How to Choose the Right POV (What I Learned Writing Storming)

How to Choose the Right POV (What I Learned Writing Storming)

Your novel is going to be the product of a series of important decisions. One of the most important of those decisions is one many authors take for granted: the point of view (POV) from which the story will be told.

Let me implore you right now: Don’t take POV for granted! The slapdash POV decisions you make in the beginning will literally determine the success or failure of your story.

Think I’m blowing smoke? Consider this. We all know how important story structure is. But if you mess up on one of your story’s all-important structural moments, that bad decision will only, at worst, affect the remainder of the book. Sames goes for character arc mistakes, poor word choices, and even wobbly themes.

But POV? POV is going to affect every single page of your book. That’s not a decision to be made lightly.

Storming K.M. WeilandWelcome to the eighth and final part in our month-long series of Things I Learned Writing Storming–my historical/dieselpunk novel, releasing this Friday on December 4th. This is a particularly apt subject for this series, since the POV in this book was something I came this close to completely blowing. Let’s take a look at three important factors in how to choose the right POV for your book–and how I used these factors to keep myself from making a major mistake that would probably have necessitated a total rewrite of the book.

How Many POVs Should You Include in Your Book?

Your ability to choose the right POV for your book is actually going to come down to a series of choices. The first is the question of how many POVs. And, yes, this should definitely be a conscious decision. If you find yourself writing a new POV off the cuff whenever it feels right, then you’re risking the tightness and overall “wholeness” of your story.

Here are two important rules of thumb about POVs:

1. If you give a character a POV, this is a signal to readers that this character is important. If his POV should fail to show up again, he becomes a loose end dangling in the readers’ minds.

2. If the character is important enough to be given a POV, then that POV should optimally be introduced in the First Act. Recurring elements in the second half bring continuity and resonance to your story, rather than a sense of randomness and indiscriminate cohesion.

The Benefits of Multiple POVs

How many POVs you include in your story will depend, to some extent, on genre. Epic fantasy often includes a dozen or more POVs. Romances usually include only two. Multiple POVs allow you to:

  • Get inside more characters’ heads.
  • Show events outside the immediate perspective of your main character.
  • Create irony and suspense by allowing readers to see things other characters do not.
  • Show different sides to other POV characters (e.g., he may see himself as unlovable, but another POV character does love him, allowing readers to vicariously share that experience).

In short, multiple POVs create flexibility and broaden the author’s options. But keep in mind, the greater the number of POVs, the more complicated the story will become, the more difficult it will be to maintain intimacy between the reader and any one character, and the more scattered your narrative necessarily ends up being.

The Benefits of Limited POVs

I’m a proponent of fewer POVs. In past books, I’ve used as many as six POVs. Then one day during my daily Writing Question of the Day discussion on Twitter (#WQOTD), it hit me: as a reader, I much prefer single-narrator stories. Why? Because limited POVs allow you to:

  • Intimately explore a few characters.
  • Solidify reader identification with the protagonist.
  • Avoid trying reader patience by delving into less interesting POVs.
  • Maintain cohesion in structure and theme.
  • Create a story that feels solid and “whole.”

That’s why in Storming I chose to use the fewest number of POVs in any of my books to date: one main POV from the barnstorming pilot protagonist and a much smaller secondary contrasting POV from a mute eight-year-old boy.

Of course, the choice to stick with fewer POVs also offers its share of challenges. You have to be creative in revealing other characters’ off-screen actions and motivations. But, more often than not, the payoffs you get in return are well worth the exchange.

Which POV(s) Should You Choose?

Now it’s time to get down to brass tacks. Which character should be telling your story? Sometimes the answer to this question will be obvious. There will be only one character whose story you want to tell. But sometimes the options aren’t so clear.

This was the conundrum I ran into while outlining Storming. From the first moment of the idea’s conception, this story started out being about a woman–a mysterious stranger in town who befriends a lonely young boy. This turned out to be Jael, the woman who parachutes out of nowhere in the opening chapter. Not too much later in the story’s evolution, another prominent character showed up on stage–roving, big-hearted barnstorming pilot Hitch, who witnesses Jael’s midnight plunge from the sky.

