Writing points of view in fiction


Novels aren't films

Novelists today are as familiar with film & TV as they are with novels. That's no bad thing. But beware. Each medium has its grammar, and the rules that work in one don't always work in another.

The problem is particularly pronounced when it comes to points of view (POVs, in the jargon). The rules around Points of view are so strong, that getting them wrong is a fatal mistake - one likely to require a total rewrite of your work

That's the bad news. The good news is that this Quick Guide to points of view in fiction tells you what to do and how to do it ...


Giddy camera, steady pen

The camera is a promiscuous beast. It can have the perspective of any character or none. Sometimes it might view a scene from (say) Romeo's perspective; the next moment, from Juliet's. One moment, it might have the viewpoint of a serving maid; the next be positioned at some disembodied, godlike vantage point. If the camera stopped dancing, viewers would quickly grow bored.

There's just one thing cameras don't seem to manage very well: celibacy. Though feature films have been made from a first person perspective, there haven't been many. (MGM made one, The Lady in the Lake, in 1947 - the film that supplied the images on this webpage. The camera rolled along as though it was the eyes of the narrator. When the narrator smoked, cigarette smoked curled up round the lens. But the effect was gimmicky and stale. The experiment was seldom repeated)

Novelists (you may be disappointed to learn) are natural celibates. Because novelists deal with the interior worlds of their characters, we simply can't go leaping around in quite the same way. In fact - and this rule is iron hooped in steel for all but the very best novelists - there are only three ways to write a fiction book. They are:


First person

First person narration is what it sounds like. The entire action is seen through the eyes of the narrator. (' I did this. I saw that. I felt the other.') The narrator can only narrate scenes in which he or she is physically present. You cannot as a rule mix first person scenes with third person ones. If the book is being narrated by your central character, then how the heck can (s)he know what's going on if they aren't there to witness it? This is an iron rule. Break it at your peril.

Other things to think about with first person narratives:

  • The tone of your writing must fit with the character of your narrator. For instance, if your narrator is a rough-edged character, then all your prose must be rough-edged too. You wouldn't, in this case, be able to write sentences like 'Dawn crept up like a gathering sadness'. (Maybe you wouldn't want to anyway). Before you select a first person voice for the book, make sure that your chosen character will enable you to write the kind of prose you want to write.
  • You may need to adapt your plot to handle the single viewpoint. Because the narrator can't talk about things he hasn't seen, then you won't be able to talk about (say) the murder in the security vault unless the plot allows your narrator to be there.
  • If you have problems handling Points of view - this is something our editors will certainly advise you on - then first person narration probably offers fewer pitfalls than the alternatives. And don't feel patronised if you get given this advice. Much of the world's great literature has been written this way.

Third person

single Point of view

Third person narration from a single perspective ('He did this. He saw that. He felt the other.') offers one big area of flexibility compared with the first person method. It allows you as narrator to write prose different from the kind of thing your central character might choose to write. If your protagonist, for instance, is not very introspective, then third person narration allows you to get inside his thoughts and feelings much more than you might be able to if the character himself were describing things.

Why might you want to stick to a single POV through the course of a whole book? The answer is that by focusing relentlessly on one single character you will get more deeply into his thoughts, feelings and inner journey than you could if your focus is more scattered.

We are often asked if it is possible to use secondary points of view in a book where there is one primary focus. The answer is yes, as long as the use of such POVs is sparing. Any time away from your main character will tend to create a loss of intensity in your writing. That's OK if you have a crucial plot development to recount, and it is clear to the reader why this development impacts the protagonist. But the more time you spend away from your area of focus, the greater the loss of impetus. As a rough guide, if you spend more than ten short sections/chapters away from your protagonist, you are losing momentum.


Third person

multiple Points of view

Some manuscripts that come our way are written in the third person, with multiple points of view ('Jane did this. John saw that. Jo felt the other.') And many of these become hopelessly unstuck, because the writers haven't understood the difference between written fiction and film.

So here's the rule.

Fiction is about inner worlds and inner journeys. If you use a particular POV repeatedly, then you must fully characterise that person. That means, a fully developed inner life; a fully developed character arc; a full set of challenges, encounters and personal change. If you work from a POV where the character in question is only partly developed, then this part of your writing will never come to life. if you aren't sure whether a particular character is fully developed, then he/she almost certainly isn't.

This rule has one important consequence. Namely, few books can tolerate more than 3-4 POVs. It's extremely difficult to accommodate more internal worlds than this in a book and do it properly. There are two main exceptions to this rule. They are:

  • Upmarket literary fiction. Some stunning novels (Matthew Kneale's English Passengers) have been written with a large number of viewpoints. But you do risk fracturing the narrative drive, so take extreme care!
  • Some thrillers - like many of Tom Clancy's novels, for example - work with many viewpoints, because the focus is very much external rather than internal. This method is still less common than the restricted POV method we've been talking about - and again, we recommend using multiple POVs with care.

And finally, here are a handful of other no-nos. Few of them are absolute rules, but if in doubt, you'd be very well advised to follow them.

  • Don't switch Points of view in the middle of a scene. If you start a scene with Mary, don't end it with Tom.
  • Don't write a scene from the Point of view of somebody who is killed in the course of it. If you really want the last minute on tape, as it were, then you can end a scene with a final sentence like 'He looked up. The gun barrel was pointing straight at him. He felt nothing, only emptiness ...' But not much of this, please.
  • If you are writing a scene from Jo-Jo's perspective then don't relate information that only Ki-Ki could have seen. Choose a Point of view and stick to it.
  • If you are writing a scene from Roger's perspective, then you can't relate emotional information about Fanny. If you want to tell us something about Fanny, you have to do it via information which Roger could plausibly have access to. 'Fanny's lips were tight and white. He knew the signs of her fury well enough by now ...'
  • If you start a book with a good number of scenes from Laura's perspective, then you can't just ditch her halfway through - or at the very least, you need a jolly good reason to do this. If you're not sure if your reason is strong enough, then it certainly isn't.

Finally, if in doubt, get in touch. if you get into a muddle with points of view, you will need to rewrite your book almost completely. That's not a risk it makes any sense to take. Better get advice now, than make a pig's ear of it.