Whose Story Is It, Really? (Using POV When Writing About Your Protagonist)

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Today, I want to talk about narrative Point of View (POV), which is something I’ve been addressing with a few of my clients this week.

Maintaining a consistent POV throughout a piece is incredibly important. Not only does it keep the story flowing as a whole, but it also serves to connect us to the protagonist and, in some instances, minor characters as the author sees fit. In this post, I’ll discuss how to maintain correctly consistent POV (including internal dialogue) when writing about your protagonist. My post on Monday will continue the discussion and address how to ensure you write POV correctly when introducing new, minor characters into the narrative.

There are four major types of POV:

  • First Person
  • Third Person Limited
  • Third Person Omniscient
  • Second Person

The first two on this list are the most commonly used, and for good reason. Both First Person and Third Person Limited are used in the narrative to give us a closer view of a protagonist’s thoughts, discoveries, and emotions. This draws the reader in to root for the character – to feel their pain, share their joys, sit on the edge of their seats in nail-biting anticipation for the next turn in the protagonist’s unfolding story. These are done incredibly well when consistently used in the appropriate manner.

*Third Person Omniscient and Second Person are used less frequently, and I’ll get to those in a bit.

First Person and Third Person Limited POV When Writing About Your Protagonist

First person is written in the ‘I’ voice: I stepped out into the hallway and saw him standing there. I find that when writing in the present tense, First Person POV is probably the best suited to use within the narrative (where the above sentence would be rewritten as: I step into the hallway and see him standing there. – all as if the action is currently happening to the protagonist, and where the reader may experience the same feelings of going through the story line with the character in “real time” (but narrative tense is for another post entirely).

Third Person Limited is written as though we’re hearing a story told about the character: He looked at himself in the mirror, frowning at his own appearance. This POV may seem, at first glance, a bit more difficult when it comes to connecting with the protagonist’s thoughts and emotions, but it doesn’t have to be. Just as one would do with using First Person, writing sentences such as: I wondered when I’d finally get the chance to show what I could do. – which describes what the main character is thinking (and feeling, on a subconscious level, that they have a lot to offer), Third Person Limited can be used in the same way: Cassie wondered when she’d finally get the chance to show what she could do.

It’s not irregular, either, to connect the reader to really specific thoughts your characters have within these POVs, no matter what narrative you choose. Most of the time, these specific thoughts are written as: Will I make it on time? she thought. or I forgot what that felt like, he mused. – and are most often used this way within the Third Person Limited POV. Sometimes, the “dialogue tag” (used in quotations here because this isn’t traditional dialogue, but internal dialogue, or ‘thought dialogue’, as I sometimes call it) isn’t even necessary. A character’s internal thoughts can be shown simply by writing the sentence in italics: Mary looked out the window. When is he going to be here? She felt like she would cry.

I have seen, a time or two, authors write sentences like: “I really wish mom had told me that,” she thought to herself. This is one way to show internal dialogue that will really confuse (or irritate) your reader. Anything within quotations automatically alerts the reader to the fact that the sentence therein is dialogue, openly spoken for other characters to hear. When we then get to the “she thought to herself” portion, it takes us out of the sentence completely. What we thought was dialogue is now actually a thought, even though it’s in quotations, and we’re suddenly being told the protagonist thought this sentence instead of saying it aloud (I also have to say that “she thought to herself” is the type of redundancy I try to correct in every manuscript I edit. Unless your characters are telepathically communicating, or “thinking”, to another character, it’s obvious they’re “thinking to themselves”. There’s no need to add the “to herself”; it feels like the author has not given the reader enough credit to know what a thought is).

When writing in First Person, the above lines of internal dialogue in italics are mostly unnecessary, and serve the narrative better when written as: How strange it was, I thought, to see an empty house on Thanksgiving. (unless, of course, you prefer to always italicize thoughts, in which case this would be written as: How strange it is to see an empty house on Thanksgiving, I thought.).

*Note that, whenever writing internal dialogue in italics, it must always be written in the present tense. Why is she staring at me right now? he thought as the conversation turned. versus Why was she staring at me right now? he thought as the conversation turned. The second example is incorrect, written in the past tense.

However, it’s completely acceptable to not use italics for internal dialogue at all, whether or not you use First Person or Third Person Limited. Most of the time, as I’ve said, First Person doesn’t use italics, but simply expresses the internal dialogue within the narrative: This was my favorite band, and I hoped I’d get to meet them after the show.

This can also be accomplished within the Third Person Limited POV to say exactly the same thing. While using italics for the internal dialogue can be done this way: This was her favorite band. I really hope I get to meet them after the show, she thought.  – it’s also acceptable to do this without the italics. This was her favorite band, and she really hoped she’d get to meet them after the show. My personal opinion is that writing the thoughts and emotions into the narrative within Third Person Limited draws the reader even closer to the protagonist, while showing thoughts in italics draws the reader out of the story and blatantly says, “The character is thinking now. Just thought you should know.”

So what about Third Person Omniscient and Second Person, you ask? These are POVs that most authors don’t use, and this is because a) they’re incredibly difficult to do effectively, and b) if done incorrectly, they can completely take the reader out of that connection with the protagonists, and can make them lose interest completely.

Second Person is written from the ‘you’ perspective: You look at me with those gorgeous eyes, and all I want to do is hold you. I haven’t yet seen a short story where Second Person was used effectively all the way through, and had imagined, until a few months ago, that writing an entire novel in this POV might be impossible, if even attempted. I was proven wrong by the aptly named novel You, by Caroline Kepnes, which is written entirely in the Second Person POV. I highly recommend this novel; it’s dark, gripping, and made me root for the protagonist even though he was entirely psychotic.

Third Person Omniscient brings the narrative into close contact (or removed contact, however the author chooses) with all the characters in any given scene. It has the tendency to flow from one character’s thoughts, emotions, and sometimes even internal dialogue to the next, even when the other characters are completely oblivious to this (or have no way of knowing what someone else is thinking). I personally don’t enjoy reading this POV, because I like to stay more closely connected to a protagonist, and therefore I’ve never tried writing it. I will say, however, that one author has managed to write books in Third Person Omniscient that I thoroughly enjoyed: Frank Herbert’s Dune series. Read it, and you’ll see what I mean.

What are your favorite POVs to read and write? I’d love to hear about how you choose to show the emotions and thoughts of your own protagonists, and what really grips you when you read something with which you immediately identify. And don’t forget to watch out for my post on Monday, which will cover staying within your chosen POV when introducing and writing about new characters within your narrative.

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2 thoughts on “Whose Story Is It, Really? (Using POV When Writing About Your Protagonist)

  1. Very interesting read and good points to bear in mind. However, I have a request.
    You’ll have to please forgive my ignorance but can you please expand a little on your explanation of the Third Person Omniscient? I don’t seem to be able to grasp what exactly is meant by this from your piece and I’d be interested to learn more. Maybe you can directed cite some examples, explaining how it differs from Third Person Limited?

    Like

    1. Thanks Mandi, glad you enjoyed it. And absolutely, I’ll grab some more specific examples over the weekend. I had originally intended to make all of this one post, but there was so much information that I had to split it into two. Monday I’ll be continuing the conversation, going into how to correctly use multiple POVs when writing in multiple characters (even in supporting roles), and I’ll tack on some more examples of Third Person Omniscient for you. Thanks for posting!

      Like

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