I had every intention of writing this story from Jael’s point of view. I even went so far as to completely outline the first three chapters from her point of view. But then I was saved from doom by a long weekend in which to ponder the path I was currently taking. I used the following two important questions to compile a list of the pros and cons of Jael’s and Hitch’s respective POVs:

Question #1: Whose Story Is This?

Your choice of POV characters defines your story. Hunger Games is Katniss’s story because it’s told from her POV. If it was told from Peeta’s or Gale’s POVs, it would become their stories. Indeed, how many spinoffs have been written from a minor or antagonistic character’s POV, turning their stories into something utterly different?

Gale Peeta Hunger Games Mockinjay Josh Hutcherson Liam Hemsworth

You can absolutely split your protagonist and main character into two different characters and use your main character’s POV to tell a story about your protagonist. But even when you do that, your choice of POV signals to readers whose story this is.

If you have two equal contenders for the story, as I did, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who has the most at stake?

For me, this one was pretty much a tie: both Hitch and Jael had a lot at stake–their homes and families–and I knew I could spin either character’s tale to emphasize those stakes, depending whom chose.

  • Who will undergo the most dramatic character arc?

Sometimes choosing a flat-arc character, who already has your story’s Truth pretty much figured out, will be a prime choice. But often, you’ll gain a more dramatic narrative by allowing that character to be the impact character in another character’s change arc. One of the things I wrote in the “Pros” column for Hitch’s POV was “stronger character arc.” His inner journey was much more dynamic than Jael’s.

  • Whose perspective best aligns with your theme?

Usually, the character who undergoes the most dynamic change is going to the character whose POV will give you the most opportunities to explore your theme.

  • Who gets the best scenes?

Especially if you’ve chosen to limit your POVs, you’re going to want to consider which characters are going to be present for the most important and interesting scenes. You don’t want to end up with a character who is basically a passive observer on the sidelines.

If both potential narrators are present for the good scenes, then ask yourself, Which perspective presents the most interesting aspect of the scene? For example, I realized one of the drawbacks of Jael’s POV was that she lost much of her mystery. Whose perspective was going to be more interesting for that opening scene in which Jael falls out of the sky in front of Hitch’s plane: Jael, who knows exactly what’s going on–or Hitch, who hasn’t got a clue?

  • Who has the best narrative voice?

We’ve already talked about this in depth in a previous post in this series. I’ve saved it for the last question here, both because it’s a little arbitrary (hopefully, you’ll make your chosen POV character have an awesome narrative voice, no matter whom you choose), but also because it’s so crucial. An interesting narrative voice can spell the difference between a mediocre book and an awesome one. I had a sneaking suspicion Hitch’s brash, slangy voice would be the more interesting–and I was right.

Question #2: What Will You Lose/Gain by Including Certain POVs?

You also need to take a moment to consider both what you’ll gain and what you’ll lose by choosing a particular POV. Although all of the above were important in my choosing Hitch’s POV over Jael’s, the deciding factor came down to the fact that for everything I would gain from her POV (more backstory and a clearer understanding of her mindset, since she doesn’t start out speaking fluent English), I realized I would lose far, far more by killing off the mystery and humor we get by viewing her from an outside perspective.

What Kind of POV Should You Choose?

Once you’ve figured out which characters will be given POVs, your next dilemma is to decide which type of POV you’ll use. For more information on all of the below, I recommend Nancy Kress’s Character, Emotion & Viewpoint and Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint.

  • Third-Person POV

The third-person POV tells the story in the third-person, referring to all the characters with the third-person pronouns “he” and “she.” This can be a POV of varying depth, either skimming the surface of the POV character’s consciousness, or digging down deep, as I ended up doing with Hitch.

