Whose head am I in anyway?
Point of view is probably one of the trickiest and most vital choices a writer makes for any story. It determines how the reader will view the story. No viewpoint is inherently better than another. There are pros and cons to each of them. Some writers tend to stick with one because that’s what they are comfortable with. Some writers will claim that one viewpoint is superior to another. I would encourage you to try out and read as many viewpoints and narrative distances as possible.
Some stories call for a specific viewpoint. It’s why you will find a lot of mysteries and thrillers written in 1st person/3rd person limited and fantasy written in multiple 3rd person. That’s not to say you can’t change up the expectations, but realize that there are legitimate reasons to choose one viewpoint over another. These reasons have very little to do with writer preference and everything to do with story.
Let's start with the basics ...
Point of view is WHO is telling the story, be it an outside narrator or a character within the story. This is an important distinction as you’ll discover later when I talk about narrative distance.
1st person In first person, the main character is the narrator. The common pronoun used in 1st person is I. I walked to the market. I shot the sheriff. I did not shoot the deputy. The pros - The main character is telling the story. What they know, you as the reader know. It puts the reader directly into the shoes of the character. What they see/hear/feel, you as the reader experience. The cons - 1st person can easily slip into being a list of actions completed by the narrator becoming an endless list of I, I, I. It is very limited by what the character knows. (Notice that the limitation is both a pro and a con)
1st person needs a strong and interesting character voice to carry it through an entire novel. It also needs a careful hand when writing it, so it doesn’t slip into a list of actions completed by the character.
This point of view isn't often used. It’s most commonly found in guide books, interactive stories, etc. The common pronoun used is you. You are fond of the music. You don’t like to smile. The pros - “You” are the main character, so in that sense, it can create an immersive story for the reader. The cons - It has very limited narration, and the events are subjective.
This point of view isn’t used often in longer works. It tends to alienate readers because it might seem to them that they are being told how they should feel or respond. This point of view can provide interesting explorations, however. There are a number of books and short stories that explore the use of 2nd person (https://www.bookish.com/articles/the-power-of-you-5-stories-written-in-second-person/).
This point of view has a narrator that may or may not be the main character. The common pronoun is he/she. It is one of the more commonly used points of view. The pros – 3rd person is less limited in scope and allows the writer to explore more than one character’s storyline. The cons - The reader may feel disconnected from the characters if the writer has too many point of view characters.
3rd person can be focused on one character or can encompass several. Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time, Dragonriders of Pern are all examples of third person. There are many more examples. Take a gander at your bookshelf. The majority of the books will most likely be written in 3 person point of view. Narrative Distance
Another choice that is linked intimately to viewpoint is narrative distance. It's this piece that tends to cause the most confusion for both writers and readers. Many times when viewpoint is discussed, what is really being talked about is narrative distance. Point of view is who is telling the story. Narrative distance is how close or how far the narrator is from the character. Think of narrative distance like a camera angle.
Omniscient is going to be a wide-angled shot that moves around between characters and zooms in close enough to catch occasional thoughts from different characters. The narrator in omni is, more often than not, separate from the characters in the story. The danger with omni is forgetting to signpost the change in camera angle for the reader, more commonly known as head hopping. Head hopping creates confusion for the reader because they aren't sure whose head they are in. Meaning, at the beginning of the sentence or paragraph the camera was focused on Mary but mid-way through it switched to Sheila, and because the pronouns for both are the same, we get confusion. Proficient writers of omni will zoom in on one character, and then create a subtle zoom out before they refocus on a new character. There is no confusion about whose thoughts are whose because the writer has clearly indicated the change in camera angle. It is often so subtle a shift that unless you are looking for it, you won’t spot it.
One of the pros of omni is that you aren’t limited to telling the story through the lens of a specific set of characters. The narrator is god and sees and knows all so they can impart relevant information without a character needing to be present at the moment. One of the cons is that the focus is sometimes so broad in scope that it can be difficult for the reader to get a good sense of the characters and their individual struggles. They feel alienated from the characters because they are never brought close enough to the characters to really care about them.
Limited narrative distance is a close-up shot of the character. In 3rd person, it rides the line between the internal thoughts and external actions. The narrator may or may not be the main character, but regardless, the narrator is limited to the character's experiences. Character voice can flavor the narration depending on how close the narrative distance is. The closer you get with narrative distance, the only difference between 3rd person limited and 1st person becomes the use of pronouns. 1st person is automatically limited in scope unless of course, your character happens to be an all knowing deity. The narrative in 1st person should be flavored with the voice of the character. There should be no difference between the character’s voice in their dialogue and their internal thoughts which make up the narrative. Its limitations are both a pro and a con. You, as the writer, walk a tightrope between finding ways to reveal information to the character and reader in a way that feels natural. On one side of the tightrope is the shark tank of ‘suspension of disbelief’ and on the other the alligator pit of ‘reader confusion.' It takes practice to find the balance between revealing enough information in a way that the reader will believe is possible.
Now, let’s talk a bit about why you might choose one point of view and narrative distance over another by looking at some common genres.
Fantasy and Sci-Fi are often broad in scope and focuses on worlds, politics, and larger social issues. Many Sci-Fi and Fantasy writers choose 3rd person point of view because it allows them to develop the story through the lens of multiple characters. These characters don’t have to be connected to each other in any sense other than thematically to the story. The writer might have a slave struggling to gain their freedom in one part of the world and a king struggling to keep his throne in another kingdom. The characters’ paths might never cross within the scope of the story, but their struggles mirror each other as the story plays out. That story could be written in another point of view, but would probably work best in 3rd person. The narrative distance in this story depends on how close the writer wants to get to each of the characters.
That’s not to say you can’t write a 1st person Fantasy or Sci-Fi story. It’s been done and done well. But, you have to be keenly aware of the limitations of 1st person when writing within these genres.
Thrillers and mysteries tend to have a focus on immediate events. The reader discovers the clues alongside the main character. Both of these genres contain stories in both 1st person and 3rd, but they tend to focus the narrative distance into the limited. Why? Because the reader needs to uncover the clues at the same time as the characters. Crafty writers will place subtle clues within the narrative that astute readers will pick up on before the characters in the story. Agatha Christie was a master at this.
These are only a couple of examples of why you might choose one point of view and narrative distance over another. There are many options and some cater better to some story types than others. Don’t be afraid to explore.