How to Change Point of View in a Novel

Point of View (POV):

…the term used to describe who is telling the story and how they are connected to it.


Changing Point of View in a Novel
Changing Point of View in a Novel | Source

Introduction

Point of view in a story works very much like this well-known parable from ancient India:

Six blind men were taken into the presence of a large creature and asked to describe its appearance. Together they approached it, investigated and then reported what they had found:

The first man said, “It is flexible and long and round like the wide body of a giant snake.”

The second man said, “No. It is flat and wide and thin like parchment paper.”

The third man said, “You both are wrong. It is long and curved and hard as bone.”

The fourth man said, “What? All of you are wrong. It is thick and strong and immovable like the rough trunk of an aged tree.”

The fifth man said, “Absolutely not. It is vast—so wide a man cannot grasp it with both arms—and powerful and covered with skin that is wrinkled like the broad brow of an old man.”

The sixth man said, “Not one of you has it right in the least! It is thin and round and flexible, ending in a knot of hair like the rough fibers of an unwoven rope.”

“What can this creature be?” they all cried out. “What manner of best can be all of these things together?”

The creature, of course, is an elephant. For centuries, this parable has been used in all kinds of contexts to describe the human reality of limited perception. I use it here because it also presents an excellent picture of how point of view (POV) works in a story.

The elephant.
The elephant. | Source

The elephant, though it is still the same animal, looks vastly different depending on one’s perspective just as a narrative, though it is still the same story, looks vastly different depending on one’s point of view. Understanding this and being clearly aware of the options available gives the author power and conscious control over this important element of how her story is told.

This is the purpose of this article: to give this power to the author by providing a basic understanding of the different kinds of point of view available and some of their various strengths and weaknesses, allowing the author to make more informed decisions when crafting stories. It also provides guidelines for how, when and where to switch point of view.

What is Point of View in a Novel?

Reality is relative. We understand it according to who we are and where we are and when we are—according to our perspective. Rarely, however, are we consciously aware of the fact that our perspective is not necessarily the same as someone else’s; it is uniquely our own. This is also true of fiction. The narrator’s perspective on the story has a profound effect on what the story becomes, and, when well crafted, its influence becomes just as profound and unconscious for the reader as are the subtle influences of our own perceptions of reality.

Learning to write point of view in a story effectively begins with clarifying the kinds of perspectives that one can take. Point of view is divided into three areas of focus:

  1. Fist Person or Third Person
  2. Limited or Omniscient
  3. Objective or Subjective

First Person or Third Person Point of View

“First Person” or “Third Person” is a reference to the narrator’s personal involvement with the story itself:

First Person Point of View

First Person Point of View: ...the story as seen through the eyes of a character.
First Person Point of View: ...the story as seen through the eyes of a character. | Source

What happened to second person?

Second person is almost never used in fiction. It is best described as command form with the key word being “you.” From this point of view, the narrator speaks directly to the reader. It is primarily used in nonfiction writing for giving instructions or briefly addressing the reader directly.

First Person:

In first person the narrator is a character in the story. The key word to look for is “I” as used by the narrator in retelling the story as if the events happened within his own direct experience.

Example:

This example, used repeatedly to demonstrate different perspectives, come from my unpublished novel manuscript entitled, Thoreston Hall. In this excerpt, Mrs. Rutherford, the ghost of a 19th century matron and mansion owner, addresses a small audience at her first piano recital in many years…

I stood up and addressed the small group with my very best stage voice, “Welcome. While I am aware that our time together has often been difficult, I, nevertheless, thank you for coming and taking advantage of this opportunity to expand your cultural sensibilities. I hope that my humble musical offering will assist you in this regard.” As I turned to sit at the piano, I then whispered, “Lord knows it would not take much.”

