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How Do I Handle Point of View in My Novel?

What is point of view in novels?

There are few aspects of story craft that are as crucial as point of view.

For this is something that will determine not just what your readers experience as the story unfolds, but how they experience it.

Point of view relates to the character(s) through whose eyes, ears and feelings we make sense of the narrative – and feel the tension, excitement, hope and tragedy that the novelist has created. 

We might not like the viewpoint character; we might not trust them; but they are our guide and we rely on them to take us through the drama.

Some novelists have one viewpoint character for the whole book, while others vary it from chapter to chapter. There is no right or wrong approach – both formats have their own advantages and disadvantages.

Perhaps the novel revolves around Sam, a police officer working undercover behind the bar of a night club – gathering evidence on the owner, Jimmy, who is reputed to be a major player in the world of organised crime.

One approach would be to see the entire book through Sam’s eyes – experiencing what she experiences and gaining a real empathy for her and the highly dangerous assignment she is carrying out.

Like her we have no insight into what other characters are thinking, other than the clues they give through their words and actions.

We develop a close emotional bond with Sam and feel as though we are there on the undercover mission with her.

Such an approach has the potential to yield big shocks and surprises as things of which we and Sam were unaware rear up and have a major impact on the narrative.

But there are drawbacks to this technique; by being unaware of what characters are thinking (and what they are doing when not with Sam) we may miss out on opportunities for tension and suspense.

Suppose, for example, Sam is searching Jimmy’s office for evidence, feeling secure in the knowledge that he has gone to the countryside for the day with his latest girlfriend and that the club is empty.

But Jimmy bought some expensive jewellery for his girlfriend – and has just realised he’s left it behind in his office. We feel a sense of fear for Sam, knowing that she is in terrible danger.

Sam searches through all the drawers in the office without finding anything incriminating. She starts to leave, and we heave a sigh of relief. But as she’s about to shut the door behind her she glances at a painting behind Jimmy’s desk and, acting on instinct, walks over and takes it down to reveal a safe.   

Our hearts sink. Sam may find the evidence she needs but she’s going to be caught red-handed by Jimmy.

We see through Jimmy’s eyes that he’s in his car only just round the corner from the club. He talks on his phone to Vin, his right-hand man, telling him that he’s got a feeling there’s a mole in the club. He tells Vin to find out who it is – and to make the problem ‘disappear’.

We feel a shrill of horror – it’s clear what Jimmy will do to Sam if he catches her.

Sam finally manages to get the safe open and finds a stash of drugs, counterfeit money and written records. She has a moment of elation … and then her eyes fall on the jewellery Jimmy is intending to give to his girlfriend. She realises he will have missed it … and be on his way back to the club … she needs to get out of there …

You can see that having an additional viewpoint character takes the novel in a different direction. Whether it’s a better direction or not will always be a subjective question but this example shows the importance of considering narrative point of view right at the start of the development process.

The two key points regarding point of view are:

  1. Choose the right point of view(s) for your novel

  2. If you have more than one POV, avoid sudden changes between them.


Point of view really is a big picture issue as it will have a major impact on the way you write a novel and the way a reader experiences it.


For this reason, it’s something that should be sorted out as early as possible. The later in the editing process it comes (such as the line or copy-editing stages), the more difficult it will be to make seamless changes. To use a home renovation example, you want to do the major structural work such as knocking down walls before you lay new carpets.


Let’s now take a look at the different points of view fiction writers employ


First-person point of view in novels

First-person point of view enables the reader to immerse themselves in the life of the character in question. The pronouns used are I (if the character is alone) and we (if they are with one or more people).

Our understanding of what’s going on is filtered through the viewpoint character; we see and hear what they see and hear -- but nothing more.

Let’s have a look at an example of first-person point of view -- and see what happened when Sam was initially interviewed for the job...


I watched as Jimmy lit the cigarette with a deft flick of the lighter.

He didn’t blow the smoke at me, but didn’t exactly blow it away from me either. I held his gaze, searching for a smile on his thin lips. Not even a hint.

