Raise Our Glasses to POV

Posted: March 10, 2013 by Matthew Ridenour in Matt's Words
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What is a POV? Well, at my day job, it’s an acronym for Personal Owned Vehicle, but in the writing world, it’s known universally as Point of View.

What does it mean? Merriam-Webster defines it as: “A position or perspective by which something is considered or evaluated; standpoint.” Its first known use was in 1720.

Great. Now we know what it means, but how and why can it be applied to storytelling?

There are varying answers to this all-encompassing question, so let’s start with the how – the different ways to apply it, the different tenses, and the different perspectives. Here are some of the most common.

Third Person Limited: This is the hottest third person view to write from on the marketplace right now because of how easy it is for the reader to relate to the main protagonist. We see the world from the main character’s eyes only, know only what the character knows. We see his/her thoughts, feel those emotions, and sense the world with the character’s smells, tastes, sounds, sights, and touches. We know nothing about any other person or even the world except for how our main character perceives them.

This is most commonly written in past tense, and allows the reader to truly get to know him/her with immediacy and intimacy, and it illicits a strong emotional response. While reading, instead of watching the scenes progress through a window, we are right there with the character, seeing through his/her eyes, reacting when the character reacts, and thus, we have a stronger emotional connection. We have a more personal stake in the story. This above all keeps readers turning the page, keeps us interested, shows instead of tells of the scene real-time. And even though it is written in past tense, the reaction is immediate and close. Disadvantage is – we are unable to confront the world or learn anything that the character does not experience. This is most widely used across all genres except non-fiction, and less often used in Romance, YA, and MG.

Example: The moment Matt jumped from the plane, he regretted ever having agreed to this foolish notion. From the pit of his stomach, panic swelled to immeasurable heights. The cold wind howled in his ears, making him shiver as the land grew closer. He clenched his jaw, tightened his abdomen, and wondered if he’d ever have the courage to reach out and pull that cord to open his parachute.

Third Person Omniscient: This is a more old-fashioned style of third person storytelling, most often written  in past tense, but is still used today in some circumstances. This is commonly known as the narrator POV. As the reader, we can see all, hear all, know all. Writing has evolved through the years, and some consider this a lesser form of storytelling because it becomes more difficult to relate to the main characters. Personally, I believe it simply to be out of style. However, it has major disadvantages. It’s hard to feel immediacy with this form, more difficult to connect emotionally with the characters. There’s a greater distance between the reader and the protagonist. But it also allows the writer to show things that the main character would not normally see, which might be integral to the story. We can often see this in traditional Literary Fiction such as Count of Monte Cristo, in dated Fantasy and Science Fiction, and in older Historical Fiction, and Historical Fantasy.

Example: The moment Matt jumped from the plane, Joe smiled from behind. Unknown to Matt, Joe hadn’t packed the parachute properly, didn’t realize it was done on purpose. As he spiraled through the air closer to his death, both contemplated what would soon happen. But neither realized the repercussions of their decisions, or anticipated what the actual result would be.

Third Person Head Hopping: If done properly, this can create tension, illicit a strong emotional reaction, and allow the reader to see the world through several eyes at once, experience the world from more than one perspective. However, it isn’t often done correctly, and even if it is, can create confusion. The danger is jarring the reader: as soon as we are able to relate to one character, we are ripped out of their POV and slammed into another. Using this mode of storytelling makes it difficult to be sucked into only one character, and creates distance between us and the protagonist. However, it has the distinct advantage of allowing the reader to forge a relationship with more than one character at a time. Often, the POVs are separated by paragraphs, but sometimes are changed sentence by sentence. This form is the rarest used of this bunch, but can be read across all genres except non-fiction.

Example: The moment Matt Jumped from the plane, Joe cracked his knuckles, feeling giddy to finally having rid himself of this jackass. The punk had stolen his wife. Well, this would be the last time Matt robbed anything from anyone.

As Matt sailed through the air, death drawing closer with every moment, the cold wind howled in his ears, making him shiver as the land grew nearer. He clenched his jaw, tightened his abdomen, and wondered if he’d ever have the courage to reach out and pull that cord to open his parachute.

As we can see, the transition shift from the two points of views in the above example is jarring, and it takes a moment for us to readjust.

First Person Present Tense: An excellent perspective to write from, this style allows the reader closeness to the character that no other POV can grasp. It is one of the most popular of this bunch, and is primarily seen in but not limited to YA, MG, and Romance genres. Disadvantages of using this style are how description is given, and how often the pronouns “I,” “me,” and “my” are used. As a normal person, I don’t narrate myself picking up a sandwich to eat – I simply do it. But, those who write in this format often face this problem. This sometimes reveals oddness to the writing that wouldn’t be caught if written in third person.

Example: I jump from the plane and tumble down across the sky. My throat tightens and I shiver as the land grows near. My hands frozen by both cold and fear, I wonder if I have the courage to pull that cord before my young life ends. Before I get to tell Joe’s wife goodbye.

In conclusion, if you haven’t yet decided which perspective to write from, experiment a little. The most popular of the above group today are First Person Present Tense, and Third Person Limited. Find out what works best for you. None of these styles are necessarily better or worse, comparatively speaking, but all have advantages and disadvantages you should consider before choosing. My advice, choose a situation to write about, then create it from multiple POVs. Write it from the different styles, then choose the one you feel most connected with.

As all of us grow as writers, so may our styles change. But the important moral here is to learn, and continue learning. Keep our minds open to possibilities, because as soon as we form a strong opinion on the matter, we limit ourselves to growing. As a balance, we must know ourselves, know our voice, so that when faced with differing opinions, we will not sacrifice who we are for the benefit of others.

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Comments
  1. Matthew Ridenour says:

    Great points, Cheryl. First Person Past Tense should definitely receive an honorable mention.

  2. Great overview on POVs! I see a lot of First Person Past Tense in novels as well. First Person and Third Person Limited can be interestingly similar–different pronouns, obviously, but a very close Third Person can read much like First Person too.

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