In a list of the twenty most popular science fictions books of 2019, 60% were written in third-person point-of-view (POV), 40% in 1st person and none in second person. Click to see list.
Although the story in each novel is very inventive, the authors adhere to the rules of point-of-view, much like punctuation and grammar.
First-person POV is recognized by use of the pronoun “I” or “we” whereas third-person uses “he” or “she”. Second-person POV uses “you” (like in an appliance manual) and is very rare in fantasy or science fiction.
Most stories are written in past tense, but present tense is occasionally seen (Hunger Games).
The character perceiving the story action is the viewpoint character. Slips in point of view are considered unprofessional. To avoid mistakes think of the viewpoint character wearing a camera on their forehead. Stick with what the camera sees.
A POV slip is often associated with the use of the word they. For example, if the viewpoint character is in a room with other people the author may be tempted to write “they left the room.” Well, where is the camera and who left the room? If John is the viewpoint character it might be better to write: John watched the others leave before he stepped through the exit. Or: The others left before John. Not: The others left and caught a bus before John left the room (because the camera on John’s forehead could not see the bus!)
An interesting (and older) point of view is when the POV camera is stuck on a wall rather on a person. This is called the fly-on-the-wall, dramatic, or cinematic POV (more about it below).
The viewpoint character can perceive events by all five senses, has thoughts and makes conclusions. But the viewpoint character can not automatically know those things about others. Sensations and thoughts are not public knowledge unless they are communicated verbally or suspected based on facial expression or posture. However, in Fantasy and Science Fiction telepathy is a possibility – make sure the reader understands what is telepathy apart from dialogue with italics or <special marks>.
First-person POV is also known as a narration. It is more restrictive and may require more writing skill than third-person. It has been around for millennia giving authors a lot of time to develop many tweaks i.e. increased restrictions and to some degree a POV within a POV.
A Story Told By A Narrator
Who might be a:
- Protagonist or other focal character
- Story re-teller
- A peripheral character
Possible Jobs of the Narrator
- Telling a story about a personal experience
- Being an audience or a participant
- Telling a story to a specific audience or to a diary
- Telling a story within a story (a frame)
- Providing omniscient introductions to third-person POV chapters
- Expanding the narrator’s scope of awareness by
- Asking questions of other characters
- Being one of multiple narrators
Limitations Of The Narrator
- Scope of awareness — the whole story or just fragments
- Reliability — Ranging from good to unreliable, impacted by ignorance, poor insight, bias, mistakes, dishonesty, or other things.
- The God’s eye view. The narrator could know everything: dialogue, all characters thoughts and the outcome of the story. Or, some subset thereof. It’s easy to accidentally slip into an omniscient POV: “Little did John know the boat was approaching a waterfall.”
- It’s not popular currently.
- A story could have scenes with different viewpoint characters. However, only when one certain character has the viewpoint are their internal thoughts related to the reader. In other words, internal monologue is limited. Internal thoughts are also called a subjective POV.
- Perception is limited to what can be observed by a camera with a microphone (cinematic POV).
- No thoughts, no interpretation, “just the facts”. Sometimes the POV is used in a murder mystery to show the reader the murder without any characters seeing what actually happened.
- It’s helpful when an author wants to limit what is communicated to the reader.
- It can be dramatic. And, it can be overused.
Can types of POV be mixed?
Absolutely! At the current time it’s common to have a different POV in separate chapters or even separate scenes. But, here is the important rule: ONLY ONE POV PER SCENE. Newbie writers will sometimes “head hop” – meaning going from one character’s thoughts to another character’s thoughts within one scene. It’s confusing to readers and publishers and should be avoided.
The website “A Wiki of Ice and Fire” analyzed A Game of Thrones to find the nine viewpoint characters in each of its seventy-two chapters. See list of viewpoint characters.
Which POV to use?
Answer: the one that matches the style and intent of the author. Third person is probably most popular because it’s easier to set up high tension scenes using conflicting thoughts and plans of other characters (particularly the antagonist). First-person POV is ideal for journeys of personal discovery.
If you would like to see literary examples of all the POVs see this blog.
R. C. Beckett was given a collection of Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine as a teenager and read hundreds of the stories — he was hooked and started writing fiction in 2013. He loves to write hard science fiction, but can’t help adding a bit of humor. Publications: “Exit Mars” and “Exit Earth” (available on Amazon). “Exit Pluto”, the third in the Exit series, should be published in late 2020. He lives in Golden Colorado and is a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Walking his dog is key to his writing since that’s when he imagines plots for his stories. He also volunteers as a webmaster for non-profit companies including SpecFicWriters.