‘Is there anything else...?’ I said. This should have gone through on the nod. No big deal hiring a new barmaid when, like all his workforce, they were so disposable.


The advantages of using first-person point of view for the reader experience include:

  • The chance to really get under the skin of a character, to understand what makes them tick, to share their joy and sorrow in an intimate way.

  • A feeling of privilege. None of the other characters in the book know what the viewpoint character is thinking and feeling -- but we do.

  • A sense of mystery. We can’t be sure what any of the other characters are thinking, our only clues come from what they say and do in the presence of the viewpoint character.


The disadvantages of it include:

  • Lack of variety. We are limited to just one perspective with no chance to get a similar insight into any other characters.

  • On the nose. Many readers enjoy weighing up various characters and forming a view of them. With first-person point of view, there is always the danger that readers will feel they are being told what to think about the other characters. What’s more, it’s hard to gauge how reliable the viewpoint character is since we’re not getting any alternative perspectives.

  • Telling rather than showing. It’s usually more satisfying for the reader to see events unfold than simply be told about them. With a first-person point of view, however, our character will need to be told by others about anything which they did not see or hear personally.

  • Lack of pace. We are forced to work at the viewpoint character’s pace as they see and discover things. Since they can only be in one place at one time, this can be limiting.


First person point of view in novels: Conclusion

Many authors use first-person point of view for specific chapters, employing it as a way to add depth to a character and reveal something unexpected about their motivations. Using it for the whole book can be harder to sustain and a lot of thought needs to be given to how the viewpoint character will be able to keep discovering things that keep the reader hooked, without it feeling contrived.


Second-person point of view in novels

In this case, the reader and the narrator are one and the same! The pronoun used is ‘you’ and so the reader can almost feel as though they are part of the story.

Here is your chance to be Sam, the undercover police officer...


You watched as Jimmy lit the cigarette with a deft flick of the lighter.

He didn’t blow the smoke at you, but didn’t exactly blow it away from you either. You held his gaze, searching for a smile on his thin lips. Not even a hint.

‘Is there anything else...?’ you said. This should have gone through on the nod. No big deal hiring a new barmaid when, like all his workforce, they were so disposable.


The advantages of second person point of view include:

  • A feeling of intimacy as we become the character and part of the story.

  • Mystery. As with first-person viewpoint, there is a limit to how much the reader can know. They will get a surprise (pleasant or otherwise) at the same time as their character in the story.

  • Standing out from the crowd. As this is an unusual viewpoint choice it is likely to attract a reader’s intention. Whether they subsequently find it off-putting or engrossing will depend partly on the skill of the writer.

  • Believability. As this viewpoint is relating what you said and did, it may come across as more credible than first-person viewpoint, which relates what someone else says they did.  


The disadvantages of second person point of view include:

  • Some readers may find it disconcerting to become a character in the book – especially if it’s an unsympathetic individual.

  • As with first-person viewpoint, it can be hard to sustain an engaging pace when the narrative has to be driven by what one person says or does.

  • Exposition. The viewpoint character is reliant on people telling them about things that they did not see or hear. This needs careful handling to avoid appearing clunky


Second person point of view in novels: Conclusion

Second person point of view is another option that might work better in short doses for brief periods than throughout the book. Transplanting the reader into the head of the villain might be compelling for a few pages, for example, but could become disorientating and unnerving if it’s done for too long.

Third person limited point of view in novels

This is a viewpoint that many writers find themselves drawn to. It is certainly one of the most popular in published fiction and so many authors may, almost without realising it, have developed an instinctive understanding of how it works. The pronouns used in this viewpoint are ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’ and ‘they’.

Sam watched as Jimmy lit the cigarette with a deft flick of the lighter.

He didn’t blow the smoke at her, but didn’t exactly blow it away from her either. She held his gaze, searching for a smile on his thin lips. Not even a hint.

