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Monday, November 26

First Vs. Third: Point of View and Character Development

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Point of View is one of the strongest tools a writer has in their toolbox. A story can drastically change just by who's telling it and how they feel about those events. The wrong POV can even kill an otherwise great story. But there are so many choices. First person, third person, close or distant narrator, single or multiple views.

I've gone into the mechanics of POV before, so here are some links on the basics for those looking for a refresher. General POV overview. A more technical study. POV in action.

Choosing a Point of View Character 

General rule of thumb says the one with the most to lose is the protagonist. Most times your protagonist is your POV character. But to determine which type of POV to use, I like to look a little deeper than that and ask...

1. Is this a personal story or an epic tale?

Personal stories often require a tight POV to really understand the nuances of that personal struggle. Epic tales tell a bigger picture story and often require multiple people to show all sides. If the story is about a person and their journey, close and single POVs (third or first) can be a great choice, because they allow you to really get into the head of that character and focus on their problem. A story about a situation, be it a quest, a war, a terrorist attack, might be better told through the eyes of characters who can see all sides of it.

2. What scope do you want to show?

Even if the tale is personal, you might choose to look at the bigger picture to convey a theme or ideal. Or a massive situation might be seen from the eyes of one single character. Think about what aspect of the story you want to focus on. Big tales don't have to be told by a big cast, same as personal tales can involve more than one person.

3. Who has the freedom to act?

If the story is about something happening to a particular person, it seems natural that that person would be the POV. But sometimes the one in the thick of it isn't the one in the best position to know what's going on. In The Shifter, Tali is the one in trouble, but it would have been a boring book if she were the POV, or even a POV. She might have been in the mess, but Nya was the one with the freedom to act and get her out of it. 

4. Multiple or single Point of View? 

I've found multiple POVs can be tricky because when you have a lot of them, it can be a red flag that you have a premise novel. So make sure that every person you're telling the story with has a solid reason for being there. If the only reason is because "you can't show that part of the story any other way" then you might want to reconsider. If there's no goal driving that character, they'll feel flat and their sections will feel pointless--or worse--that they're just there as exposition or back story.

Multiple POVs work best when each POV brings something unique to the tale. A fresh perspective, goals of their own, a subplot that connects to a larger theme that encompasses the entire story. The reader cares about that POV, even if all they care about is to see them get what they deserve.

Developing Characters Based on Point of View

Regardless of what POV you choose, character development is pretty much the same. You want layered characters with goals and stakes, and plausible motivations that come from real desires. Tight POVs might have more personal goals and stakes, as close narratives are often about more personal journeys, but even in a third omniscient POV, you still want your readers to connect to the characters through their goals and motivations. Telling an epic tale doesn't mean you skimp on the character development. In fact, it's probably even more critical because there are more characters to keep track of, and you'll have less time per character to make that reader connection. 

The farther away you get from the character's head, the easier it is to make them do what you want, not what they want. Because the narrator often becomes the author at that point. And the author knows all, and starts telling the reader all so they can keep up. So a more distant POV runs the risk of sounding flat, having more told sections and less showing. But if you keep who your characters are in mind, and show things from their heads regardless of how close or far away you are, then you hold onto that character and show the world thorough their eyes.

Of course, there is a flip side risk here. First person or a tight third can sometimes make you feel that you have to explain everything, and you can get that "I did this, I felt that" thing going. So instead of having a tight POV, you have a narrator who's not actually in the story, just observing it and relaying it to the reader. These types of characters can often be yanked from the story and the events won't change all that much. A bad thing, especially if your POV happens to be first person. 

A great POV trick is to convey how a character feels about something by their actions. They won't think "I feel sad," they'll cry. They won't "be afraid" they'll tremble and cower. They won't "hate that girl" they'll slip her homework into the trash when she accidentally leaves it on her desk. Let the reader figure out how a character feels by observing what they do.

A solid POV, no matter what type, gives you the freedom to let that character shine. Because if you're in their head, then everything they think and do and say is who they are and what they believe in. Not only will that flesh out the character, but the world around them as well.

Which POV do you prefer? Do you change per story? 


  1. just what I needed right now! Trying to decide on POV for my next project, and this has helped. Thanks!

  2. Oh, this was great! I had a very hard time with POV while writing my epic fantasy novel because telling it just through the Main Character's POV was too restricting for the scope of the novel. Your advice for having a few key characters tell the story as well is spot on!

  3. Great advice. Can you do a post sometime about what makes you decide to use first person or third person limited? Is one better than the other? I'm really wondering about that as I get ready to start a new project.