Third Person Point of View

Third Person Point of View: ...the story as seen from the outside.
Third Person Point of View: ...the story as seen from the outside. | Source

Third Person:

In third person the narrator is outside of the story. Key words in this point of view are “he,” “she,” and “them.” The narrator tells the story as if the events had happened to other people.

Example:

Standing up, Mrs. Rutherford addressed the small group in a voice lightly spiced with theatrical grandeur, “Welcome. While I am aware that our time together has often been difficult, I, nevertheless, thank you for coming and taking advantage of this opportunity to expand your cultural sensibilities. I hope that my humble musical offering will assist you in this regard.” Then, spoken under her breath as she turned to sit at the piano, she whispered, “Lord knows it would not take much.”

Limited or Omniscient Point of View?

These terms refer to the amount of knowledge a narrator has available for the telling of the story. Since first person is always limited (see the note at right), these terms really only apply to third person points of view:

Limited Point of View

Limited Point of View: ...the story as seen from one character's viewpoint.
Limited Point of View: ...the story as seen from one character's viewpoint. | Source

Limited Point of View (Third Person):

This refers to a story told by an outside narrator who restricts the perspective on the story to that of one character, following only this one character’s experience. The narrator may have access to this character’s thoughts, feelings and reactions to things, but does not have access to the thoughts and feelings of other characters other than through the primary character’s thoughts, experiences and observations.

Example:

[See the “Third Person Sample” above, told entirely from the perspective of Mrs. Rutherford. Compare to the omniscient perspective example detailed below.]

Onmiscient Point of View

Omniscient Point of View:  ...the story as seen from many character's viewpoints.
Omniscient Point of View: ...the story as seen from many character's viewpoints. | Source

Why is first person never omniscient?

Human reality confines each of us to one perspective. Readers can accept a third person outside narrator moving around within the thoughts of the characters, but for a character within the story to move freely among the thoughts and feelings of the other characters makes no sense—it breaks with the reality of normal human experience.

Omniscient Point of View (Third Person):

In omniscient point of view, the narrator has access to the thoughts, feelings and experiences of all of the characters and will move freely among them according to the needs of the story.

Example:

Nervous but self-assured, Mrs. Rutherford stood up. As she stood ready to begin, Rolf sat in the audience running through a list of insults in his mind that, out of respect for Dr. Caulder, he did not speak aloud. The children, Chris and Tony, remembering Dr. Caulder’s stern face as he invited them to come, resisted the urge to laugh at her goofy clothes. Dr. Caulder sat behind them, watching carefully.

Finally, in a voice lightly spiced with theatrical grandeur, Mrs. Rutherford began, “Welcome. While I am aware that our time together…”

Objective or Subjective Point of View?

These terms relate to the degree of psychic distance between the narrator and the characters—that is, how much access the narrator has or does not have to the thoughts, feelings and “hidden” motivations of the characters.

Objective Point of View

Objective Point of View: ...the story as clean facts and clear descriptions of events.
Objective Point of View: ...the story as clean facts and clear descriptions of events. | Source

Objective Point of View:

In objective point of view, the narrator is restricted to what might be observable from the outside of the characters—literally written as if there were cameras everywhere filming the action. In this POV, the narrator does not have access to the thoughts and feelings of the characters except through their observable actions, words and facial expressions.

The First Person Objective Point of View

Naturally, one would assume that first person writing would have to be a subjective point of view. First person can become objective, however, when the story is told by a character who is not centrally involved in the primary conflict of the story itself; this character-turned-narrator becomes the source of the objective observation of other characters in the story.

Example:

Shaking ever so slightly, Mrs. Rutherford stood up. As she stood ready to begin, Rolf sat staring at her blankly. The children, Chris and Tony, sat still and smiled a bit awkwardly, though they made no noise. Dr. Caulder sat behind them, watching with a steady gaze.

