Today’s post is by editor Tiffany Yates Martin (@FoxPrintEd).
Choosing the most effective perspective from which to tell your story is a combination of both the technical and the creative. It’s useful to consider the benefits and limitations of each POV, the feel that each POV might lend, and how well it fits the tone and tenor of your story— as well as its genre. Let’s look the most common POVs today and what each offers you.
Third-person omniscient POV
In clarifying the conventions of each point of view, I find it useful to imagine the author’s perspective as that of a fly.
In third-person omniscient, the fly is untethered, able to flit anywhere in time and space, privy to all knowledge and information that ever existed in the world, and even able to eavesdrop on characters’ thoughts. The fly is all-seeing and knows things the characters may not.
This gives the author enormous leeway in presenting information. Nothing is off-limits, including how every character in the room thinks and feels. But only from an external point of view. The omniscient fly is still separate from the characters. It may be a witness to what’s going on inside of them, but only as if overhearing it, not experiencing it firsthand.
Omniscient can be a difficult POV to work with because it can feel formal or distant or dry. It’s more common in certain genres than others—like fantasy, science fiction, and literary novels—and can work well if handled skillfully to offer readers almost a panoramic view of the world of the story and its characters.
But it is also one of the easiest points of view to go careening off the rails if misused, resulting in head-hopping that may leave readers feeling disoriented or confused.
Third-person limited POV
With third-person limited, the fly is on a leash attached to a single POV character. The fly can report on anything within its purview, including things the character may or may not notice, like someone sneaking up behind her.
It’s also privy to the character’s thoughts and feelings and reactions in the same way that omniscient POV is, as if eavesdropping on what’s going on inside a character, but it’s still a separate entity and not directly enmeshed with the character’s firsthand thoughts or feelings.
This limits what you as the author are able to report on, so to speak, but it also offers a somewhat more intimate perspective than omniscient in that it sticks with the perspective of a single character at a time (per scene or separate section).
This is also a very common voice in the current market. This point of view is easily adaptable to various genres and tones, from highbrow literary to more accessible popular fiction.
“Deep” third-person limited POV and first-person POV
Even more popular lately, it seems, is a version of third-person point of view often called deep or close third-person. This follows all the conventions of regular third-person limited, with the addition that the fly actually is, for all intents and purposes, the character. They are as one. The fly thinks the character’s thoughts, feels his feelings, reacts directly as if it were the character. The fly—meaning you as the author—is essentially a window into the character’s soul.
In this regard it’s very similar to first-person point of view: Basically there is no fly. As in deep third, the fly lives inside the character’s heart and head and behind her eyes (also, ew, sorry for the visual). And every single thing the character experiences, feels, knows, etc., is filtered through the fly.
First-person is increasingly popular, especially in genre fiction, but it also has a fine strong legacy even in literary fiction—authors ranging from Dickens to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Kazuo Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood, E. L. James and Stephanie Meyer have written novels in first-person POV.
It is the most intimate of all voices, having a confidential, come-sit-next-to-me feel that brings the reader directly into the world of the characters and story. It can allow for the deepest direct view into a character’s perspective, and carries a sense of informality.
First-person (and deep third) still allows the author to withhold information for “reveals” and suspense, or make ambiguous certain information that can call the character’s authority and translucency into question, as with the “unreliable narrator” device. Just because we’re directly privy to the character’s inner life doesn’t necessarily mean we’re allowed into every shadowed corner.
This point of view can be limiting, though, as with deep third and limited third, because the author is able to report only on the point-of-view character’s direct purview. And it can slip into a common trap of “reporting”—as if the character is retelling a story from a remove, rather than as if readers are living it with them directly.
Choosing POV: the intangibles
Deciding which point of view you want to use is also a factor of personal preference and comfort level. Many authors have a natural voice that they often write in that feels most organic to them, and most if not all their stories will adopt that point of view. Many also change it up from story to story depending on their intentions for it, and the desired “feel” and tone.
If you aren’t sure which point of view feels right to you or a particular story, I often suggest a simple exercise: Take a pivotal scene or two and try writing it from several different points of view—not necessarily different characters, but different voices: omniscient, limited third, etc.
Often one will immediately feel like the right choice to you, or will allow you to bring the story most fully and impactfully to life in the way you imagined.
If you’ve already chosen a POV and are rewriting a scene in a different point of view as an exercise, you may find a different POV feels more comfortable or lends itself better to the story’s tone and feel, or opens up a perspective that adds depth or impact to the story.
Or you may confirm that your original choice was the best one.
The main thing to remember? There is no right choice or most correct point of view. Like everything in writing, it’s subjective.
Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers. She is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. She is a regular contributor to writers’ outlets like Writer’s Digest, Jane Friedman, and Writer Unboxed, and a frequent presenter and keynote speaker for writers’ organizations around the country. Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com.