How to Choose the Best Point of View for Your Novel
At a glance, writing a novel in a first-person or third-person point of view seems like an easy enough decision. It’s just a pronoun you’re changing, after all.
But choosing your point of view (or POV for short) is more complex than you’d think. First-person and third-person novels can have vastly different tones. And “third-person limited” (or “close”) point of view is very different from “third-person omniscient” (or “all-knowing”).
So what are these three common POVs?
First-person means the narrator uses the pronoun “I”, so the reader experiences the story as if being told directly by the character. The whole way through, you stay in “my” head, and only know what “I” know.
Third Person Limited
Third-person limited is told using a third-person pronoun, like “he”, “she”, or “they,” so you’re reading about a character from the outside, but—like first person—you stay in only one person’s head at a time. Unlike first-person, however, third-person limited allows you to jump to a different character’s head when you change scenes or chapters.
Third Person Omniscient
Third-person omniscient is also told in the third person, but will often share the viewpoints of multiple characters during the same scene, giving the reader a more comprehensive and real-time overview than any single character could have on their own. Third-person omniscient can be easy to do accidentally from third-person limited if you’re not careful, so if you choose omniscient, make it clear early on and remain consistent.
It should be noted that there are a handful of novels out there that mix and match these POVs, but this blog post will focus on choosing a single one for your novel. The more consistent a novel is when it comes to POV, the more trust you’ll gain from your reader. If a reader becomes accustomed to third-person limited, for example, then is suddenly in the head of a different character without warning (also called “head hopping”), it can pull them out of the story—and make them wonder if it was intentional. Similarly, a first-person narrator who’s in sudden possession of knowledge they shouldn’t be able to have will also cause reader suspicion and distrust. These are just a couple examples of why choosing the right POV is so important.
Here are a few questions that can help you determine which POV will work best for your novel or short story:
How many sides of the story do you want to tell?
Third-person limited is a great choice for a story with multiple main characters. You can go in-depth with a single character at a time, then move on to another when you want to give a different angle. This technique is very common in fantasy series, like Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire. It allows the reader to fully experience a single POV at a time in the most seamless way possible, without having to head hop within a single scene or change the perspective on who the first-person narrator is.
Multiple sides of the story can be told with different first-person narrators, such as in Lucy Foley’s The Guest List, but since you run the risk of your reader forgetting who the narrator is in each chapter, it’s doubly important to make sure every character has a strong and distinct voice. Which leads us to…
What kind of voice or style do you have in mind?
First-person is a fantastic POV for trying different voice styles, because the narrator is telling the story directly to the reader in their own words. This means the reader is deeply embedded in the main character’s head, so the character’s unique voice rings through every line and nuance of the book, rather than mostly coming out during italicized thoughts or dialogue.
Take John Larison’s Whiskey When We’re Dry. The narrative is richly related through Jess Harney’s manner of speaking, with lines like this one on page 5:
“Ma didn’t live past my entrance to this world on account I wasn’t no good at getting born.”
Even if you put this exact line into a limited third-person POV, you'd immediately feel more distance from the narrator by using “she” instead of “I”. That’s not to say it couldn’t work, but often, you can get away with alternative styles in the first person that might come off clunky in third.
Would your story benefit from the reader knowing facts that the characters don’t?
You might want to share parts of the world, history, or other details that the characters themselves aren’t explicitly thinking about, or maybe don’t even know. With third-person omniscient, you can take an all-seeing, all-knowing, eagle-eye view to go wherever in the story you think is most relevant at that moment.
For example, this technique can work marvelously with humor, such as in this line on page 13 of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
“Ford stared at Arthur, and Arthur was astonished to find his will beginning to weaken. He didn’t realize that this was because of an old drinking game that Ford learned to play in the hyperspace ports that served the madranite mining belts in the star system of Orion Beta.”
Third-person omniscient can go as deep into characters’ heads or as far outside them as you want. Hitchhiker’s Guide frequently pulls away from the characters completely to share excerpts from the eponymous guide itself. It’s a good POV choice for an author who wants to pull in as many aspects of a world or timeline as possible without being constrained by how much any character could know.
Is your book more focused on a world or idea than any specific character?
Another good use of third-person omniscient is in literary novels, where the narrative is told over the course of dozens of years, or non-linearly, or through characters in completely different times or places that connect more through theme than plot. In a novel of this proportion, it makes sense to not only travel through different characters’ thoughts at will, but also to have the freedom to comment from a detached point of view on threads that pull the pieces together.
One stellar example of this is Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, which uses non-chronological storytelling to gradually reveal how five characters’ lives have become entangled in ways they never knew. Another fascinating example is The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, which uses an unusual type of omniscient narration to explore philosophical themes like the meaning of life and existence, through both non-linear storytelling and direct discussion of motifs during the story. Reflective literary novels like these would come out very differently if they were told with first-person or third-person limited narrators, and wouldn’t achieve nearly the same effect.
Writing in first-person, third-person limited, and third-person omniscient all have their perks, and can all be great fun to experiment with. But each one will shape your novel very differently. You have a vision in your head, and picking the right POV is a huge part of getting that vision across to your reader.
If you’re unsure which one to use, pick a scene and try writing it from first-person, third-person limited, and even third-person omniscient to see what feels like the best match for your story. By asking these questions beforehand, you’ll have strong control over how and when your information comes out, and your novel will be much more powerful.
Writing multiple POVs? Check out this post on choosing the best narrator for every scene!