Originally posted to r/WriterChat, Ray talks about the advantages and use-cases of different points of view in fiction.

There was talk in the chat about the Points of View (POVs) that we like and dislike. Someone went so far as to say that they've bought a book, and then never read it because they realized it was in first person.

That's dumb. All POVs are valid if they're used under the right circumstances. Even some POVs that should be horrific mistakes can be done wonderfully by competent enough writers. So let's break some of these POVs down.

First Person

I skipped to the river with Cindy, her hair bounding up and down. I remembered the tangles that I had to brush out of my hair after the last time we were here. The way it pulled my scalp, and the way my brother asked from the other room, "Doesn't that hurt?"

I asked him what he meant.

"I can hear your brush from over here. It sounds painful is all."

In first person, we're in the character's head, and the character is directly telling us their story: I did blank. Here are some cases when you might want to use first person. Not every instance of first person has to fulfill all of these, or even one of them. These are just common examples.

  • You want the reader to sympathize greatly with the POV character: for the purposes of your story, it is important that the reader identify's with the character in some close way. First person is great if this is what you're going for, because first person is the most in-the-character's-head that we can be.

  • You want your narrator to be unreliable. In my observations, people (me) are generally okay with following an unreliable character, as long as we like the character in other ways. On the other hand, they (I) might be less inclined to follow an unreliable disembodied voice, whose only fucking job is to tell the story. The further from character we get, the less tolerance towards an unreliable narrator.

  • You want the character to be misinformed. Similar to the above point, but less malicious: here the character thinks they're telling the truth, but is wrong, and probably learns later on (along with the reader) that they were wrong, spurring some great realization that furthers—or ends—the story. The more we're in the character's head, the easier it is to hide information from the reader without it feeling cheap.

Essentially, this is the POV to use when you want to filter the narrative/world very intensely through the frame of one character's head.

Third Person Omniscient

Alice and Cindy skipped to the river, their hair bounding up and down.

The last time Alice was here, she had to brush all sorts of tangles from her hair afterwards. Her brother had heard her from the other room: she let out a little yip every time the brush caught. He would watch her pull until the knot came out or the bristles slipped loose. Then she would start again on the same strand of hair, thinking to herself how she would have to be more careful to put her hair in a tie next time.

"Doesn't that hurt?" John asked her at one point.

"What do you mean?" Alice asked.

"I can hear your brush from over here. It sounds painful is all."

In third person omniscient, we can jump into any character's head. The word omniscient is from Latin, and means all-knowing. Anything we want to draw from the setting or the characters is fair game. Here are some use cases:

  • Your story has a cast of characters who are unusually far apart from each other, and it's important that we hear from all of them in spite of this. So, if say you're working on an epic fantasy novel, you can jump from the Northern Icelands to the Central Sea, and it won't be nearly as jarring as if you tried to pull that shit in first person. In fact, in third person omniscient, it's not even shit! It's totally acceptable!

  • It's the easiest, in my opinion. Which isn't to say bad, just easiest. Somebody else in the chat mentioned that new writers tend to use first person, which does make sense, because that's probably how we're used to orating stories—"I went to the mall and saw Stacy and she was dressed like such a slut." But with third person omniscient, you have fewer boundaries! Wanna jump into somebody else's head? Have fun with that!

  • The readers might trust what you say on a more literal level. In omniscient, you have to wrestle with the prose more if you want to lie to the audience. But this restriction can be played to your advantage, since it builds trust that you as the writer would only break if you were some kind of jerk.

So third person omniscient: good for expansive stories, or for stories where it's important that the reader actually believes you.

Third Person Limited

Alice skipped to the river with Cindy. Alice watched Cindy's hair bound up and down. It reminded her of the tangles she had to brush out of her hair after the last time they were here. The way it pulled her scalp, and the way her brother asked from the other room, "Doesn't that hurt?"

"What do you mean?" she asked him back.

"I can hear your brush from over here. It sounds painful is all."

In third person limited, we're in one character's head, but instead of being told about it by them like in first person, we're told about it by somebody else—a third person. Whether this is more similar to first person or to third person omniscient depends on how you look at it. We get the pronouns of third person omniscient (she/her instead if I/my), but we're seeing the world in a way that's more filtered like first person. Use cases:

  • You want to get the world as seen by a character, a la first person, but you don't think readers need to feel as sympathetic to the character. This doesn't mean that your character has to be less sympathetic, but it is easier to pull off in third person than first. The more distance your reader has from your character, the more room the character has to Do Bad Things. >:3

  • It's a good middle-ground for reliability. You can still mislead the reader as you might in first, because we are, after all, still in the character's head. But now there's a slight distance to those lies. It makes readers examine the character in a different way. Rather than being mad at Alice for lying to them, they may be more likely to stop and think about what lead Alice to lie in the first place.