  • First-Person POV

In a first-person POV, the protagonist himself is telling the story directly to readers and referring to himself by the first-person pronouns “I” or “me.” This is, perforce, a deep POV.

  • Mixed First- and Third-Person POVs

You can use a mix of first- and third-person in the same story (a technique going all the way back to Charles Dickens’s Bleak House). This is a nice way of emphasizing the importance of one POV (the first-person) over another (the third-person).

Picture shows:- ANNA MAXWELL MARTIN as Esther BBC ONE: Thursday October 27th, 2005 Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson, Charles Dance, Alistair McGowan, Pauline Collins and Johnny Vegas lead a star cast in a ground-breaking adaptation of Dickens' Bleak House for BBC ONE, written by Andrew Davies and produced by Nigel Stafford-Clark. One of Dickens' most celebrated achievements and generally regarded as the greatest-ever depiction of Victorian London in fiction, Bleak House is a skilfully crafted thriller and passionate indictment of the legal system which is as searingly relevant today as it was in the mid 19th century. WARNING: Use of this copyright image is subject to Terms of Use of Digital Picture Service. In particular, this image may only be used during the publicity period for the purpose of publicising 'Bleak House' and provided the BBC is credited. Any use of this image on the internet or for any other puspose whatsoever, in cluding advertising or other commercial uses, requires the prior written approval of the BBC.

  • Omniscient POV

The omniscient POV tells its story from the perspective of a distant narrator who is able to observe the thoughts and motives of all the characters. (I have written extensively about the challenges and limitations of the omniscient POV here.)

  • Second-Person POV

Finally, we have the little-used second-person narrative that refers to the protagonist using the pronouns “you” or “your.”

Most modern stories will be told in either third- or first-person. Which you choose will depend on a number of factors, including tone and narrative voice. First-person is widely considered the more challenging to write. If you’re considering a first-person narrative, keep these two rules of thumb in mind:

1. If the narrator’s voice isn’t scintillatingly awesome, opt for third-person.

2. Be aware that a character’s flaws are more likely to be emphasized when in first-person. Some characters who would be likable in third-person won’t always be so in first-person.

Once I ran through this checklist and decided upon Hitch’s POV over Jael’s, I never looked back. The story would have been vastly different–and, I think, much less interesting–from her POV. Had I not taken the time to realize that early in the outline, I very well might have ended up writing the entire book from her POV–and then having to toss it and start over.

If you choose your POVs with care from the very start of your writing process, you’ll avoid major rewrites by creating a story that is solid, cohesive, and takes advantage of all its best possibilities right out of the gate.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What are your steps for how to choose the right POV for your stories? Tell me in the comments!

How to Choose the Right POV (What I Learned Writing Storming)

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This post has come at an opportune time for me. My next work will start off as a series of short stories told from one point of view. The common thread in each story is that the protagonist is let down by the justice system. My worry is when they all come together to form a vigilante group. I am know wondering whose POV would suit me best.

  2. Most of my stories come to me with the idea of a character who I know right away will be a non-POV character, and I build the story around them. The reasons why they’re not the POV character vary: Either there’s an element of mystery I need to keep, or they’re a troubled parent and the story requires them to be seen through the eyes of their child, or they’re so shocking for their era, it would be best to see them through the eyes of someone rooted in that era.

    I like to use first person, mainly because I find it easier and I like the up-closeness with the protagonist. What I have trouble with is, in some stories, making sure the narrator is going to get to see important events. I always use one POV; it’s just easiest and I generally don’t love multiple POVs, either reading them or writing them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s really smart of you to consider this. So many authors throw out a POV for every interesting character–not realizing that sometimes they’re most interesting when viewed from the *outside.*

  3. This is great timing for me, too. I’m trying to decide whether a character I initially thought would be the second POV character should really have his own POV after all. If I can make it fit and echo themes with the first POV (my female lead), I think it’s worth doing. He’s “on screen” for a different set of events, so it’s also really a question of whether those events need to be shown at all. I have to get over the fact that this character used to be the lead of a completely different story, who was merged into this one for no reason other than a gut feeling that he and his brother would be interesting there.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like you’re asking all the right questions. Another one to ask would be: will readers enjoy this POV as much as the other? Will they care about the events he witnesses as much as they do those in the main POV?

