#EditTip: Picking a Point of View

Picking a point of view (POV) to tell a story from can make or break a novel. The question of which character is telling the story and why matters to both readers and writers, not to mention that choice creates a domino effect within the book that impacts many other literary elements. When point of view is handled well, nobody notices. When botched, the effort sticks out like a sore thumb.

 

Picking a Point of View: Choices!

Improper handling of point of view is one of the most frequent issues I come across when working with clients, not to mention issues with picking a point of view tend to plague a fair share of books by indie authors that I’ve read and reviewed over the years. That’s not to say traditionally published books never fall victim to such problems. After all, I must have rolled my eyes countless times when Fifty Shades of Grey’s Anastasia Steele’s thoughts were italicized even though the story was already being told from a first-person point of view. (Read my book review here.)

 

picking-a-point-of-view-green-eye

 

Plenty of sources have already defined point of view in great detail. Here’s a quick refresher:

  • First-Person: The actions of the story are filtered through the observations of one character. “I went into the store to buy a candy bar, and ate it immediately like only a fat pig could.” This allows the reader to intimately experience the character’s story, but it also limits the story to only what that single character knows.

 

  • Second-Person: The narrator refers to the reader as “you,” which creates the feeling of being a character in the story. “You walk into the store to buy a candy bar and eat it immediately like the fat pig you are.” This can help create an intense feeling of intimacy, but its is rather rare and also difficult to pull off successfully. The repetition of the pronoun can become a bit grating.

 

  • Third-Person: The actions and observations of the story are filtered through various characters by references to “he,” “she,” “it,” or “they,” but never “I” or “you.”
    • Limited: This approach can run the gambit from subjective (describing certain characters’ thoughts and feelings) to totally objective (not describing any thoughts or feelings).
    • Omniscient (all-knowing): This narrator has access to every characters’ thoughts and feelings, which can make it hard for the reader to feel close to any of the characters.
    • Objective: This is more rare, but can yield interesting results. The reader is not allowed access to any character’s thoughts and can only form judgements based on actions, words, and facial expressions. This tactic places a priority on showing rather than telling.

 

  • Deep POV: Too often, writers will resort to emphasizing thought and sense words when it comes to how the protagonist is feeling, thinking, remembering, sensing, seeing, hearing, or feeling something. This can create a narrative distance between the reader and the action on the page. Speech tags without much delving into actions and motivations behind the character’s spoken words can also have a distancing effort. Utilizing deep point of view can work wonders to truly immerse the reader in the character’s worldview and experience their life vicariously.

 

Problems arise when writers start to create mash-ups that employ elements of these different points of view simultaneously. An all-knowing viewpoint used to be more popular, but has since given away to a greater use of first-person, and the most popular third-person limited. At the very least, it can be very trying for a reader to follow changes in point of view when they occur in the same scene–let alone the agony of when it occurs within the same paragraph! Head-hopping tends to make for a disorientating reading experience except when employed by the most skillful of writers. It’s better to focus each scene on a single viewpoint, or better yet, only switch perspective with a new chapter when compelled to tell a story from multiple characters’ perspective.

 

Picture of white heads to represent head hopping in picking a point of view

 

Definitions aside, I often find myself wondering what drives writers of all experience levels to misuse point of view. Part of the problem lies in the cinematic way most of us tend to picture stories in our minds. Our moving visions shift from scene to scene much like a camera. However, images in a film are rendered from an objective viewpoint (unless a pesky voiceover comes in). Words on a page simply cannot convey what a camera can, nor should they.

 

Inexperience in picking a point of view and sticking with it is more often than not the case. In the end, awareness is key. However, many popular books provide exceptions to every rule. Yet, perchance to sound like a hypocrite, we’ve all heard the saying that it’s necessary to learn the rules before breaking them.

 

 

What point of view issues have you encountered as a reader or a writer?

 

 

Image Credit: Boy’s Green Eye by L-O-L-A (http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1405557)

 

Image Credit: Male bald head in white by Illusionist (http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1417639)

 

Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2016.

Author: Jeri Walker

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56 Comments

  1. Excellent tutorial. Though I must admit I’m not sure that I’ve ever experienced reading an objective POV. I also find it interesting how some of these styles go in and out of fashion.

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    • Jacquie, objective POV is pretty rare, but still used here and there. A readily available example would be John Steinbeck’s short story “The Chrysanthemums” or his novella Of Mice and Men.