  • Third person looks nice. If you write in first person for long enough, you might grow to resent the word I. In third person limited, you get the variety of third person, plus some of the interiority of first person. (Keep in mind that looking nice isn't everything: first person is still your go-to for being as close to the character as possible.)

Third person limited is great for closely following one character through a story, without being uncomfortably close. (Although you can scooch up pretty close to them, if you wanted to. ;)   )

Third Person Multiple

This one is a little harder to illustrate in a succinct example. Basically, you're following one character, in the same way as third person limited. But then, in the next section, you're following a different one character. Essentially, we follow multiple characters, but only one of them at a time. You probably wouldn't be in Alice's head and then switch mid-paragraph to Cindy's. You might, however, switch from Alice's head to Cindy's if you were starting a new chapter. This sounds a lot like third person omniscient, but the key difference is that we're never all-knowing: we only get one character's knowledge at any given time.

I've done most of my writing in third person multiple lately. I dabble all over the place, but this is my favorite. The reason why is because I happen to value these use cases: use third person multiple if...

  • Your story has a cast of characters who think very differently from one another. In this case, they may all be in the same room, but will still be seeing what happens in that room in different ways. If you want to be able to jump into each character's head for their take on it, but never want an objective report of what factually happened, then third person multiple is the POV for you.

  • You have a cast of characters who have different voices, and each of their voices do a better or worse job of highlighting the important things in a scene. It's similar to the above, but more about style than about content.
    —It's worth noting here that in third person multiple, it's perfectly valid for the narrator to change voices when they start to follow a different character. It might feel a little weird if you're not used to writing it, but the payoff for figuring it out is very worth it.

  • You want the benefit of being able to jump around like in third person omniscient, the closeness of first person, and the distance of third person limited. In my opinion, third person multiple gives you the biggest set of tools to work with, hands down, and that's very satisfying to play with. (Do keep in mind though that this isn't a trump card over every other POV: sometimes you don't need all of these tools. A story that should be in first person won't benefit from you forcing in another character's take on it. Plus, if you're newer, a big set of tools might be more overwhelming than helpful. Try to practice with them one at a time.)

Second Person

You skipped to the river with Cindy, her hair bounding up and down. You remembered the tangles that you had to brush out of your hair after the last time you were here. The way it pulled your scalp, and the way your brother asked from the other room, "Doesn't that hurt?"

You asked him what he meant.

"I can hear your brush from over here. It sounds painful is all."

In second person, the reader is forced to assume the role of a character. This isn't just close: this is imposing. Here are some use cases:

  • You're writing a text adventure or a choose your own adventure. Since the reader will be making choices for the character, it makes for a more compelling story if they feel like they are the character who will have to face the repercussions.

  • You want to force even more closeness than first person. Keep in mind that this is usually Too Much Closeness. Extreme cases only.

  • You're writing something very short, where a reader can suspend their disbelief for a few minutes and pretend that yes, they are whatever you're saying they are, and sure, they would do whatever you're saying they'd do. Micro fiction or flash fiction are your best cases. Even a short story is pushing it. If you want to do a full length novel in second person, you better have lots of talent, huge cojones, and very low expectations for sales, or it's back to the drawing board.

To anyone who's making writing software, I want to request a feature where if it catches you writing in the second person, it puts up a flag asking if you're sure you want to do that. It's a POV with a very limited use case. If you're doing it for fun then knock yourself out, but you'll have a hard time engaging readers in a story when they're too busy asking questions about the unusual point of view.

Mixing Points of View

Mixing any of the above POVs is usually bad practice. Once you've committed to telling a story in the first person, you want to think really hard about whether you should address the reader—for anything—in the second person. Once you've been telling a story for multiple chapters in third person limited, it would be a little weird if you suddenly told one in third person omniscient.

There are exceptions for skilled enough writers. A while back, I beta-read a book that was in third person multiple, but one of those multiple POVs was told in first person instead of third. That's a conceptual nightmare. If that writer and I had been talking about that before he had written the thing, I would have flat-out told him that he shouldn't do it. But he did, and I'll be damned, it was an amazing book, made that much better by having one character in first person and the rest in third.

But statistically, he was probably more talented than you. Build up to that kind of thing: have a very solid command of first person and third before you invest too much time into mix-and-match.

As I said near the start of this, the use cases I've outlined aren't set in stone, nor are they complete. You can use them or not use them. If you're new, you're very likely to misuse them, and that's okay. If you're seasoned, you're more likely to use them by instinct rather than by careful thought. A lot of this just comes down to nuance. And we haven't even touched tenses yet.

This is just a post to help you organize your options. You've got plenty to choose from. The important thing is that you get started: if you want to make progress on that project of yours, even the wrong POV is better than no POV.

© Ray Underscore Thompson, February 3, 2017