      • This is a great help. I love writing this character, Benjamin Sparhawk, and I like his highly logical but very innocent and straightforward take on the world, so I think a reader like myself will enjoy his perspective. Another point I realized is that when my female lead, Davina, goes into the Woods with her sidekick because of a problem in the City, I may need to have a POV that remains in the City, so the reader doesn’t lose sight of what’s at stake if she decides not to return. If it doesn’t work, I can always take it out!

  4. My first-person POV dies at the end of the book! How should I handle that?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Two possible ways: either the book ends with the death–or you switch to omniscient or another POV to tell the Resolution.

  5. Wynn Guthrie says:

    So I’m the only one in the room who adores multi-POV stories? *looks around, shrugs* I may be spoiled by reading authors who use them well, in large, sprawling, multi-layered storylines. (Diana Gabaldon comes to mind with her Historical/Fantasy/Romance Series That Ate the Library and Everybody’s Brains, Outlander, and Tad Williams’ fantasy novels.)

    I do also love a vivid and distinctive first-person POV, and The Hunger Games is a good example of that. However, it’s my contention that this POV, which was so successful in the first and second books of that series, was completely overmatched by the demands of a wider story in the third. As the events of that storyline progress, many of them outside her purview, Katniss spends a significant amount of time unconscious from injury or hiding from people and other characters have to explain things to her. I found that unsatisfactory.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Bottom line is fewer POVs make for a more streamlined, intimate story, while more POVs make for a more broader, inclusive story. Which is better is admittedly largely a matter of taste. As you’re pointing out here, it really is important to consider the needs of the story and which will be the better choice for those needs.

  6. spacechampion says:

    Is this situation essentially about how the POV shouldn’t be someone who knows too much about what is going on? Seems like either you tell something as backstory for the POV or you reveal slowly as mystery as a non-POV.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s a good way to put (although there are other aspects at play). When you’re in a character’s POV, you have to “play fair” and not unduly disclose information he’s aware of. But when the POV character is on the outside looking in–at another character–then he can discover the information right alongside the reader.

  7. I usually don’t ACTIVELY think about POV in my stories. The times that I have, and I switch it, I usually switch back. For me, it either comes out as 1st person or it doesn’t. It seems to be one of the last things I think about, even though I almost always write in 1st & 3rd POV in my books. The characters drive it, and for me, they know best whether they want to be 1st or 3rd.

  8. Katie, really enjoy reading your e-newsletters. The information you provide is very helpful and much appreciated. Just finished reading the How to Choose the Right POV (What I Learned Writing Storming) and enjoyed it. I get what your saying and I’ve read other authors say the same thing but what I don’t know how to do is improve how I “word” the story and dialog to make the pov or characters a better read. Understanding what to do is one thing but knowing how to word it is another.

    As humans we aren’t trained to think the way we write novels. People don’t talk like that at least for the most part.

    It would be helpful to those of us still learning to see some examples of how to word these things.

    Still your emails and newsletters and website and blog stuff is very helpful and I will put it to good use. Now that I’ve finished NanoWriMo 2015 and achieved my 50K I can throttle back some and add more story so that I can start my own editing.

    Thanks again. I look forward to the next one.
    Eric

  9. Thank you so much for this and for all your posts. Of all the writing advice out there, yours gives me the most succinct and usable instructions and I’ve implemented many of your suggestions into my novels. Just wanted to tell you how thankful I am for your willingness to share so much valuable information!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Woot! 🙂 I’m so glad to hear you’re finding the info useful. Best of luck with your writing!

