So you know what the most common viewpoints are, but how do you decide which to use for your story? Whose thoughts should you share? Does past tense or present tense make more sense? Which perspective will add that special something? In the end, it’s up to you, but there are a few questions that might help to point you in the right direction.
1: Whose internal conflict matters most?
Stories have two kinds of conflict: external and internal. The external conflict is what’s physically occurring in the story—a shipwrecked family must struggle to survive, a child must save a kingdom, or a young professional must deal with an unpleasant boss. The internal conflict is what’s going on inside the head of the main character, the struggle with himself or herself.
Will the shipwreck story center on the conflict within the father as he tries to provide, or will it center on the struggles of a child who loves the adventure and is dreading ever having to leave? Is the struggle between the professional and her boss going to be the story of the younger worker learning to deal with unpleasant work situations, or is the story of the boss trying to juggle personal strife with staying reasonable for the idealist but clueless new hire?
A story may belong to many characters on the outside, but on the inside, there will typically only be one or two characters whose inner struggles drive the story. As you think about how to tell the story, think about whose inner struggles influence the story the most—and which ones you care about the most.
2: Is your protagonist the main player or an observer of the big conflict?
Sometimes, the protagonist of the main struggle isn’t the one whose perspective brings things to life.
Think about the second example above: a child must save a kingdom. As the child works to save the kingdom, is the real story the child’s journey, or is it the struggle in the head of the child’s guardian, who wishes they could spare the child by taking her place? Likewise, in a historical tale, the greatest story isn’t always that of the great general who won the war. Sometimes, it’s the story of an ordinary foot soldier that makes the story feel real and engaging.
In your story’s conflict, who do you care about the most? Whose perspective adds honesty or insight into the issues at hand? Don’t automatically go for the biggest character; consider telling a side character’s story to engage your reader’s mind and heart in a deeper way.
3: How do you want the reader to interact with the story?
Once you know who your main character is, you still have some choices to make. Should you write in first, second, or third person? Should you use past or present tense? Do you focus on one character’s viewpoint or multiple? What about none at all? Answering this question is all in how you want your reader to experience the story.
Which of these situations do you want your reader to experience?
Hearing the story firsthand: 1st Person
When a story is written in first person, it’s like the POV character is personally recounting their story to the reader. This opens up the possibility of an unreliable narrator, as your main character chooses which details of their life and actions to share or omit. Writing your story in first person gives you more room for subjective filtering and embellishment. You have the opportunity to create a strong character voice and potentially explore a unique perspective on the events of your story.
Observing the story through one or more sets of eyes: 3rd Person
When a story is written in limited third person, it lets the reader ride along with one (or sometimes more) reliable sets of eyes and emotions. Third person limited lets you see what the POV character is thinking, feeling, and doing, but it cuts out the filter of them narrating the story and picking and choosing what details to share with the reader(their audience).
Think back to the examples of Huck Finn and Ender Wiggins in the previous post. Huck Finn, in telling his story, skims over some parts and makes other parts more extreme than they need to be. That’s part of what makes his tale so endearing. Ender’s Game, on the other hand, gives a more stable look at what happens while still letting the reader see how Ender interprets each situation. Using third person allows you to keep character voice a factor while making sure your reader doesn’t have to wonder whether the narrator is leaving anything out.
In some cases, you can show different characters’ viewpoints in different chapters or sections of your book—this is useful when multiple characters’ inner struggles are crucial to the story you’re telling, or when their separate paths each add details the reader needs to experience. Use this carefully, and make sure that you never have more than one POV surface in a given scene.
Living it themselves: 2nd Person
The second person POV can be tedious to try to pull off in a long work, but in a short story, it’s an interesting way to force your reader to live the story themselves. By putting them into the moment, they’ll feel the weight of the choices, actions, and feelings that go with that story. There is no character for them to ride along with; you’ve made them the character. Second person is not the easiest point of view to work with, but it’s an interesting one to play around with once in a while!
Attempting to navigate all thoughts at once: Omniscient
The omniscient viewpoint is often used when there is an unnamed narrator who knows everything about the story. Whether that’s the author or a fictional observer, it can get frustrating for one of two reasons.
The first reason is one that you might intentionally choose to equip: an omniscient narrator, much like a first-person narrator, gets to pick and choose what details to share. They get to choose which people’s thoughts are revealed and which scenes are shared, and in many cases, the reader is left with the suspicion that this person knows more than they’re saying. They’re frustrated, but in a good way.
The second reason for frustration is nothing but frustrating. An author jumps in and out of different characters’ viewpoints and shares whatever details they want to share, not because they have a specific narrator in mind but because they don’t know how to take the time to focus their POV. Don’t do this—if you slip omniscience into your story, do it on purpose and for a good reason.
Remaining a fully outside observer: Objective
Writing in the objective viewpoint and refraining from showing characters’ inner emotions or thoughts is a good way to ask the reader to come up with their own opinions on a situation. When all the reader can see is what is being said and done, they have to use the clues at hand to figure out what the characters think and feel. There is no narrator to filter the story or cast it in a particular light, so readers must take events at face value and make their own judgment calls.
Hearing the main character’s report as it happens: Present Tense
Past tense is the traditional tense of storytelling, but many writers have been experimenting with present tense lately. Writing a story in the present tense gives your main character (usually a first-person narrator) the chance to give a blow-by-blow report on what’s happening to them as it happens. Make sure you have a good reason for writing in present tense—while it can bring the reader to the edge of their seat as they experience the protagonist’s journey, it can also have the opposite effect and create a choppy, tedious report of a story the reader just wants to see, not hear reported.
Point of view is up to you!
In the end, you’re the one with the best idea of what will feel most natural to you and work best for your story. In your early drafts and outlining, don’t feel like you’re tied down to the first POV that you try. Remember the three questions: Whose internal conflict matters the most? Is your protagonist a main player or observer of the big conflict? How do you want the reader to interact with the story? Experiment! Try different voices, different tenses, and different focuses. What brings the story closer to the surface without the words distracting? Which one do you love? Be open to feedback, but also stay true to yourself and the story you’re telling. No matter which point of view you use, you can use it to connect the reader more deeply to the characters and conflict at hand.