‘Is there anything else…?’ said Sam. This should have gone through on the nod. No big deal hiring a new barmaid when, like all his workforce, they were so disposable.


Third Person Limited point of view gives the author an ‘access all areas’ pass, giving them licence to relate what the character is seeing, hearing and feeling; to tell us about their past and their hopes for the future.

As readers we can feel that we have been totally immersed in the viewpoint character – seeing the world as they do; understanding their hopes and fears, and forming views of other characters based on what the viewpoint character feels about them.

There is a trade-off, though, and that is where the ‘limited’ comes in. Our knowledge of other characters is limited to what we learn through the viewpoint character. We know everything they know, but nothing more.

Skilful writers can turn this to their advantage, though. The restrictions to our understanding create a sense of mystery, and the desire we share with our protagonist to learn more strengthens the bond between us, drawing us deeper into their life and the story.

This can be a highly effective way of storytelling. It’s important, though, to be consistent with your choice of viewpoint character and not change in the middle of a chapter or section.

Rapid switches of focus like this are known as ‘head-hopping’, and can be very distracting, disorientating and disengaging for the reader. Rather than having one familiar voice guiding them through the narrative it can feel as though multiple characters are competing for their attention, drowning out the story rather than driving it.

Third person objective point of view in novels

In many ways this is similar to third person limited and again is popular with both new and published writers. Again, the pronouns used are ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’ and ‘he’.


Sam watched as Jimmy lit the cigarette with a deft flick of the lighter.

He didn’t blow the smoke at her, but didn’t exactly blow it away from her either. She held his gaze, staring at those thin lips that gave not even the hint of a smile.

‘Is there anything else...?’ said Sam uneasily.


But whereas limited POV zooms in on one particular character, objective POV pulls away. We don’t have ‘access all areas’ but are limited to what we can observe. The narrator, for example, can’t tell us that a character is anxious but must show us through their behaviour, mannerisms, tone of voice and so on how they are feeling.

One advantage of this is that it removes the temptation to tell rather than show. The author has no choice but to convey information through external events that are observable by all.

Another advantage is the sense of mystery it evokes. Forcing the reader to reach their own conclusions from the evidence can be an effective way of drawing them into the story.

In the example above, we aren’t told explicitly that Sam is concerned that Jimmy is taking so long about a routine staff appointment. The reference to her asking a question ‘uneasily’ tells us about her state of mind – but it’s left to the reader to deduce why she is worried. Some authors might relish the chance to add some uncertainty by using third-person objective point of view here, while others may wish to use a viewpoint which makes her feelings more explicit (such as third person limited) in order to enable readers to empathise with her more.

And as the saying goes, variety is the spice of life. Readers may find it quite emotionally draining to be constantly in the third person limited point of view, inhabiting another individual’s shoes. The objective POV provides a contrast, giving readers the chance to observe characters and events, and draw their own conclusions.

While third person limited and third person objective can both be effective techniques, the most effective method may be to combine the two. Many authors choose to use the objective POV to set the scene, gradually drawing the reader in before taking them inside the head of the protagonist.

Third person omniscient POV in novels

As the name suggests, this is a viewpoint which knows no bounds. We can inhabit the minds of any character we want, have access to specialist knowledge which no character in the story has and make subjective judgements as and when we want.

Some writers may enjoy the freedom that third person omniscient provides – but that can be part of the problem. It’s all too easy for the inexperienced writer to slip from third person omniscient point of view into head hopping mode.

The lifeblood of fiction, whether it be crime, historical, comedy, romance or anything else – is uncertainty. And it becomes very hard to maintain any degree of uncertainty once head-hopping starts.

Point of view in novels writing: Conclusion

The choice of which point(s) of view to use is a key task for any writer setting out on their novel. Used correctly, point of view can help build empathy, tension and intrigue with the reader. Used in the wrong way, it can become tiresome and irritating as the point of view keeps on shifting.

Always be aware of which point of view you are using – and if it’s the most appropriate one for the effect you are looking to achieve.

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