Ask the Editor: Character POV - How Do I Choose?
The question was this: “What point of views do you feel work best with different genres? Is there any science to it? I have a hard time deciding between what point of view to use for different stories. What would you recommend for a story that has one main character, two main characters, or even a whole cast of many characters that each take the driving seat in a story?”
In my opinion, the point of view (POV) you choose doesn’t necessarily depend on genre, but on the number of main characters you’re going to have. I say that because POV can be just as experimental as you are. It doesn't rely so much on the type of story as much as who's telling it.
Character point of view comes in three main types: first person, third person limited, and third person omniscient. There’s also another POV called second person, which uses the pronoun “you,” but it’s difficult to pull off so we won’t even talk about that one here. Let me start by defining the different points of view.
1. First Person - This is the “I” perspective, in which you write from the viewpoint of one person. The reader is watching the story unfold from the main character’s eyes, and can “hear” that character’s thoughts and “feel” her emotions.
2. Third Person Limited - This is the “he/she” perspective, and is only one person. The reader is an outside entity, but can still “hear” the thoughts and “feel” the emotions of the main character.
3. Third Person Omniscient - This is also the “he/she” perspective, but the reader has access to the thoughts and feelings of any given character. The reader is an outside entity with knowledge of everything that transpires in the world.
If you’re only going to write from the perspective of one character, then I would suggest you choose whichever POV you’re most comfortable writing in. First person is very intimate. It reads more like a journal, and gives the reader a full understanding of the character. The “I” perspective often comes more naturally, as a lot of writers model aspects of their character's personalities on themselves. Third person limited will still give your readers a full understanding of the character, but isn’t quite as intimate. Either of these POVs is going to be useful for both a single main character or two main characters. You want your reader to be able to get in the heads of your characters as they are how the reader connects and understands your story. You can use first person POV successfully for a large cast of characters, I’ve seen it done, you just have to make sure that you as the writer know your characters very well and get in their heads individually. Each character needs to have its own personality that you can tap into and bring to life on the page.
If you want to write from multiple character perspectives, then I recommend using third person limited POV. Here’s why: Third person limited allows you to switch perspectives, but it also allows your reader to maintain intimacy with each character. The reader can experience events as they unfold first hand from several characters. Having those different lenses to look through can have a very interesting effect on how the reader sees the events of the story play out, and can help facilitate tension in your story. I don’t recommend third person omniscient for a story involving many different characters because it’s hard to pull off. If it isn’t done correctly, then having so many viewpoints can clog up the story and overstimulate or confuse the reader. This can easily happen if you're running through the thoughts of several people in a scene.
The only science to choosing your POV is deciding on what story you want to tell, and how many characters you want to tell it. Genre does play a role, but there’s nothing saying that you can’t write your autobiography in third person as an experimental way to distance yourself so that you could tell your story factually. And writing a research paper is different than expounding your plot for a space opera. The story belongs to your characters just as much as the characters belong to the story. How do they want to tell it?
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