By M. G. Velasco
When crafting a new manuscript, choosing a point of view (POV) can be easy or face-rippingly agonizing. Okay, maybe not that difficult, but sometimes the wrong POV could derail a narrative with confusion or stale storytelling.
A POV that fits the tale will just be. It’s an invisible element providing the writer a lens and the reader a window to the story.
The two most common choices of POV are first person (“I” narrator) and third person (“she” narrator).
First person offers a natural and easy way to deliver the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. It’s intimate, as the reader has access to only the narrator’s mind. Combined with present tense, it feels more immediate, with the story happening at thought-speed.
First person: single narrator, from its own POV. “I love the precious.”
Third person allows the writer to rove about the narrative. This freedom is provided by two main forms: omniscient and limited. In omniscient third, the narrator is godlike with absolute information of the characters and the setting. Omniscient third opens the possibility of experiencing multiple POVs, sometimes through the whole rogue’s gallery of characters, even the neighbor’s cat. Unless the story demands this kind of treatment, it might be best to avoid multiple omniscient, which could lead to “head hopping.”
In limited third, the narration is bound by what the individual character perceives and experiences. The thoughts and feelings can be as close and intense as first person. An advantage limited third has is the ability to use “camera” movement, where the narration draws away from the character for a wider view of the world and story. This “psychic distance” can help drive the action without too much internalizing and can offer a “cinematic” view of the world.
Limited third can be used for multiple characters, as well, giving the current POV character their own scene or chapter. In this way, an ensemble cast can be utilized to its fullest potential, with each character having their own unique voice.
Third person limited: single narrator POV, one at a time. “Fred loves the precious, but he hates the dark look in Samantha’s eye.”
Third person omniscient: multiple characters, from an observing narrator’s POV. “Fred loves the precious, and Samantha wants to kill him.”
There’s also second person POV, with “you” as the narrator. Fun stuff.
Second person: “You love the precious, but totally mistrust Samantha. You decide to murder her before she kills you, keeping the precious for yourself.”
With those basics in mind, POV is more than a choice of “I” vs “she.” It must be constructed with voice.
Yep, Voice—the end-all, be-all character element. Voice can make POV dry, passive and boring, or make viewpoint clear, active and dynamic. Components of voice are: attitude, syntax, rhythm, figurative language and word choice.
Attitude comes from their mood and opinion on the subject. “Fred wakes to a gray sky” versus “Samantha wakes to a morning of bleak and disgusting bullcrap.”
Syntax is the way the narrator forms her sentences. Short or long. Choppy or fluid.
Rhythm aids viewpoint with momentum or with caution. Description, speech and internalizations can have various speeds and lengths depending on the situation.
Figurative language is the imagery used by the narrator. Employ metaphors and similes, but don’t overdo it.
Word choice. The more specific the better. A character’s vernacular is shaped by their education, job, culture, hobbies, geography and more. Using slang helps, too, but again, less is more.
A few things to avoid for viewpoint are passive voice, clutter and over-complexity. Voice needs to be immediate and fresh. Too many words swamp a narrative. Get to the point. For example, use “if” instead of “in the event of.” Clunky voice comes from writing something simple in a complicated way. (I sometimes have this problem when I try too hard to be writerly and voicey.) “Fred grinned” versus “the ends of Samantha’s lips curled upward like snakes hypnotically following the precious.”
Each of your narrators must have a unique voice. Their viewpoints must be distinguishable for clarity and for overall enjoyment. Who connects with confusing, boring characters that sound and act alike? (From my many rejections, I know that a lot of agents don’t.)
So, before writing the next two-thousand words of your new novel, how about trying a two-part warm-up?
Imagine your protagonist and a secondary character (friend or foe) hiking up a mountain. In either first or third person (or both) and in any tense you like, write what your characters see, think and feel.
Again, their POVs should be different. Their voices should be dictated by past experiences and the current situation. Word choice goes a long way to accentuate tone and attitude.
For the second part, imagine them coming across the precious (a wild flower, a direwolf pup or the ring of power). Write down your characters’ reactions, considering their unique viewpoint.
Hopefully, this little piece will get the creative cogs turning. If you’re struggling with your character’s voice or stuck in the narrative, consider changing POV. First-person for a more in depth and immediate connection. Third person for added clarity and flow in the conflict and action.
Perhaps, as you start a rough draft, a point of view will choose you. The right character will stand out, and you’ll know to use first, second, or third person.
Good luck, and Happy NaNoWriMo!
Years ago, M. G. Velasco earned his Bachelor of Science in Microbiology and worked at a pathology lab, which would come in handy if he’d ever write about a virus outbreak or describe an autopsy.
But his love for middle grade took over as his children grew and as he shared their love of reading books with familial themes and fantastical adventures.
Currently, M. G. Velasco juggles his stay-at-home dad responsibilities with remaining current and engaged in the writing community. When he’s not volunteering at his kids’ schools or leading a conquest with the North Texas Gamers, he attends weekly critique groups, is a member of SCBWI and regularly attends the DFW Writers Conference.