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  2. The Omniscient POV seems impossible to me. My all-time favorite book is written this way, but the author wrote it after years and years of writing in Limited 3rd POV, and it’s the one and only piece of work he did that way. He had definite reasons for it.

    I write in Limited 3rd POV with multiple POVs. It’s only the main characters that have their own scenes, of course. However, I divide my chapters by time in the story, so often there can be as many as 3 POVs in one chapter.

    Problems? That still remains to be discovered.

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    • I have two novels, and in both of them I have used two points of view representing the two main characters. I think this sort of “frees up” the story, meaning it gives the reader the feeling that the story can go anywhere from here. At the same time that I was using the two points of view I found it necessary to create scenes that have an omniscient POV as a way of moving the story forward, imparting information through action and dialogue of secondary characters. The most trying aspect of doing this comes when the writer includes the thoughts of his/her characters which often sound and feel like first person POV. Scanning the reviews I’ve received, it’s clear that a fair share of readers are confused.

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      • Larry, I agree that many readers can get confused and frustrated when an author will do what you’ve attempted by including thoughts that comes across as a first-person POV though the book is in third-person limited. You handled it deftly, though considering how the many readers might react is also an important element to take into consideration.

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    • Glynis, third-person limited is what tends to get published the most, so that helps explain why many of us feel most comfortable reading and writing in that POV. I’ve known some writers who only get into their writing grove in first-person, but for the life of me, I have a hard time pulling that off in fiction, though I love to write all sorts of creative nonfiction where my voice is front and center.

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  3. Nice explanation of point of view. Determining what is the right point of view to use in a story can be tough. When stuck, experimenting with a different POV sometimes brings me new perspective. I attended a short writing workshop last week in which the facilitator said she deliberately wrote one of her books from the objective POV. She also said she couldn’t do it completely. I’m reading a book now which is a mix of third person limited and omniscient. It was a bit disorienting at first because I don’t see the omniscient POV much in the stuff I read, but so far I think the author is doing a good job of it.

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    • Donna, I’ve been wanting to try a short story written from an objective perspective. It’s a lot harder than it looks, which is why I probably haven’t tried it since being “forced” to ages ago for a writing class.

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  4. Jeri, I’m going to share some of your tips in my October Mystery Ahead newsletter for readers and writers of the mystery genre.You laid it all out very well!

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    • Carmen, thanks for stopping by. I’m glad to hear you found the info here helpful enough to consider including it in your newsletter.

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  5. Hi dear Jeri… a most interesting post….
    The Omniscient (all-knowing) in third person seems to be the most common… Am I right?… I just googled “omniscien”t and the definition I found is:
    “(adj) He who knows all actual and possible things”. Example: “according to the Christian religion, God is omniscient”.
    If you stop to think it, it is a very extensive attribute, maybe quite pretentious, so to speak…
    On the other hand, this POV allows the audience is able to know and see everything about each character… as the author has multiple voices in the story, hence the interpretation of the events is more objective, meaning eclectic and diverse…
    A final question for you: So… Second type POV is defined according to the receiver, and the narrator is in third person? … Just asking you because I have doubts regarding this type.
    Sending best wishes!. Happy week. Aquileana 🙂

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    • Aqui, right now the trend in fiction veers toward third-person limited. Omniscient was most widely used in the later 19th century. As for second person POV, the key is the use of the pronoun “you.” The narrator uses it and the effect is to make the reader feel like they are filling the shoes of the “you” in that story. I hope that helps. If not, here’s a link to “Until Gwen” a short story by Dennis Lehane that utilizes second-person POV: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/06/until-gwen/302966/

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      • Thanks so much for the explanation dear Jeri… It is clear to me, now…
        I will check out the short story!… Best wishes. Aquileana 😀

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  6. Interesting analysis!
    I wonder why some stories/novels hold the attention all through while others seem less interesting somewhere, at some places though they have been acclaimed to be ‘the best’
    !’ Is it because of POV? I have always found first person accounts as more gripping but that holds true for short stories.

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    • Balroop, there’s a certain appeal about first-person and being able to experience a situation so closely as the characters experiences it.

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  7. I think multiple POVs work only if you already know the character. To have a strange character jump in with his POV only works if the author’s purpose is to make the reader work hard. In my experience, most readers want to be entertained. I’m currently rewriting parts of Flipka using different POVs (which I didn’t feel confident doing five years ago when I wrote the book) It’ll be interesting to see if it works.

