Voice & Point of View (POV)

If you’re thinking about writing your own story you’ll get an idea of what to expect here, and hopefully pick up some useful tips. If you’re looking for a ghost-writer, you’ll see how I work and get a sense of what I can do for you.

Every story has a narrator, and every narrator has a voice. It could be loud or soft, angry or playful. If you want a voice to carry you through an entire story, it has to be able to convey the full range of human emotions and always feel like the same person. If you’re writing an autobiography, the voice needs to sound like you.

Finding that voice is a lot like painting a self-portrait. First, you develop your skills by writing every day. There’s no curriculum—it’s all trial and error. You trace and retrace your steps until it feels right. Once you find the voice, your writing flows.

Voice and point of view (POV) are interdependent, meaning you can’t have one without the other. There are three possible POVs for storytelling. As an observer, you’re either 1) watching from one POV (inside one person’s head) or 2) omniscient (seeing into and out of everybody’s). The alternative to being an observer is being 3) an active participant writing in the first person.

Pick one POV based on who you want the reader to sympathize with.

1. Omniscient Observer (third person)

[Example: Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez:
“Florentina Ariza had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months and eleven days and nights.”]

You can be the author who knows everything about everybody, and if this sounds like you’re playing God, you are. Omniscience means you can peek into any character’s thoughts, feelings and motives.

If you really want that much power you can have it, but the trouble with this POV is that it doesn’t encourage emotional rapport. Readers may follow along respectfully, but they won’t particularly identify with the storyteller. If you’re in total control and everything’s explained, you’re also likely to bore the reader—the most awful sin a storyteller can commit. If there’s no tension, why tell the story? If all motives are visible, which ones count? Sorting through such questions is what makes omniscience the hardest POV to handle.

However, if, like God, you know just what to say and what to conceal, you may end up with a timeless classic.

2. Limited Observer (third person)

[Example: 1984, by George Orwell:
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”]

Instead of keeping up a bird’s eye view of everything, you take a single POV and describe things from there. You’re limited and grounded in ways readers understand. You’re also a hands-off narrator painting the story as you see it. You guide the reader by simply pointing out what you want them to see.

3. Active participant (first person)

[Example: The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger:
“I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.”]

Writing in the first person is like taking your reader’s hand and living the story with them. It’s intimate and risky. To share in your triumphs, they have to feel your disappointments too. Doubt, and the reader will doubt. Rejoice, and so will the reader—not just with you but as you. While the third person tells the story; the first person invites readers in. It’s a natural starting point for autobiography.

What makes first person hard is the level of honesty required. It’s always tempting to explain or excuse yourself, but if you try to sweep inconvenient truths under the rug, readers will see what you’re up to. Never underestimate them. The danger lies not in outright lies so much as subconscious denial. We all have our defenses, and they mostly start with, “I.” Coming to terms with total openness is pretty scary, but it’s incredibly liberating.

Your POV has to be credible. Readers don’t have to like it, but they must believe it, and if you can pull off the first-person, they’re in for a exhilarating ride!

At this point you might think that all biography should be in the first person. You can’t do that if the subject is dead. Also, some biographies are written to enhance reputations or to market a person, and you might want the air of objectivity that comes with the third person.

I hope you find this useful. I you have any comments, suggestions or questions, go ahead and add them below.