perspective, so readers might not be as engaged as they would be seeing through a character’s eyes.
The mutant rabbit chased Tina down the hill. Terrified, she ran, screaming bloody murder. A distant camper froze at the sound.
You can interject kind of an all-seeing voice.
Since the dawn of time, no creature had been more terrifying.
You can break the fourth wall if you really want to. (Really, you can do that from any POV, though. It was very fashionable in the Jane Eyre days, and that one’s in first person.)
Reader, she was terrified. Wouldn’t you be?
And you can show details that no one in the story knows, although be careful to only show things that are pertinent to the story or characters. Don’t bore people with description that’s just there to be pretty.*
*Unless you’re writing literary fiction, I guess? There I cannot help you.
The girl ran down the hill, unaware that a pit lay just ahead, waiting to trap her.
That’s not a great way to present this information, but at least it’s relevant. By contrast, this doesn’t work so well:
The girl ran down the hill, the rabbit in pursuit. Centuries ago, a great and bloody battle had been fought here.
There are situations where omniscient is definitely the way to go. This isn’t a horror example (sorry), but Clan of the Cave Bear is written in omniscient, and it works great. But omniscient was still in style back then, and it’s not really in favor anymore, probably because it’s much more riveting to be deep inside a character’s head, and also because of the danger of…
This is one of those rules that you really do have to follow. Even if you’re a master, it’s very hard to pull off jumping around in your POV. A manuscript reader, acquisitions editor, or contest judge will notice it right away, call it a rookie mistake, and toss your story.
Here’s an example:
Tina ran from the mutant rabbit, her breathing ragged. She tripped and went down. Why didn’t I change out of these stupid heels? The rabbit reared above her, triumphant, its mad brain overwhelmed with bloodlust. He would deliver this woman’s head to his queen, but first he would feast.
We start in the victim’s POV and then abruptly jump into the antagonist’s head with no transition. This is a huge problem. It’s going to pull your reader out of the story super fast, breaking any tension you’ve built up. It can get really confusing, too. When the readers have to stop and puzzle stuff out that they shouldn’t have to think about, eventually they’ll throw your book against the wall.
So it’s very important to pick a perspective and stick with it, at least until the end of a paragraph, but preferably until the end of a scene or chapter.
Having said that, getting what you’re going for out of a scene might call for varying levels of depth into a character, and for different kinds of POV, too. If you can’t avoid switching perspectives in the middle of a scene, make sure it’s easy to follow. There are tricks you can use, like extra line breaks, to indicate that it’s the same scene but that you’ve switched perspectives.
The rabbit chased Tina down the hill. She screamed bloody murder. She knew she wouldn’t make it.
In the distance, a camper heard the scream and froze. He dialed 911 and climbed into his truck.
The rabbit reared above his prize, triumphant, his mad brain overwhelmed with bloodlust. He would deliver this woman’s head to his queen after all. With a joyful squeal, he opened his jaws wide, preparing to feast.
I really don’t need to jump around like this here, but it should give you some idea of what I mean. We go from third-person (protagonist), to omniscient, to third-person (antagonist). Make sure to immediately clue in the reader as to whose head they’re in after a switch.
Try not to worry too much about what’s in fashion. Pretty much any POV technique you could ever think of has been used very successfully by very successful authors. What’s important is to understand the pluses and minuses of each type of POV, which one or which combination of them will best tell your story and keep your reader riveted, and how to avoid head-hopping. Make sure to stick with whatever you go with, only changing it up when it makes sense, so no one gets confused or frustrated.
If you have any questions for me or things to discuss, please post them on the group page!