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  8. Great post, Jeri. As someone who primarily writes about travel experiences, I most often write in the 1st person. I find it difficult when I write for a client publication that wants me to step back and write in the more neutral 2nd person as that makes me remove myself from the scenario. It’s a good exercise, though, as it helps keep each voice in shape!

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    • Doreen, second person can feel like crawling inside the skin of an alien at times, but as you say, it is a good exercise.

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  9. Great post on POV, Jeri. My favorite POV to read (and write) is 3rd person limited. I’ve never read anything in 2nd and I have to love the main character in order to finish a book in 1st person.

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    • Stacy, every now and again I’ll come across something in second person that sits well with me, but it always does leave a sort of gimmicky impression on me.

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  10. I’d not heard of “deep POV” before. For whatever reason, your words on it have brought to mind one of the best books I have ever read: “Phantom, the Novel of His Life,” by Susan Kay (1990). Kay is masterful with her use, in different sections, of multiple first person points of view. She achieves such phenomenal depth with her main character and others that I could feel on a soul level their essence.

    Kay was so moved by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical that she read the original book by Gaston LeRoux, then decided to do the necessary research to create a full life, from birth, for the phantom. Have you heard of or read this book, Jeri?

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    • Ramona, no I’ve not hear of Kay’s book, but I am going to head over to Amazon and see if it’s something I am likely to add to my TBR list. Thanks.

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  11. I can’t think of a great example at the moment but I’ve enjoyed stories in which there were multiple points of view, so that each chapter might be written in the first person, but by different characters. Personally, I’ve never tried it but it seems like it would be difficult to do well.

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    • Ken, utilizing multiple POVS is quite the feat. When new writers try it, the results can be disastrous. POV issues will always be one of the biggest area indie authors who don’t get enough feedback on their story before they send it out into the world will need to work on.

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  12. This is why every writer needs a good editor! Although I’m sure your job would be easier if people spent a little more time thinking about POV as they write, rather than as you edit. I think I’m the worst at this. I can’t even get through one blog post in the same person!

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  13. I recently read a book where different chapters are devoted to different points of view and, honestly, it became very difficult to continue reading it! I felt like I couldn’t identify with the characters and didn’t get into the story much. That’s a reader’s issue I’ve come across that relates to POV. As you say, though, there are always exceptions to the POV rules…

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    • Christy, I tend to have a hard time with getting into novels that utilize a bunch of different viewpoints. It can work for me in really long novels, but even then just tends not to be my cup of tea. As a reader, I like to immerse myself into one character’s story as much as possible. Though I have enjoyed books like Gone Girl that alternate POV between two main characters in equal amounts.

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  14. Having written and rewritten (an rewritten) the same novel from different POVs, I KNOW that the point-of-view is key. I think I’m still working on finding the right one for that story.

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    • Candy, that’s great that you are committed enough to the novel to keep trying to find the best POV to tell it in.

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  15. Oh, if I had a $ for the number of hours I’ve spent discussing POV!! But I’ve actually never heard of Objective, so glad you gave the example Of mice and Men.POV really is an easy thing to get wrong, especially if you want to have more than one. Actually I also agree with you on the breaking rules old saw when it comes to writing. Really good post on this Jeri. Thanks.

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    • Kathy, glad you enjoyed this post. It probably would have behooved me to include example titles with each POV. Another objective POV would be Orwell’s Animal Farm.

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  16. If I’m reading a book written in the first person, the author has to immediately make me emotional about the narrator–and I love when that happens!

    The head-hopping has come to my attention more since people are self-publishing so much. It makes me check if I’ve had a glass of scotch before starting the book or not.

    As you know from your Reader’s Report, my cozy mystery has multiple points of view. It was a lot of fun write and I know with your editing, it will be fun to read!

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    • Rose Mary, multiple points of view come in quite handy for genres like cozy mysteries. I like how you state the first-person book you’re reading makes you emotional about the narrator right away. Those are the books I covet most. I love a close POV that practically suffocates the reader with the way it invites them into its pages. Maybe that sounds a bit morbid 😉

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  17. Thanks for the explanation. I like your suggestion to change the view point when there is a new chapter. Dan Brown writes a hero chapter then a villain chapter throughout his books and it is so much easier to read and follow along.