Finally, in a voice lightly spiced with theatrical grandeur, Mrs. Rutherford began, “Welcome. While I am aware that our time together…”

Subjective Point of View

Subjective Point of View: ...the story reflected by the thoughts and feelings of the characters within it.
Subjective Point of View: ...the story reflected by the thoughts and feelings of the characters within it. | Source

Subjective Point of View:

When the narrator is able present the thoughts and feelings of the characters in depth, the author has chosen a subjective point of view. From this perspective, the narrator is able to directly discuss the internal feelings of the characters that we would not normally have access to from the outside.

Example:

[See the “Omniscient Point of View” example in the last section with all of its references to the characters thoughts and feelings. Compare this to the objective perspective example detailed immediately above.]

Point of View Chart

(click column header to sort results)
Point of View  
Narrator's Viewpoint  
Narrator's Awareness  
Psychic Distance  
Advantages  
Disavantages  
First Person Limited Subjective
narrator is a character from the story
narrator has access to only one character's perspective
narrator has access to the narrator-character's thoughts & feelings
intimate; deep exploration of a single character
limited to one character; less flexible
First Person Limited Objective (see special side note above)
narrator is a character from the story
narrator has access to only one character's perspective
narrator does not have access to character's thoughts & feelings
creates interesting tension between the in-story narrator and the primary characters
very limited and specialized viewpoint
Third Person Limited Subjective
narrator is outside of the story
narrator has access to only one character's perspective
narrator has access to the primary character's thoughts & feelings
contemplative & analytical; deep exploration of a single character
less intimate; still limited to one character
Third Person Limited Objective
narrator is outside of the story
narrator has access to only one character's perspective
narrator does not have access to character's thoughts & feelings
very analytical; creates a puzzle-like reading experience
impersonal; restricts author’s ability to directly influence emotional content
Third Person Omniscient Subjective
narrator is outside of the story
narrator has access to all characters' perspectives
narrator has access to all characters' thoughts & feelings
versatile; great for stories focused on situation over individual characters
character intimacy is harder to develop; switching POV can easily get complex
Third Person Omniscient Objective
narrator is outside of the story
narrator has access to all characters' perspectives
narrator does not have access to character's thoughts & feelings
versatile; broad potential for complex puzzle-like mysteries
impersonal; restricts author’s ability to directly influence emotional content

On the Importance of Maintaining a Consistent Tense

Finally, a clear point of view must be maintained by establishing a consistent tense: past or present. Past tense is a more reflective and natural form of storytelling—the narrator simply relates the tale of things as they took place in the past. Stories told in the present tense are more emotionally immediate, lending themselves to an undercurrent of excitement and energy as opposed to the more reflective and relaxed tone of past tense.

Anytime there is a shift in tense there needs to be a very clear reason that is directly related to the ongoing movement of the story (see the “Guidelines for Shifting Point of View in a Story” for a more detailed explanation).

The following examples also come from my unpublished manuscript, Thoreston Hall. In this excerpt, Dr. Caulder has a dream…

Past Tense Example:

With measured precision, he dropped a pebble he held in his hand down to the river below, intently watching it fall. Then, distantly—from somewhere back in the deep, deep corridors of his memory—he heard the hollow sound of footsteps on the boards of the bridge, rising like an echo coming back upon itself. The footsteps grew and grew in measured crescendo.

Beside him, a pair of heavy brown shoes appeared. They were buried in dust, and the world fell silent in their presence. “Hey, kid.”

Present Tense Example:

With measured precision, he drops a pebble he holds in his hand down to the river below, intently watching it fall. Then, distantly—from somewhere back in the deep, deep corridors of his memory—he hears the hollow sound of footsteps on the boards, rising like an echo coming back upon itself. The footsteps grow and grow in measured crescendo.

Beside him, a pair of heavy brown shoes appears. They are buried in dust, and the world falls silent in their presence. “Hey, kid.”

Guidelines for Shifting Point of View in a Novel

The unconscious shifting of point of view within stories is one of the major complaints of editors and creative writing professors. Generally, it’s fairly easy to stay within a given point of view once it is established, but it’s not at all unusual to fall out of it briefly, so editing with point of view in mind is essential.

