This week's Refresher Friday takes another look at choosing a point of view style. Enjoy!
How do you choose between first and third person point of view (POV)?
Whichever you like better.
That seems way too simple, right? But there is no preferred POV for any type of story. There are traditional POVs for genres and markets, but no one says you have to adhere to those. But that's not helpful for someone who isn't sure which to use, so let's dig a little deeper.
Which Narrative Distance do You Prefer?
Narrative distance is how far from the POV character the reader feels while reading the story. The more distance you put between reader and narrator, the more detached they feel from the POV character. This is probably the key in determining what POV to use. Do you want your reader to feel in the head of the character and in the moment, or more like an observer? There is no wrong answer here.
Some folks detest first person because they feel it steals all the tension from a story. Since it's first person, you know the person survived the tale. Others detest third person because everything that happens feels detached, as if happening to someone else and they can't get immersed in the story. Your personal preference goes a long way to deciding which POV to use. If your strengths fall with a certain POV, then use it. Don't do first person because "everyone says first person YA sells better." Great stories sell better, and if writing in first person makes you feel stifled and causes you to tell everything, then you won't write a great story.
(More on narrative distance here)
Examples of Narrative Distance
Narrative distance is more of a sliding scale than set levels, but there are general guidelines.
Far Narrative Distance
Bob frowned and decided he just didn’t have time to wash the car.This has a far narrative distance. You can tell by the word “decided” because that’s the author telling the reader what Bob is doing. You don’t see Bob make that decision. Far distances put the reader in the observation seat, often getting information the POV character doesn't know from an unknown narrator.
Medium Narrative Distance
Bob glanced at his watch and frowned. No time to wash the car, he thought.
This is a medium narrative distance. You can tell by the “he thought,” which is the author telling the reader what Bob is thinking. The reader can observe Bob glancing and frowning, but they need the author to tell them what’s in Bob’s head. Medium distances uses phrases that remind the reader they're reading a story. You can "see" the action, but are told the mental stuff because you're not fully in the head of that character. You're told the thoughts when the author feels you should know them.
Close Narrative Distance
Bob glanced at his watch and frowned. No time to wash the car.
This is a close narrative distance. You can tell because there are no explanations from the author to tell you what Bob is doing. The reader can observe his actions and hear his thoughts just as Bob does and thinks them. Close distances let the reader see, hear, think, everything as the POV character does. If things aren't what the POV thinks, the reader has to figure that out on their own.
Deciding What POV to Use
A lot of time it comes down to your writer's instincts. If a story just feels right as one type of POV, odds are that's the right one to tell it in. In my fantasy trilogy, the protagonist, Nya, demanded to be first person, and that was a style I'd never really written in before. I was worried about being able to pull it off well, but then I discovered it was my favorite style and what came to me naturally. Sometimes you'll just hear the right POV in your head and a character will insist on one over the other. But if you're not sure, ask yourself...
(More on POV here)
1. Which POV style do you prefer?
If you clearly have a preference, write in that style. The only style that's iffy would be second person, because so few books are published in second person that folks often find it pretty funky to read. But there are books that have done very well using it. Whatever you enjoy writing in will be the stronger story.
2. How close do you want the reader to get to the characters?
This goes back to narrative distance. If you want that "totally there in the moment" feel, then a close POV is for you--either a first person or a tight limited third (single or multiple). First person is great if you want zero distance, third limited is great if you want a small step between them. If you want more separation, a medium or far distance might be a good choice. Maybe being an observer suits the type of tale you're telling, and being too close will be too much. An omniscient narrator can be a good choice if you want an outside narrator who knows all the details and can convey information that can't be known otherwise.
(More on POV and character development here)
3. What's common for the genre?
You don't want to write something just because that's how the genre usually does it, but if it makes no difference to you, and most books in that genre are in a particular POV style, it could be a good style to use. Readers are used to it, you know it works and sells, and you'll have tons of examples to study.
Don't worry about using the "wrong" one POV from a sales perspective. A great story is what matters at the submission stage. Folks have their preferences, but you can't do anything about that, so write the novel the best way you know how using the best POV for the job. If you're only good at one style, then write everything in that style. If you can jump back and forth, then do what feels best for that story.
What POV style do you prefer to write? What about read?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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