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    • Sabrina, your example of Dan Brown alternating chapters is great. It’s certainly possible doing so from scene to scene in a chapter, but doing so can wreak all sort of havoc on both the reader and the characters, not to mention the pacing and engagement of the story.

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  18. I tend to read books in the “first” and “second” point of view. I enjoy picturing the scene and undoing the main characters in a book. Words can be so expressive in that you can create a scene in your mind.

    You feel you know the character in the book because you have read about their feelings, their fears, their troubles.

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    • Phoenicia, that’s why I’m probably such a big fan of deep POV. I like to crawl around and reside in a given character’s skin a while 😉

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  19. What an excellent tutorial Jeri. It’s interesting reading the comments of others and getting different perspectives too. I’m not sure how good I would be at writing fiction as I’ve been a nonfiction writer all my life so first person comes natural to me. 🙂

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    • DG, as I noted in an earlier comment, I feel at home with first-person when I write creative nonfiction, but when it comes to fiction, I’ve yet to feel like I’ve successfully pulled of first-person POV. I tend to write fiction using third-person limited.

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  20. I tend to engage most with the ‘first’ point of view. There the connectivity with the various characters is intriguing.

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    • Sushmita, the connectivity with first-person is indeed intriguing. Yet, at the same time, for me as a reader, it seems too confining.

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  21. This comes at a great time for me. It’s nice to brush up on POV. I was just discussing this with my critique partner. My current manuscript has a few chapters in 1st POV, but the rest is in 3rd person.

    I’m not too picky on POV. I read in 1st and 3rd person. There was only one book I read in 3rd person omniscient and I extremely disliked it. It took away the entire experience for me.

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    • Denise, third-person omniscient has the same effort on me. I just read Mrs. Dalloway again though and that book with its stream of consciousness technique that flits in and out of the minds of so many characters still blows me away. Then again, we can’t all be Virginia Woolf. At the same time, I couldn’t read books like hers on a regular basis, though I do appreciate them.

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  22. Interesting and informative as always Jeri! I’m not even close to being an editor and would love to have a dollar for every time I stumbled over narrative trying to figure out who was doing the talking. I must be honest that if the story is good I don’t let it bother me much, but I am always aware of it, right up there with typos.

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    • Marty, that’s good that you can still enjoy a good story line if issues with POV crop up. For me, it takes me out of the experience too much. Though I suffer from reading-as-an-editor syndrome and tend to pick stuff apart as I read.

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  23. Hi Jeri, thanks for this tutorial. I find myself googling this topic a fair amount because I want to avoid head hopping. As you pointed out I made that mistake a few times in some of my short stories. It was easily corrected. I think for short stories, it’s easier to stay in one character’s head but in a novel it’s good to have a couple so I guess that’s 3rd person limited. Currently I’m reading Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly In Amber. She writes in first person in (part 2 onward) and it’s quite incredible considering the scope of the plot, characters and historical setting. Her skill is incredible because as a reader you don’t really think about POV you just sit back and feel you’re in the story.

    The comments here are also equally educational so it really paid off to be late to this post 🙂 Thanks, Jeri!

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    • Lisa, how wonderful you found the many comments just as helpful as the post itself. I still find myself going back and forth over whether to try my novel idea in first person. As the saying goes, it won’t hurt to at least give it a try.

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  24. This is probably the most important choice you have to make as a writer. Which point of view, determines how the story will be told.
    I agree it is hard, if almost impossible to mass the pov around. This can cause confusion, but if it is successful the rewards are outstanding.

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    • William, POV issues really do cause all sorts of confusions for readers. It’s certainly one of the major areas a writer can’t get away with not knowing what they are doing.

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  25. With the popularity of memoirs these days, you’d think the author’s point of view would be the only one. But I’ve read a few where the author flips back and forth between herself/himself and another character. If done properly, it can be very effective. Overall, I think consistency is the key to POV. In books and in real life!

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    • Krystyna, consistency does indeed count for a lot, though I much prefer a memoir stick with one POV.

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  26. ——Excellent.
    I continually learn from you, Jeri.
    Seriously, I do not know any other way to write without using
    first person.
    Probably because I only write Non-Fiction!
    But I appreciate and love books by, for example, Jodi Picoult who gives every character’s perspective. It’s soooo much easier that way to know who is telling the story!
    xx

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    • Kim, you have a strong voice for nonfiction. It would be fun to see you try your hand at fiction one of these days.