  10. Katie–
    Excellent post, thank you. I like to write in third-person limited, in which only one POV figures in any given scene. And I absolutely agree with you about the problems that come with too many POV characters. I wrote a novel with four, and the narrative just didn’t work. After a lot of frustration, I had a “eureka!” moment, and reduced the count by one POV. The effect was amazing. Now, the story worked, and will be published as the third in my Brenda Contay suspense series.
    I might also add that making decisions about POV has a lot to do with the mindset of the writer. For me, confining myself to a single, first-person narrator has never worked. I wish it had, because a lot of advantages come with first-person narration.
    Thanks again. Excellent post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think most of us find a POV type that works well for us and just stick with it. It’s something I’d really like to experiment with more, but honestly I’m kinda scared to mess with it. :p The one story I did something dramatically different with ended up being a major mistake.

      • As you say, experimenting is tempting. I’m not ready to give up on my ability to do something in first person. For instance, in my suspense series, the first four novels are in third-person limited, the form I’ve always used. But I’ve started drafting book five in the first person, using the central character who figures throughout the series to tell the story. We shall see.

  11. Great comprehensive post. Sometimes POV seems to come so naturally; it just falls into place and is obvious. Other times … ugh. I have one novel I rewrote from three or four different perspectives and still couldn’t quite make it come together properly.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, whenever I end up having major problems with a story, it almost always comes back to bad POV choices.

  12. POV issues have worried me about my current WIP, a YA/SF/Fantasy story set in Heaven and Hell. The story is essentially one of discovery; I start with one main character in Heaven, and stick with him through much of the first half of the book. The only break is the antagonist, needed to introduce tension.

    Slightly before halfway is where the story went crazy. The second main character, in Hell, gets her POV, and add another for her current antagonist. I also:

    * Need to view the main characters from the outside, meaning two more POV’s from critical supporting characters.

    * Stay with my original antagonist as he becomes an ally

    * POVs for hell- and heaven-specific antagonists.

    * POV for the “true” antagonist

    What I end up with are two main storylines, each progressive but viewed from multiple POVs. Add two supplemental storylines for antagonists. All come to a head in the final scene, which ends up switching POV six times before completion.

    Yeah, I’m sure it sounds crazy. It seems to be what the story needs. The book is kind of like a chess match – moving my players into position for the final battle. Information about what’s really going on doled out slowly. Some POV’s required for the reader to fully understand everything that’s at stake.

    Can this type of thing be done well? Are there any examples? I’ve just finished the first manuscript; perhaps the first read-through will reveal a better way to use fewer POVs. I probably won’t know if it works or not until it gets to beta readers in a few months.

    Or am I in a hopeless mess?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Although my instinct would be to recommend working on lessening the POVs (and definitely introducing all the main ones within the First Act), it is important to remember that there are exceptions to every rule. Don’t try to force your story to fit a mold it just wasn’t made for.

  13. Sometimes I wish screenplays explored other POV’s. But then I think: “it’s hard enough as it is just writing from third person, let alone from multiple different POV’s.” However, regardless of medium, I think it’s still important to think of POV’s in screenwriting in a way that makes one think who will be eating up your screentime? Much like you said about a single point of view through the M.C. or protagonist (giving viewers someone to latch onto), it’s important to know who your characters are and what amount of time they will be contributing to what people see. Good stuff! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, POV in screenplay is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. A lot of the same principles apply, but obviously the execution is totally different.

  14. KM (I’m not sure whether this is how you like to be referred to!), something pretty funny happened to me while reading this post.

    I was just thinking how typo-free it was and wondering whether you have an editor proofread it, when, not a moment later, I read this:

    “Which POV(s) Should You Chose?”

    Should you ever want a final look from a fresh pair of eyes, let me know. I’m an affordable, experienced freelance editor.

    Anyway, I’m a writer too–thanks for the timely post!

