Let me tell you about a Middle Grade book I wrote long, long ago. The first draft was in first person. But the book was a fairy tale, and first person didn’t seem quite right. So I rewrote it in limited third person, from the protagonist’s point of view. And that worked better. I got an agent, and we started making edits. He thought it would be cool to get more than just the protagonist’s point of view. I considered an omniscient POV but ended up doing multiple third person limited by writing alternate chapters from two of the main characters’ perspectives. Point being: point of view can take a while to get right.
What is point of view, exactly? The most common POVs in fiction are bolded above. Sometimes authors play with second person (you), like Rebecca Stead in sections of Goodbye Stranger, and very occasionally they try first person plural (we), like The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides). For more info, see Jane Friedman’s very helpful article: The Basics of Point of View for Fiction Writers.
Choosing the best point of view for your story is only half the battle. Once you’ve decided on a POV, try avoid mistakes like the ones below.
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1. Choosing the Wrong Point of View
Technically there’s no right or wrong point of view, but some POVs tend to work better for certain types of stories.
First Person works well for stories that are confessional and/or rely on a protagonist’s internal thoughts and feelings. The reader will be very much “in the head” of the narrator, experiencing the events along with him or her. First person is popular in YA and upper Middle Grade contemporary because these books tend to have lots of reflection. An unreliable first person narrator can also be a lot of fun.
Third Person Omniscient works well if you’re telling a fantasy, action/adventure, fairy tale, or an epic saga with several main characters. An omniscient narrator can give your book more of an epic, story-telling, or old-fashioned tone. An omniscient narrator with a unique voice or a stake in the story can be a lot of fun, too.
Third Person Limited, sometimes called “close third,” is a nice middle ground. It gives readers some distance from the main character, but we still sees things from their perspective. It also gives the author a chance to write in a voice other than the voice of the protagonist. This can be especially helpful if your protagonist is young, uneducated, and/or inexperienced. You can also have two or more third person POVs, though you will usually want to separate them by chapters or page breaks.
2. First Person Word Choice and Voice
With a first person narrator, the main character is telling his or her own story. They can’t know what other people are thinking, and they can’t describe events they aren’t there to witness.
Perhaps the narrator is telling the story as it happens to them (like in Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson), or perhaps they are looking back on a recent set of events (like in We Were Liars by E. Lockhart). If the narrator is an adult looking back on a childhood or teenage experience, you have written an adult book, not YA or Middle Grade (like the adult novel Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, which is about a girl’s high school experiences.)
If you’re writing YA or Middle Grade, your first person narrator should “sound” like the kid or teenager that they are. And no matter the age of your narrator, first person narrators’ voices should be consistent with who they are — for example, they shouldn’t use words their character wouldn’t know or use. In addition, their internal thoughts and reflections should match their personality and maturity level. And their descriptions should jive with their age, experience, and perspective.
For example, a twelve-year-old first person narrator wouldn’t describe a room as having “a mahogany Queen Anne dining table and chairs,” (unless this particular twelve-year-old is really into antique furniture). Instead the narrator might say the room has “a fancy, old-fashioned table and matching dark-wood chairs.”
For this very reason, it can sometimes feel limiting or difficult to write in first person, especially if your main character is young, uneducated, and/or inexperienced. Limited third person can be a great alternative to first person, especially for middle grade books. In limited third, you still get the story from the main character’s perspective, but the narrator can use words and descriptions the main character wouldn’t know or use.
For more about voice, check out my article What Is Voice? (And How to Find a Writing Voice of Your Own)
3. “Head-Hopping” in Limited 3rd Person
Think of the limited 3rd person point of view as a camera that sits on the shoulder of the main character and can also peek inside their head to record their thoughts. It sees and knows only what that character sees and knows.
This means the narrator shouldn’t suddenly give the thoughts or perspectives of another character – that’s called “head-hopping.” It’s okay to do this with an omniscient narrator (as long as you’re clear about whose thoughts are whose), but in close third, your reader has been seeing the story through the eyes of one character only, so it can be confusing if you hop into the head of someone else.
4. Self Descriptions in First Person
What’s wrong with the following sentence?
“What are you talking about?” I asked, my eyes as round as saucers.
What’s wrong with this one?
I looked at him with my big green eyes, my hair shining gold in the sun.
First of all, they’re both pretty awful and clichéd. Second of all, they contain POV mistakes. A first person narrator can only see things (including herself) from her own perspective. A first person narrator cannot tell how round their own eyes are; they cannot know that their hair is shining gold in the sun (unless they are currently looking in the mirror).
A first person narrator can feel like their eyes are as round as saucers or feel the sun shining down on them. A first person narrator can simply tell the reader what they look like, but they shouldn’t describe themselves as if they are looking from a vantage point outside of themselves.
For this reason, it can be a real challenge for a first person narrator to describe themselves without resorting to the classic, “I look in the mirror and see…” Stephanie Orges over at Be Kind Rewrite has some great tips for how first person narrators can describe themselves.
5. Not Taking Advantage of an Omniscient Narrator
A classic omniscient narrator is all-knowing. They can know what is going to happen before it happens. They can hop from one end of the globe to another, from one point in time to another. They can know the thoughts of all the characters. Ironically, the limitlessness of omniscient narration can often be daunting: what do you include when the narrator can know everything?
The answer: include what makes the best story. Decide how the events should be presented to maximize tension, suspense, and excitement. For example, you might include dramatic irony: letting your readers in on something important that the characters don’t yet know. You can also play around with ominiscient narrators who have a voice or perspective of their own, such as Lemony Snicket in the A Series of Unfortunate Events books.
Oh, and speaking of interesting omniscient narrator choices, here’s an article by Peter Selgin about the challenge of pulling off a dead narrator.
6. Not Being Consistent with Your Point of View
This one sounds like a no-brainer, I know. But it can be easy to make some of the POV mistakes I mentioned in #3 and #4. When doing your nitty-gritty line editing, be on the look-out for head-hopping or first person narrators slipping out of their voice or perspective. Too many of these sorts of errors can confuse readers or be a red flag to agents and editors who are considering your work.
What point of view do you enjoy using in your fiction? Have you found yourself making any of these mistakes?