POV is always a tricky thing to get right in a manuscript. You have to decide whether you’re going to write in first person, second person, third person limited or third person omniscient; you have to get voice right; and you have to ensure that you don’t do too much head-hopping. Quite frankly, it’s enough to do your head in.
Firstly, here’s a quick rundown of what the above terms mean.
First person is when one character narrates: I said this, I did that, I didn’t know what to think. Some people swear by it, and some hate it. I’ve had some success writing in the first person, but it’s limiting in that you can only really be in one person’s head and therefore there can be a lot going on in the story that simply isn’t told because the narrator doesn’t know about it. (Sure, there are exceptions – Helen Smith’s Alison Wonderland, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, has some chapters in the first person and some in the third, and Jodi Picoult has absolutely mastered telling stories in the first person, but from a different person’s POV each chapter. Generally, though, you are in one person’s head for the entire story, and that’s that.) This kind of limited narrative can be done really well because you’re always guessing at other characters’ motivations, and can be great for unexpected revelations, but it’s really a matter of personal taste.
Second person tells the reader the story: You said this, you did that, you didn’t know what to think. It’s not very common, possibly because a lot of people don’t like it due to the implication that it’s telling them what to think. I’ve seen it done very well, but I’ve also seen it done very badly and in general prefer not to read this kind of narrative. This is limiting in the same way that first person is – you’re only reading one person’s story.
Third person limited is like both the above in that you’re only in one character’s head, but it’s told from outside that character: John said this, John did that, John didn’t know what to think. This method is the most common, and while it’s limited to one character at a time, it lends itself better to POV changes. George RR Martin‘s Song of Ice and Fire series, for example, uses third person limited, but from the POV of a different character for each chapter. A lot of other authors use this technique – breaking up POVs by chapter or by in-chapter breaks (eg ****) and using that to delineate whose head they are inside.
Third person omniscient is when you’re inside everyone’s head, so to speak. The narrative isn’t limited by telling one character’s story at a time, and can reveal the thoughts of any character at any time. Believe it or not, this is the hardest to get right, because of the danger of head-hopping, which is when you tell us too many characters’ thoughts in a short space of time. This can just get overwhelming and confusing for the reader, and is apparently one of the main things that agents reject manuscripts on.
I know that a lot of people reading this are just shaking their heads, thinking, I know all this stuff; why is she spelling it out like that? Well, first, I know that a lot of people hear these terms but aren’t always totally sure what they mean, so I figured better safe than sorry. But it also helps me talk more about voice, and how that affects a story.
Voice is most important when you’re in the first person, because it’s that character telling the story. Having an individual voice for that character is very important since we’re stuck with them all the way through. It needs to be engaging, it needs to be consistent, and the thought processes and conclusions made within the narrative need be logical for that character’s opinions and experiences. This is why I’m so impressed with authors like Jodi Picoult, because she manages to have completely different voices for each character, so that a number of POVs within first person actually work. Too often, though, an author will try to do this, only to have each voice essentially sound the same.
Voice in third person limited is also important, though arguably not AS important as in first person. Again, we’re experiencing the story from the POV of one character (at a time, perhaps) so we need to understand their thoughts, their emotions, their motivations. Going back to George RR Martin (I’m currently reading that series, so it’s prominent in my mind right now), he delves into each character’s head very well, but the voice of each chapter isn’t necessarily very different from the last. Descriptions, dialogue tags and the like feel the same no matter whose story we are reading, which can be considered a flaw considering the ages of the characters involved range from seven to close to seventy. It doesn’t necessarily detract from the story in third person limited, but had he attempted to do it in first person it definitely would.
So, which one to choose? If you’re trying to work out how you want your story to read, POV is something you really need to get sorted. I’ve written in first person and in third person limited, mainly because I feel most comfortable staying in one person’s head at a time. If you’re really having trouble choosing, though, there are ways to help you decide. Usually there’s a key scene in the story that you’ve already got worked out – a battle, perhaps, a moment of high suspense, or maybe when your main pairing get together for the first time. In any case, it’s important to your story and it’s going to be in there, no matter what. Well, try writing it, even if you haven’t written anything else. Try it in first person, in third limited, in third omniscient, and see how you go. Normally one of them will feel more comfortable and will be easier to write than the other two. Then try it with another scene you’ve thought about. Is the same type of POV winning out? Then you’ve got your answer. If not, then you might need to work on a compromise. Either way, you’ve got something to base your decision on now.
Well, I hope this has helped at least one person deal with the complexities of POV. For the record, I’m using third person limited (with POV changes) in my novel, because that was how I thought it would work the best. It’s important to do what feels most comfortable for you, but just be wary of the pitfalls, because no one is immune to mistakes.