    Lauren Ruiz

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. You can be sure a typo will get you every time. Every time. 😉 Thanks so much for catching that! *goes to fix it*

  15. No problem!

  16. I wrote four-hundred words of my novel before thinking that maybe my book has not been told from the best POV all along. The original POV was told from a teen-aged girl, Reese, who struggles with anxiety and loss of sexual purity. The first draft I wrote, I began to loath her so I rewrote much of her background so I was more sympathetic towards her, figuring that if I hated my own protagonists, my readers would, too. She turned out better the second time around, but still — she is a horribly weak , broken character who keeps making the same mistakes over and over. I understand that this is realistic, but I worry that maybe her narration is too dramatic and that still, no one (not even myself) will finish the book really liking her. So a started a new draft with a whole new character who tells Reese’s story. She’s smart, level headed, sarcastic. It’s more about how this new narrator submerges herself in Reese’s drama. Is this a better perspective? Does it sap away too much of the emotion? All my new protagonist really learns is how to be sympathetic of others’ problems. She realizes she can’t change anyone. She can only listen, give advice when appropriate, and grieve for her broken friends– but the story itself is not about her. Is this a more or less powerful angle than Reese’s?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Although I can’t offer a definitive comment on whether this technique is the right approach for your story (since, of course, I haven’t read either version), I will say that this *is* very often the perfect technique for a story in which the protagonist isn’t as sympathetic as you might wish. You can tell her story while gaining a little narrative distance from her by utilizing a more likable and relatable main character. More in this post: Protagonist and Main Character— Same Person? The Answer May Transform Your Story!.

  17. Thank you so much for this wonderful article and all your other posts! You certainly help a lot of aspiring and struggling writers who want to build a career in writing like myself. I’d like to share something I wrote about writing dialogue using different POVs. Here’s the link: https://www.chatebooks.com/blog-Writing-Dialogue-Using-Different-Points-of-View-5-Short-Tips

  18. I’m having trouble choosing a POV for my latest work. I’d normally stick to a deep third person on one or two characters and the story would flow nicely. Yet now my new idea has seven very important characters, some of which don’t personally meet the others.
    Any advice for POV?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Although it’s important to realize that some stories definitely will do better with larger numbers of POVs, my advice is always: the fewer POVs, the better. Figure out the bare minimum of POVs you need to tell the plot and see if you feel the story will be the better for it.

  19. There is a fantasy book I’m working on and I’ve been struggling with POV.
    At first I was going to go with third-person mainly following one character, but after a while two other characters started evolving into ones that needed constant “check-ups” throughout the story.
    I’m hard set on third-person because it’s a part of the voice I’m using as a narrative. It’s just I’m so confused about these three characters and their POVs.
    My Word Doc is chaotic. I have four beginnings for three characters! Trying to figure out which one I want first, or if I need them at all, is hard. They’re all precious to me (that’s most likely my problem), and I want the best for the beginning; for the whole story.

  20. Ms. Weiland, I enjoyed your article very much. This is a topic in our critique group right now, and I intend on sharing this site with the others in the group. Thank you again.

    Nancy Ekle 🙂

  21. Huthayfah says:

    I’m writing a series of short stories, each one following the previous in a plotline (somewhat like a TV show). Now, my idea is to write most of the stories in deep third person, while writing the most emotional ones in first person, and the most exciting in (perhaps) distant limited third person. My idea is to exploit the advantages of each POV when they would most come in handy and to add variety. But would this also add any confusion or any other side-effects? Is it a bad idea?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Since the format is short stories and they’re necessarily episodic and separate from each other to some extent, I’d say you definitely have a better chance of pulling it off than you would in a straight-up novel. Worth experimenting with!

Trackbacks

  1. […] K.M. Weiland offers a final lesson learned from writing Storming: how to choose the right point of view. […]

  2. […] For more information on choosing the right POV for your story, check out K.M. Weiland’s blog post How to Choose the Right POV. […]

  3. […] to keep a character’s thought processes a bit mysterious. Novelist K.M. Weiland talks about this when she explains she chose to use Hitch’s viewpoint, not Jael’s, in Storming because she didn’t want to lose “the mystery and humor we get by viewing her from an […]

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