Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What's so important about POV



According to Wikipedia, narrative point-of-view “determines through whose perspective the story is viewed.” (Source

Narrative voice “determines a set of consistent features regarding the way through which the story is communicated to the audience.” (Source)

There are many different ways to tell your story, but point-of-view is going to be the best way your reader is going to get into the heads of your characters.

Anecdotally, it seems like most YA is written in first person point of view. In other words, the story reads like someone is telling you the story from their own perspective. I couldn’t find any stats on it, but a quick Google search (“first person pov in young adult”) popped up a bunch of bloggers and articles that agree with my observation.

First Person. You can be very informal; you can know things about the main character s/he wouldn’t say out loud. You can be deep into the psyche of your main character. But you need to be careful, you’ve got to get the voice right. The reader can’t know anything that the narrator doesn’t know. You can’t slip into someone else’s head. You can’t know anything about anyone else’s emotions, except what is observable. Sometimes, writers will shift POV intentionally, in order to get deeper in another character for this reason. You’ve got to be good to get a POV shift right. Beth Revis does a good job of shifting first person POV (chapter by chapter) in ACROSS THE UNIVERSE.

Second Person. This is rare in literature, though, as Wikipedia reminded me, common in song lyrics. (source) The narrator pulls the reader into the story, making “you” a character. I haven’t read the aptly titled YOU by Charles Benoit, but reviews indicate it’s an excellent example of second person narrative. Here’s one review.

Third Person. The story is told from a distance, using pronouns “he” and “she.” There are a couple of subsets of third person—limited and omniscient. (source). There’s a deep form of third, that resembles first person. Third person deep is told in third person, but it’s from the perspective of one main character, with little knowledge of the emotions of other characters. Most of the Harry Potter series is told in deep third, from Harry’s perspective.

Recently, I rewrote my Young Adult novel from third person past tense to first person present tense. Even though the manuscript was in deep third from my main character’s perspective, the shift to first person was significant. I had to touch every single word—all 82,000 of them. But making the change to first person gave me insight into the voice of my character that third person didn’t. It ended up being a lot different than I expected when I started the rewrite.

I can’t tell you how long I stalled. In fact, I started the book (or short story as it had been) in first. But since some of the experiences in the book were based on real experiences, it felt too personal; too close. And I realized that was the exact reason it needed to go back to first person.

Tips for writing in first person:

1.      The narrative has to be in words, phrases, sentences the character would use. The voice needs to be spot-on to be believable. Read the MS out loud, if you have to.
2.      Ask yourself, would my character know this? In other words, she can’t see behind walls, she can’t see into someone’s head. Unless, of course, she’s a superhero.
3.      Most people can’t interpret emotion by looking at someone else’s eyes. Make sure your character’s observations are realistic.
4.      Have fun.

What POV is your favorite? Have you tried different points of view?

4 comments:

  1. YOU is one of my all-time favorite books. Love, love, love that story. The second person POV is strange at first because it's something we're not used to seeing in literature, but my mind quickly adapted. I would definitely recommend that book.

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    1. Thanks, Nicole! Oddly enough, as I reread this post, I realized I wrote part of it in second person... :)

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  2. I've written exclusively third-person for about 20 years now. I did first-person somewhat more often when I was younger, but then just found myself switching out of it. 99.9% of the time, I do third-person omniscient, which is pretty much a must when you're writing a long historical saga with lots of characters and storylines. Once in awhile, I do something closer to third-person limited, but it's really still omniscient that happens to be focused on only one character.

    I've seen a lot of modern people bashing third-person omniscient, and that makes me sad. Not only is that the POV that comes most naturally to me and is the most fun to write it, but it's also very underrated lately. You can do so much with it that you can't do in first-person. I'm taking a master's-level YA Lit class this semester, and at least 95% of the books on the reading list (both required and choices to pick from) are first-person. Sometimes I wonder if so much modern YA is in first-person because it's become such a trend, and some writers think it's expected, instead of choosing what works best for the story. A number of books on the class list really didn't work well, for me, in first-person.

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    1. I think you should write in whatever voice you feel most comfortable with, Carrie-Anne! That said, it's always interesting to challenge yourself and try something new. There are no rules set in stone--and there ARE young adult books written in third.

      Good luck!

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