Choosing the Right Point of View For Your Novel

In his third article in Writing 101, Bryan is giving you tips on how to choose the right point of view for your novel, including first person, third person, present and past tense.

Using First Person vs. Using Third Person

The one thing I stress to myself and others is to do what feels natural when you start your novel, but every now and then, challenge yourself just to see what happens.

First person is natural to me. I love being the character. The unreliable narrator. They are clumsy, driven and have the courage to allow the audience to see the world through their eyes. To me it’s fun but like anything there are limits. I cannot see or feel the others.

With my second novel, I forced myself to write in third person. It was a challenge but I’m glad I did it. I could hover over the characters and examine the landscape of the story. I felt like a stone skipping across the water, landing on every character before moving on to the next.

The drawback to third person is the feel of it. I wasn’t able to get to know them the way I did in the first. Their visits were short lived. I had a constant feeling they were holding something back. When sitting down to craft your world, ask yourself some questions: What are you drawn to? What are your strengths? When your book is complete do you want your book to be about the person or the plot?

Takeaway: First person allows your reader to get up-close with one character, whereas third person stories are inherently driven more by plot and pace.

How Your Point of View Relates to Genre

I stumble into a lot of things by accident. I’m your typical klutz and I’m good with that. I’ve learned a lot from this chaotic, stumbling life. Writing a novel is similar in many ways. So many of us discover what works through stumbling into a good thing. 

I learned that writing in first person is a great way to show action or plot. The reader is present and absorbed. In other genres, like historical fiction or suspense, writing in the third person gives you the ability to move around with the setting and control the pace with your narrative.

Takeaway: A first-person narrative gives you more relatability and personability, but third-person gives you more control over the setting and pace.

When to Use Multiple Points of View

I have a ton of notes on novels I may someday write. The other day I came across an idea that sounded like a lot of fun. The story is in first person but told by two different people. One journey, one finish line but two different roads to take.

So why do this? Why tell it two different ways when one will do?

Every now and then when a story is written the writer will have a feeling that something is missing. I know that feeling and it drives me bonkers. What I have discovered is that sometimes the story needs multiple points of view by doing so, one feeds off the other. The energy and suspense but most of all the feeling that something is off goes away.

Writing in multiple views can create worry. Will it weaken the story? Are two leaders a good idea? They will be fighting for attention. Demanding the spotlight. But sometimes a story wasn’t meant for one and if so, then the writer will have a decision to make.

Takeaway: Multiple points of view can help to give the reader more information, but be careful, as it can weaken a story.

Using a Narrator (When The POV Isn’t Your Protagonist)

There once was a myth that the protagonist had to be the narrator but that myth was broken with a little book called The Great Gatsby.

A wonderful way of storytelling is watching greatness unfold. The eyes of an innocent person following their hero’s adventure. The advantage is relatable. Not all of us are heroes. 

The strongest stories are those where the reader sees themselves in the story. When creating a narrator who is not the star the reader understands and relates. We all have that one person we admire or love. They are our own personal hero and when a writer creates this type of setting they allow the reader to reflect and revisit their past.

But to create such a story a writer has to be careful. Coming up with a great idea is one thing, how to write is another. The one question I always ask: Do I write it in past or present tense?

Takeaway: Using a narrator that isn’t your protagonist can give a unique perspective to your story and let the reader in on things the main character doesn’t.

Using Past Tense vs. Present Tense

What should I do? Which one do I choose? Do I flip a coin or try darts to decide?

Thankfully, I have beta readers and writer’s group. If you don’t have one, I highly suggest it.

There is no clear favorite with past or present. Past tense is common. It feels normal and accepted while present tense has a limited or claustrophobic feel. Some hate it, some love it. There’s not a lot of gray area.

What kind of experience will the reader have?

If I write in present tense it gives the reader an up close and personal experience but if the aim is to slow the pace, take my time and guide them by the hand, past tense is the answer.

What if I want to write suspense?

With past tense, the protagonist knows things the reader doesn’t. A secret hold to the very end. I love secrets, most people do, but there are other ways to write it. The question I’d like to ask: What is yours?

So which one is best?

For those who love it, present tense can feel like a movie. Two examples: Hungers and Fight Club.

The emotions are crazy fun to create, a deep point of view and if the writer can pull it off they have the chance of creating a wonderful unreliable narrator. Before you choose, ask yourself what kind of challenges you want to face? If challenge is your game, present tense is the answer. Be ready, it’s not for everyone.

Takeaway: Past tense is the most common, but present tense brings the reader in on the action and creates a deep sense of connection.

1 thought on “Choosing the Right Point of View For Your Novel”

  1. Thanks for this Bryan, really enlightening. I started up several writing groups in the local library for budding writers. If I may I’ll pass this over to them to take a gander.

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