Create a Stronger Story-- Be Intentional About Viewpoint

Dec 2, 2010

One of the things that always gives me pause when I start a new book is viewpoint. I don't have a favorite, so it usually takes me a little bit to decide whether first or third person is the way to go.

Viewpoint is something that doesn't seem like it should be that important, right? It's just first or third, past or present, whatever floats your boat. Um...sorry. No. Viewpoint is the lens through which the reader sees your story. That makes it pretty darn important!

You should always be INTENTIONAL, not accidental with your viewpoint.

Here's a quick look at the differences between different viewpoints, and what the advantages and disadvantages are.

Third person - This viewpoint is good for when you can't tell the story through one narrator. I've used it before in stories where the reader needs to know things the main character just wouldn't know. It's also good for deeper characterization of more than one protagonist (or even antagonist).

Third person limited-- where you are telling the story strictly through one character's head at a time-- generally gives you a stronger story than third person omniscient (where you view everything from "above" the story). It's stronger because the reader is more closely connected to the character. Third person omniscient disconnects the reader from the characters, though if that's what you're going for, it might be a good choice.

First person - In this viewpoint, you have the ability to characterize one person really, really well. It creates a character your reader immediately identifies with. This viewpoint is popular in YA for just that reason. It doesn't lend itself as easily to viewpoint switches, however, and it can be limiting to tell things only from one person's head.

Tense - While past tense is the generally used form in literature, present tense is becoming popular (a la The Hunger Games). Be very careful if you choose present tense; it's difficult to manage. It gives the feeling of immediacy, but that can backfire if you don't keep your narrative flowing with your character's situation. I'm going to go out on a limb and say by and large, past tense should be your default unless you have a really good reason to write in present tense.

Viewpoint is an excellent way to ensure strong characterization. When you color EVERYTHING through your character's eyes-- whether in first, third, past, or present-- your reader gets to know the character. The way they look down the street can tell us mountains about them. Are they looking for a specific person? Are they studying the artsy window displays? Are they calculating the ratio of colored cars to black and white ones? Are they unconsciously judging the people walking past by their clothing?

So be conscious about your viewpoint-- when you pick it, and throughout your story. Polish that lens until the reader sees exactly what you want them to, and in the manner you want them to see it.

So, my friends, do you have a favorite viewpoint? Why? What makes you choose one over the other?


Cheyanne said...

Excellent post! I especially agree with you about the present tense. I love writing in present tense, but the story really needs to call for it.. something exciting that's best to be lived NOW instead of 'retold' works best.

Kittie Howard said...

Thank you for a great post at just the right time. I'm working on a third person story but worried I was inside the MC's head too much...didn't realize there was a third person limited. Now I know how to edit a bit...thanks!!!

Cinette said...

Great post!
I myself prefer first person. I write MG/YA, so it works well for me.

Emy Shin said...

Great post! I should pay more attention to viewpoints I choose, instead of falling in line with one view point and tense without much thought.

My favorite PoV, weirdly, is third person present. I have difficulties writing in first person, as it almost always turns out to sound much too like my voice rather than my character's voice. And while I am more comfortable with past tense, I have a special fondness for present tense. There's a quality to present tense -- almost lyrical -- that just isn't present with past tense.

In my opinion, the differences between first person and third person limited are becoming fewer and fewer, as more and more novels -- especially YA -- use first person even while switching viewpoints between characters (i.e. SHIVER by Maggie Stiefvater and ACROSS THE UNIVERSE by Beth Revis).

I've debated switching from third person present to first -- I'm curious how that will change my WiP. :)

Melissa Hurst said...

I love first person because it lets you really get into the mc's head, to really feel like you're experiencing what that character does, instead of just reading about it.

J E Fritz said...

Great post! I have trouble with viewpoint sometimes and just seeing it presented in a clear way helps.

My favorite viewpoint is third person limited (past tense, by the way). It lets me connect with the character and also switch between the people in my story. For some reason, I can't connect as well in omniscient.

Rane Anderson said...

I don't know which one I prefer. First person comes a little easier to me than 3rd, but I love reading both, and I love writing both, too. It's a toss up, really. Nice post, thanks!

Anonymous said...

It really depends on the story we're trying to tell; you're absolutely right.

mshatch said...

great post and very timely in light of the fact that I'm about to rewrite a chapter and change the viewpoint, as suggested by one of my crit partners. I generally prefer 3rd person past tense but I occasionally write in 1st person.

Melissa said...

Excellent breakdown of viewpoints.

I liked first person present tense before I started reading the hunger games (and my novel was that way before). It is hard but it works much better in my story then past tense.

Sometimes, I wish my story could be in third just so I could showcase all my characters more (because I love all of them) but that's me talking and not what's best for the story - at all.

Meredith said...

Such good advice! I tend to prefer first person past when I'm writing and reading, but I always try to pay attention to what my story actually calls for. This is a great guide!

M Pax said...

A great exercise I learned recently for viewpoint and keeping the pov in characterization, is to develop lexicons for each character.

Viewpoint is important. I really don't care for head hopping any more or omniscient. When reading now, I see how much stronger the prose can be when choosing one pov at a time.

One of my CP's will not choose a POV and so I give him the same feedback. Will until he mends his ways. :D

Jodi Henry said...


I really dislike present tense, it makes me crazy to read.

I write in both first person and third limited both with multiple POV characters.

A critiquer once told me NEVER by any means write from two first person narratives and that IT WAS NEVER done in any published book.

WELL! I now say to that person, have you read Maggie Stiefvater's SHIVER and LINGER: SHIVER has two first person narratives, and LINGER has four. Maggie pulled the difference in voice off so well that I never had to check the chapter headings to see which character I was following. That is the key--creating a drastically different voice between the two first person narrators.

I have found that writing from multiple POV whether in third or first is always, always, harder to query for.

Speaking of queries, I am hosting a query letter blogfest happening dec 12-18, please check it out and spread the word.


Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

I'll write in either first or third person but I do prefer past tense by a mile. Great post

Abby Minard said...

This is great Shallee! My current WIP is third person with two main characters who switch POV. But, my next novel will be first person. I kind of always knew those would be the viewpoints, and I think certain types of novels work better with one or the other. I think more contemporary novels are great in first person, and I think more traditional fantasy are best in third person. But each novel varies, nad I really don't have a preference- I usually get used to it pretty early on in the book.

VR Barkowski said...

Excellent post. My favorite POV to write is first, but I think I write better in third. In my first novel, the female character was written in first, the male in close third. It was written in past tense until the climax chapter, then I switched to present to give the scene immediacy. I was very brave with that book. My present WIP is all in third ... at least for now. :)

Julie Musil said...

Sometimes I have a tough time deciding. I've tried first person and third limited, and liked them both. Each worked for the individual story.

Jennifer Lane said...

Excellent post! I haven't tried first person yet and I'm not a big fan of present tense (though I did love The Hunger Games). I am so accustomed to third person omniscient that I had trouble maintaining third person limited when I wrote flashbacks. Fortunately my editors helped me.

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