  4. For me, POV is the hardest part to understand and do well in this whole writing thing. So all your POV posts have helped greatly Janice.

    Natalie's suggestion about 3rd or 1st is a good idea for a post.

    What you say about multiple POV is true. In my first attempt at a novel I did what a lot of new writers of sci-fi and fantasy fans do. I began an epic trilogy with what I thought was multiple points of view.
    The funny thing is, when I look back at all those different points of view. I don't think I was inside the head of any of them.

  5. Thanks Janice! One of my friends in my writing group was just asking me for help on POV so I sent him this post.

    Also, could you please change my website in your Reader Blogs list to my new one? Thanks so much!!

  6. Great post. I especially like that you explain how to tell if you need multiple viewpoints. :)

  7. I've got a couple of novels documenting the same events, but from different first-person POVs. Fun :)

  8. Chelsey: You're welcome :)

    McGriff: Thanks, I'm glad it helped.

    Natalie: Sure. I'll toss that up on Monday.

    Sam: POV is one of those things that usually takes a while to get. And when you do, it's often one piece of advice and then everything suddenly clicks into place. And I had the same epic fantasy multiple POV book :) I think every fantasy writer has one of those somewhere, hehe.

    Sarah: Done!

    Chicory: Thanks!

    Trisha: Those are tricky, but can be tons of fun, especially if the only way to get the "real" story is to see it all from different perspectives and figure out who's missing what.

  9. POV was my first eye-opening writing lesson. I prefer deep 3rd, but sometimes a character insists on 1st. Whatever you choose, the trick is to do it well.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  10. One thing I've always struggled with is what point of view I should use for my protagonist. In the past, I've attempted to use first person, but I found that it didn't work very well, because I couldn't describe the depth of the imagery. However, with third person, I find it works better for me.

    Thank you for the advice! :)

  11. I'm weird, when I start a story, I listen to the characters voices in my head and that tells me the POV. It's never the same either. One character will talk in first for one story, then another will in third for a different story.

  12. Nice posting on POV. I rewrote my first novel six times before finding the right POV, but once I did, it worked great! BTW, most YA enjoys first person, probably because it's easier to 'get inside the character's head'. MG, however, likes third person.

  13. Terry: Exactly!

    W.B.: I think everyone struggles with it at some point. That's great that you've found your niche :)

    Patricia: Nothing weird with that at all. Lots of writers do the same thing. That's actually why I started writing in first person for The Shifter. Nya just insisted on first person. That's awesome that you can jump back and forth.

    Rebecca: Which is funny since my MG is first person :) There are definitely common POVs in any given genre, but you don't *have* to write in that POV.

  14. For some reason I have the tendency to write in third person/close. I need to know my characters on intimate basis.
    Thanks for the great always.

  15. Sounds like you found your niche, which is great :)

  16. Timely article, Janice. I had never considered more than 3rd person POVs in the book I'm working on but can now wonderful possibilities for depth and plot development in allowing other characters' stories to shine. Thanks!

  17. That should read: never considered more than 2 3rd person POVs :)

  18. Everyone tells me first person is the easiest to write, and it probably is, and will save a lot of my problems. But I personally don't like reading first person, so I'm going to stick with third person even if it kills me

  19. Na'ima, POV is my favorite writing tool. You can do so much with it. Glad I could help!

    Greg, I always found first the hardest for a long time. Then I had a strong enough writing foundation and it clicked for me. If you're a third person writer, then stick with it. Embrace your voice and style and the book will be better for it.

  20. Hi Janice,
    Currently, I'm write a middle grade novel in close, third person.
    My first novel has two, first person POV characters.
    I always thought writing with an omniscient POV was taboo, but I guess the reason is that the story might have too much telling and not enough showing.
    Thanks for another thought provoking post!

  21. POV is something I think long and hard about before beginning. I want to get it right! Thanks for the great advice, as always.

  22. Tracy, a lot of "taboos" are just things that are hard to do well, and the advice has become "don't do it" over the years. Omni can work well if done well. John Scalzi uses it in many of his books with great success. Ally Carter also does with her Heist series.

    Julie, same here. Finding that right balance and voice is so critical.

  23. Thanks, Janice.
    I've written down both authors. I'll check out how they handled Omni POV.

  24. I am having Leilani tell the story and since she is the narrator it is in first person. Their also third person for the other characters. Is there a way for me not to say I when I am writing as Leilani?

    1. No, first person uses I. If you wanted to avoid that, you could use a tight third person and use she and her name. A tight third has the same closeness as first, with different pronouns.

      Of course, you can write first person and just try very hard to limit how often you use I. Using it too much is actually distracting, so good first person isn't I crazy. But you still use it.