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  27. Jeri, this subject always fascinated me. I remember years ago reading a post on your blog about first person POV–which to that date I never felt any inclination to experiment with.

    I remember commenting back then how first person (generally) annoyed me–at least insofar as most stories in that style I had read did, because, to me, they felt entirely restrictive and too one-dimensional. They were kind of ‘holding me by the hand’ stories, not literary, or clever enough for my personal taste. (Most, actually, were kind of in a similar style to your favourite book–‘50 Shades . . . ‘(lol) which I only read the sample chapters of, and which were quite enough.

    Nonetheless, always up for a challenge, your comments, and others’ on your blog, intrigued me at that time. And so, I think I mentioned I would try something in that style. As a result, my first effort was a story called ‘The Hairdresser’ (which I know you read but is since rewritten and not republished).

    In that story, I made a concerted effort for the story to try and not come across as ‘telling’– as I think many first person stories are guilty of, and I made a promise to myself I would not overuse the word ‘I’, or describe my actions to any degree, rather concentrating on external expositional content to paint the picture instead.

    I think one of the things I do best is write character driven stories (I kind of struggle with plot pulled stories) and so what I wanted still, was to get across the other characters’ interesting and colourful mind-sets from that ‘singular first person POV in a natural, yet (somehow) still omniscient (sort of) way, if you like; psychoanalyzing them from the perspective of a clever minded (main) character, as opposed to me as the know-it-all writer. Regardless, it HAD to come across as feeling natural in the same way any dialogue I assign to characters does–even if some guidance, but not hand holding, was necessary for those readers who might be less inclined to see the underlying meaning I personally like to include in pretty much everything (see it or not).

    My natural propensity, however, is omniscient POV, and I don’t think I do, or ever have head jumped or confused readers, because . . . Well, and not to sound arrogant, but just because, I kind of know instinctively it doesn’t sound right. But I will admit, I just looked up the difference between omniscient and third person limited POVs, ‘cos I never really bothered before, and am relieved to see, apparently, I was doing it right all along. But it was good to actually go and see it, as well all the other POV definitions. Oh but that second person POV, I always read publishers hate that, at least in novels. It takes skill.

    I believe the key in whatever POV chosen, though, is that it has to be grounded; the reader needs to know where they are in relation to the action. An interaction in the dialogue and actions of the characters should assist the reader to be right there as part of the group without them realising it. As much as I think many writers might feel as to how first person POV should be written (as I see the same simplistic style all too often) I fully believe they CAN, and should still hone a sophisticated voice of their own when using it. As a matter of interest, I read once, a long time ago, most publishers rejected first person because it, apparently, was (generally) the sign of an amateur (their words, not mine). It was not that which put me off writing in first person, per se, but I kind of related to what they might have meant by that sweeping statement–given my experiences of many first person POV (granted self-published) stories I found kind of . . . Well, basic, really.

    For me my first choice in writing (at least for a full length novel) would still be omniscient POV. I love to delve into the minds and perspectives of numerous (main) characters, alongside the actual MC, in much the same way there might be important players with different viewpoints in real life. As well there is always room for an amusement of carefully selected secondary characters whose mind-sets may not be as integral, nonetheless help to paint the picture effectively, perhaps as caricatures–usually a good dob of quirkiness for my stories is essential. And yes, that despite some would tell you not to focus on secondaries to any degree, but, as you allude to here, Jeri, ‘learn the rules like a pro, before you break them like an expert”– actually my favourite Picasso quote.

    All that said, I want you to know that your original blog about first person POV did set me off to explore it and culminated in me discovering a style that did not compromise the personal voice I spent so much time developing, and which I actually really enjoy writing some things in today.

    Since then, you might be surprised to learn, I have written countless stories in first person. At first I thought they were only going to be short stories, but some even turned into novellas (I’ve chosen not to publish any of my work for the time being) and I can see that I could write a full novel in that style, if I chose to.

    So this lengthy post is to thank you for setting in motion another side to my writing, as well, as always, in general for your dedication and for continuously helping fledging, and otherwise writers with great posts like this.

    Thank you.

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    • Stephan, that is so kind of you. Every now and again, there are comments on posts make make my day, week, or maybe even month. This is definitely one of those comments. It’s always amazing the little things that set us in motion to try new things with our writing.

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