POV, otherwise known as the narrating voice of your novel, is one of the very first decisions a writer makes when starting a new work. And it’s probably the most important. Whether you are going to write in first person or third person (or very rarely, in second); and whether you are going to have a limited narrator (which can be either first or third person) or an omniscient one, which is always third person, will set the tone for your whole book.
How to decide on the POV for your novel? Here are a few tips, based on my own experience in writing from all different kinds of POVs. These aren’t intended to suggest hard-and-fast rules by any means!
*Do you want your main character/s to a: know more than, or b: less than, your reader?
A will always be third-person, while b: can be either 1st or 3rd. For example, you can have a story in which the reader is aware that a character is ‘having themselves on’ about something, either because their understanding is limited, through prejudice or lack of information or a character flaw which is apparent between the lines (comedies are often written in this way) or because the reader is exposed to more than one character viewpoint and knows that there’s more going on.
*What genre is your book in?
Most genres are fairly flexible in POV—but there are some that are particularly well-suited to certain types of POV: for instance, omniscient third person is great in big epics or family sagas, where you’ve got a huge character canvas; while limited first-person is pulse-pounding for tense psychological thrillers, where the pressure really can be ratcheted up by putting you directly into the skin of the character experiencing these terrifying events. Diary-style novels are of course best suited to limited first person, but epistolary novels (created around letters, faxes, emails, whatever) though also often written in first person, create a cast of different characters through different first-person POVs. Incidentally, the age of readers is not really an issue here: people often ask whether children’s or YA fiction is best written in 1st or 3rd person: truth, is, it depends! In the past, YA ‘issue’ novels have traditionally been the home of angst-ridden 1st person narration (a claustrophic atmosphere peculiarly well suited to teenage emotional fug, maybe!) but it doesn’t have to be that way, and certainly isn’t these days, while younger kids’ books flirt merrily with all sorts of POVs.
*What atmosphere are you trying to create?
In my view, first-person offers the most tense and chilling atmosphere, as well as the funniest. Third person offers the richest atmosphere, especially if you can tell the story through more than one third-person character’s POV(this also lightens the writing load, in my experience, as you don’t have to maintain the same tone all through, as you do with an omniscient third-person narration, where the writer, if you like is the ‘God’ figure, seeing and knowing everything and everyone.
The rare second-person narration ‘You’ is very hard to sustain in a long work(though in short stories it can be quite effective) but even in a novel, in short bursts it can be very effective at creating a chilling sense of distance and detachment. You could create a sense of someone having a ‘split personality’ through the use of this device.
*What is your main character like, personality-wise?
Is he chatty? Vibrant? Vivid? First-person is probably the voice he’ll speak in. Is she cooler, reserved, keeping her own counsel? She won’t talk to the reader directly, but appear much more clearly through third-person narration. Extremes of character or lifestyle can be hard to bring off in first-person: for example, a psychopath is not classic first-person material(though it’s been done, and successfully, by several writers, of course) but then neither is a ‘golden boy or girl’ type.
First-person narrators are usually, but not always, ‘sidekicks’, rather than star types—though often the point of the story is that they accidentally achieve a starring role. They can sometimes be smug, silly and prejudiced, but they are more often self-deprecating, funny, uncertain and humble, gifted with unusual turns of phrase and thought. Third-person narrators often cover a much wider gamut of personality and life circumstance, but there again, you can choose to restrict that to create a more ‘hothouse’ style atmosphere.
The main thing to remember with POV is—listen to the voice of your characters. How have they come to you? Talking directly, or emerging slowly? Take your cue from them, and you can’t go far wrong!