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Choosing Your Point of View (Part 1) by Ally Carter

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Plotting and Planning
Ally Carter

Ally Carter

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How do you know which Point of View to use? If it’s first person, how do you pick which character tells the story? This is one of the things authors worry most about when getting started. Because, trust me, it’s not an easy thing to fix if you get it wrong. The first thing you’re going to have to consider is whether you should write in first person, second person, third person limited, or third person omniscient POV. I’ve written in all but second person (because it is the most rare), and they all have their pros and their cons.

FIRST PERSON, of course, means a character is “telling” the story. Sometimes that means one character. Sometimes an author might choose to have multiple first- person narrators, switching off between sections or chapters. (If you do this, note that the characters should ideally sound really different from each other – have different voices – and that’s a hard thing to pull off sometimes.)

Choosing first person means that the reader will know only what the first- person narrator knows – and will see only what that person sees. Living in a person’s head can be a great way of sucking in readers and making them really care about a character, but it will limit what the reader learns. Which can be a good thing. Or not.

For example, in my Gallagher Girls and Embassy Row books, first person worked really well because I wanted those heroines to be in the dark about what was going on a lot of the time. I wanted them to be confused and worried and maybe a little bit afraid. In fact, I wanted their search for answers to be mostly what the books were about! That’s why I wanted to tell those stories through one character’s eyes.

So how do you choose your first- person narrator? Well, that should always be the person with the most interesting view of the story – not necessarily the most interesting story. Think of it this way: If your book were a movie, your narrator is the camera lens. Most of the time that’s going to mean your POV character should be the main character. But sometimes that’s not the case. Think, for example, about The Great Gatsby. Nick is the first- person narrator of that classic novel, but Gatsby is, in every way, the star of the show.

SECOND PERSON is perhaps the most rarely used POV because, in second person, the narrator is “you” and that’s a hard thing to maintain for an entire novel. It’s something done more frequently in short fiction or perhaps in segments of a novel.

THIRD PERSON is another really common POV option. But there are really two versions.

In THIRD PERSON LIMITED, you are limited to one person’s POV at a time. This means you can only know what’s going on inside one person’s head at a time. So you might know what your hero is thinking, feeling, hearing, and seeing. If you want to know what your heroine is

thinking, you need to have a section break or start a new chapter and switch to her POV.

One of the biggest third-person POV mistakes that new writers make is “head hopping”, where you might “hop” from one POV to another in the same scene. For example, your hero might think about how hungry he is and then, in the next sentence, the heroine might think about how mad she is that the hero isn’t listening to her. Don’t do that. It’s confusing for readers and it will make you look like a newbie.

So, as long as you don’t head- hop, you can have as many third- person POV characters as you want, right? Well . . . let’s not go crazy.

Any time you give a character a POV – any time you go into a character’s head – you are signaling to the reader that that character is important, so the reader needs to perk up and pay attention because this is one of the main characters of the story.

Sometimes writers might break this rule intentionally to fake the reader out or set the story up in something like a prologue, but for your first few books, I’d recommend you pick one or two (or, at most, three or four) POV characters and stick with them. It’s often tempting to write in a (minor) character’s POV because then we can tell what they’re thinking, and we don’t have to show what they’re thinking. But that’s kind of cheating. And confusing. And you can do better, I promise.

When I was writing Not If I Save You First, I had a gut instinct pretty early on that third person limited was the only way to go. Why? Because I wanted the book to have dual leads – as much his story as her story and vice versa. I saw this as the story of two people   overcoming external and internal struggles to get to know each other in a new way. I wanted readers to be able to see and feel and experience the story through both of the main characters’ perspectives. I could have done it in alternating first person POV – that technically would have worked. But I was worried about making my hero and heroine sound different (about having different voices), and I’d been reading a lot of old- school romance novels, which are almost always told in alternating third person, so it just felt right.

(That’s something else to remember: If you’re writing in a genre where one POV is dominant, you might want to ask yourself if there’s a reason for that and let that factor into your decision.)

(c) Ally Carter

Part 2 of this article covers the Third Person Omniscient POV.

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About the author

Ally Carter writes books about spies, thieves, and teenagers. She is the New York Times Best-selling author of Heist Society, Uncommon Criminals, and the popular Gallagher Girls series, including I’d Tell You I Love You but Then I’d Have to Kill You, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, Don’t Judge a Girl by Her Cover, and Only the Good Spy Young. She lives in the Midwest where her life is either very ordinary or the best deep-cover legend ever. She’d tell you more, but…well…you know…

  • The Dark Room: A thrilling new novel from the number one Irish Times bestselling author of Keep Your Eyes on Me
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