This article first appeared on Writers Fun Zone.

Point of view is complicated. Everybody knows the basic rules — “no head hopping” is probably the one most beginning writers are warned about. (For example, in “Joe didn’t feel mad about the name-calling, but when he glanced at the amused bartender, he saw red,” you can see that Joe can’t really know if the bartender is amused.) Nora Roberts can head hop, but let’s face it — you can’t. When you write five books a year and have four hundred trillion books in print, we’ll talk. Until then, fugeddaboudit.

So—point of view. It’s important because it shapes the relationship among writer, characters, and reader, and it’s complicated because it’s defined and expressed in terms of person, omniscience, narrative voice, tone, authorial distance, and reliability.

Think of it as “vantage point”

Point of view is about who is standing where to watch the scene — but that’s not enough. Thinking about point of view raises other questions.

  • Who speaks? The author or a character?
  • To whom? The reader? Another character? The self?
  • In what form? Story, monologue, letter, journal, interior monologue, stream of consciousness, other?
  • At what distance from the action? Complete identification, or complete opposition?
  • With what limitations? Believable narrator (or author), or unreliable narrator (or author)?

Let’s just look at the first question: Who speaks? That could be the author in second or third person, or a character. The character in first person could be a central narrator or a peripheral narrator. The author in second person could be you as character, or you as the reader turned character. Or the author in third person could be speaking in editorial omniscience, limited omniscience, or objective voice.

One character or many characters

Confusing, right? And if you have four characters in a scene, for example, you could write the scene from the point of view of any of them.

Let’s say you’re writing a prodigal son story. Your four characters are the executive father who doesn’t have time for his kids, his wife who sacrifices her desires for her family, the elder son just released from prison on drug charges who needs a place to stay, and the younger boy, an honors student. How would the scene change depending on which character told the story? To keep your story on keel, you need to know where you want it to go, what message you want to impart, and with whom you want your reader to empathize.

You might decide to pick a character — your protagonist — and stick with that person’s point of view throughout your book. The goal is to make your readers identify with him or her. Giving all your characters space on the page is handier in terms of exposition, but doing that can make your story sprawl and lose tension. However you decide to write your story, maintaining disciple with point of view is crucial to keeping your story on track.

Build empathy

To paraphrase Robert McKee, the more time readers spend with a character, the more opportunity they have to witness his or her choices. The result is more empathy and emotional involvement between your readers and your character.

All these considerations go into the determination of the point of view. Choose wisely! Your story — and the lives of your characters — depend on it.

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