There are occasions, however, for switching point of view on purpose. Some stories are told from a first person perspective, but that perspective shifts around from character to character throughout the book. Some stories that appear to be in limited third person initially turn out to be omniscient because the perspective shifts from one primary character to another through the novel.

Anytime a shift in point of view takes place, the author must be careful to make the transition smooth. Like shifting gears in a manual transmission car, awkward shifts can be jarring for the reader. There are three key points to keep in mind when shifting point of view in a story:

  1. The shift must be conscious and directly serve the story.
  2. The shift must be clear without being obtrusive. Generally, authors develop patterns within a given work that establishes expectations for the reader who can then easily shift with the author from one place to the next.
  3. Never shift for brief moments and then fall back. Once again, shifts must have a clear purpose. Brief shifts lack purpose or, at best, achieve purposes that can be better accomplished in some other way.


Conclusion

With a sense of the various point of view approaches in place, an author can begin to make conscious and purposeful decisions about how to craft her story effectively. Remember that different points of view have different purposes and reveal story in different ways. Play with them, use them and begin to notice them in the writing of others. Soon seeing stories from this perspective will become second nature.

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Comments 12 comments

Cre8tor profile image

Cre8tor 4 years ago from Ohio

I like this. It's good to understand more clearly what these terms are/mean and how to move between them. Thanks for sharing.


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Crea8tor,

Thanks so very much for stopping in! I'm glad it helps.

wayseeker


Nare Anthony profile image

Nare Anthony 4 years ago

Wayseeker, this is really a precious piece. I admire your work so much! You are one of those writers who have gone way above and beyond the minimum! Congratulations! I'm impressed!


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Nare,

I so appreciate the positive response. Each one takes a lot of time, but hopefully results in something that will have a long life and provide some genuine value to those interested in the topic.

Thanks so much for taking the time to stop in,

wayseeker


Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

What an incredible hub! There are several novels I admire that shift the POV in various ways, and I've wondered how to do that gracefully and effectively. The chart you included is very helpful, and you speak as an expert. Thanks so much for this excellent resource!

Voted up, useful and interesting!


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Marcy,

Thanks so much for stopping in. Your encouragement means a great deal. I'm pleased that it has functioned for you as a helpful resource, and I hope that it will live to serve others as well.

Thanks so much for the up votes!

wayseeker


Homeplace Series profile image

Homeplace Series 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

I've enjoyed using different points of view in my novels. Thanks for this excellent tutorial! ;-)


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 3 years ago from Colorado Author

Homeplace,

Thanks so much for checking in! It is very reassuring to me to receive such positive feedback from someone who has a lot of experience on the ground.

Best of luck in your writing,

Bert


Tolovaj profile image

Tolovaj 2 years ago

Very useful, not just for beginners. I have read some great pieces of meta-fiction based only on the power of point of view. This power can be - of course - used and abused, but this is already material for another article, right?


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 2 years ago from Colorado Author

Thank you, Tolovaj. Sadly, my time teaching has kept me from developing anything like this further, but it's day will come in time.

Happy Writing!

Bert


Martin G. 7 months ago

Thanks for your informative Hub! I recently started writing again and thought about the First Person, but heard very different opinions about it, but whatever^^

I really enjoyed reading your article and I'm excited in start writing again!

I even looked for some of my favourite ambient music, which I used to listen to while writing :D

https://youtu.be/9XGLrpnwCiQ?list=PLfkfxk3Q1BOLvmB...

Thanks for your article again, Greeting from Germany!


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 7 months ago from Colorado Author

Martin G,

Anytime someone is inspired to write again, it is a beautiful day! I pray it goes well for you, and I'm pleased that my writing could be a small part of that journey for you.

Great blessings back to you from Colorado!

Bert

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