Writing Exercise of the Week: Change the POV

How do you decide what “point-of-view” to write in? Are you writing a “choose your own adventure” book? Does he sit and ponder the pros and cons to writing in the four different points of view? Or do I give in to my natural instincts and just write what ever comes to mind first?

(I’m glad you see what I did there.)

While first-person and close-third-person (or limited) are the most widely used POVs in literature, I have seen second-person and omniscient-third-person used on occasion. The POV is the first and largest foundation that keeps a story together, and one may be better suited for a particular type of story than another. The rules surrounding POV can also be broken to enhance the overall tone and mood — meaning that an entire story does not need to be told from the same POV, as long as the shifts are clear to the reader — and many authors have done so. Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami is a great example of this. The author begins writing in first person POV for one character (Kafka), then switches to limited POV for another character (Nakata). Halfway through the book, a third main character is introduced (Hoshino) and there is a smooth transition from Nakata to him, still in limited POV. There are also many asides in Kafka’s section in which he talks to himself in the second-person as “The Boy Named Crow.” The whole effect enhances the novel’s fantastical setting and these POV shifts are made very clear to the reader, avoiding confusion.

Here is a quick break-down on each POV:

First-person POV
Clue words: I, we, us, me, they

This is a story that is narrated by the main character. The reader knows everything the main character sees, smells, touches, tastes, and hears AND the reader knows everything the main character thinks and feels. This POV helps to create a more intimate bond with the reader, as it generally gives the sense that the narrator is telling us a story, personally. Everything the reader sees is infused with the narrator’s personality and pathos.

“He looked at me throughout the entire ordeal. Fear crystallized in his eyes and remained there after his death, and I still felt no remorse. The ticking sound of blood as it fell from the tip of my knife to the hardwood floor soothed me into a trance. I didn’t kill him for justice or for money. I killed him because he needed to die, and if I see him in the afterlife, it will have all been worth it just for this one moment on earth.”

Close-third-person POV (or limited)
Clue words: He, she, they

Much like first-person POV, the reader can sense and feel everything the narrator does, but a mystical voice is telling a story about someone else. (Think of it like a classic fable or Native American folktale.) The one thing a writer can do in this POV that they can’t do in first-person is describe certain aspects of the main character. A narrator speaking in the first-person can say how they FEEL themselves smile or how they feel their eyes squint, but they generally can’t or don’t describe what it actually looks like. The close-third-person POV allows the writer to do both.

(You CAN say, “He squinted,” or “I squinted,” but you cannot say, “The corners of my eyes crinkled,” unless your character is watching themselves in a mirror. Or, hell, go a head and say, “The corners of my eyes crinkled.” It can be interpreted as a fancy way of saying, “I squinted.” But it sounds awkward.)

“Paul looked at him throughout the entire ordeal. Fear crystallized in his eyes and remained there after his death, and Rodger still felt no remorse. The ticking sound of blood as it fell from the tip of his knife to the hardwood floor soothed him into a trance. He didn’t kill Paul for justice or for money. He killed Paul because he needed to die.”

Second-person POV
Clue words: You

This POV turns the reader into the narrator. The use of second-person can be especially effective when combined with present tense.

“Paul looks at you throughout the entire ordeal. Fear crystallizes in Paul’s eyes and remains there after his death, and you still feel no remorse. The ticking sound of blood as it falls from the tip of your knife to the hardwood floor soothes you into a trance. You don’t kill Paul for justice or for money. You kill Paul because he needs to die.”

Feeling a little creeped-out or emotionally violated? This is a good example of how POV and tense can enhance the subject matter. A writer can also get a little creative with this POV by making this narration a voice in the character’s head.

Omniscient-third-person POV
Clue words: He, she, they…FOR EVERYONE

I like to call this “God Mode.” The narrator knows everything about everyone, even what they think and feel. It can be hard to distinguish between the main character and secondary characters when writing in this POV; it paves the way for a lot of head-jumping and can get confusion if not crafted carefully.

“Paul looked at Rodger throughout the entire ordeal. His neck erupted like lava, and Paul crumpled into a pool of his own blood, repeating “no, no, no.” Fear crystallized in Paul’s eyes, and he gradually slipped from confusion to anger and then into a coma of nothing.  Rodger felt no remorse. The ticking sound of blood as it fell from the tip of his knife to the hardwood floor soothed him into a trance. He didn’t kill Paul for justice or for money. He killed Paul because he needed to die.”

This is easier to accomplish with just two characters, but the more you add, the harder it gets.

As for figuring out what POV to write in, I find that I subconsciously choose the POV based on three main factors:

Emotional response:

If I am working from a prompt that immediately taps into the strongest emotions hidden away in my little black heart, I write in first person POV without question. I believe this is because what ever first came to mind from the writing prompt much have been emotionally familiar to me, and what I write is like an extension of myself — even if the subject matter bears no resemblance to my life whatsoever. We’ve all had that one piece — that piece where we wonder what gate of hell we traveled to that allowed us to write such a sick and twisted piece so different from our everyday work.

Character development:

When I am creating character back-story, I don’t approach it from a linear manner; I imagine the character voice and overall look in my head, pick a memory from their past, and tell it in their voice, from first person POV. In a similar way to analyzing a character for an acting role, this helps to establish emotion and make it seamless between the writer and the character.

Establishing the world:

I default to close-third when I am discovering all the intricacies of the world my characters live in. One of my projects is a sci-fi dystopia novel and I am in the process of creating back-story, which largely consists of the main character’s ancestors and where she currently lives.

After the extensive lead-in, here is your challenge: Choose something you have written recently, maybe within the last week or something within the last year that you have meant to revisit — it doesn’t matter. Take that piece and re-write it in a different point of view. Don’t just change “he” to “I”; get in there and change entire sentences around. If you get some really interesting results, link ’em below in the comments.

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