“Point Of View is made up of three components: person, distance, and tense,” says author and editor Alida Winternheimer.
1) Person is the obvious part, what we usually mean when we talk about POV. 1st, 2nd or 3rd person.
2) Distance means, “how close is the reader to the action?” The closest that a reader can ever get is 1st person/present tense; this means we are in the action right as it is happening. 1st person/past tense is still pretty immediate, but it’s a step back, since the events have already happened. The 3rd person/past tense/omniscient narrator is far removed from the action – you’ll find this a lot in fantasy novels, where the author is dealing with a lot of characters, doing a lot of world building, and covering a lot of ground.
3) Tense means either present tense or past tense.
Different POV’s lend themselves to different genres. 1st person/present tense is good for thrillers and action stories, because it heightens the action and raises the stakes. For example, The Hunger Games is narrated in 1st person by Katniss Everdeen.
A big sprawling fantasy series like Lord of The Rings is told in 3rd person/past tense. Tolkien needs to cover a lot of ground and he needs an all knowing narrator. For the most part Tolkien’s narrator stays “close,” meaning that we are limited to knowing what the characters know. But sometimes he jumps into an omniscient narrator, and tells us things that none of the characters even know.
Harry Potter is told in the 3rd person/”close” or “limited” point of view. These stories aren’t quite as action packed as a Hunger Games story. But they do have a lot of mystery and suspense, so a limited narrator serves to keep us guessing. We discover things alongside the characters, and this builds the excitement.
One of the most common mistakes that beginning writers make is “head hopping,” or jumping around between different points of view. All of the advice I’ve heard is that it’s best to keep it simple. It’s best to limit yourself to one or two points of view. And if you do skip around, do it for a good reason.
In the Golden Compass series that I’m reading right now, Phillip Pullman uses a 3rd person narrator, but he mainly sticks to the main character’s (Lyra’s) point of view. Once in a while Pullman will jump to other characters. For example, Lyra is asleep for one whole chapter of the book. While Lyra sleeps, we follow another character, a Witch, into another scene. When Pullman does this, I immediately feel a bit disoriented. The whole time I’m thinking to myself, where is Lyra? But Pullman is very deliberate with these scenes. They are usually short, and they usually dump a whole lot of information and backstory into the mix. We get a little break from the main action, and soon Lyra is awake again and we’re off and running.
Alida Winternheimer’s advice is, whatever POV you choose, choose it on purpose. Use the point of view that gives your story life. In the end it’s just a technique, a tool in the writer’s bag – it can kill a story, or it can turn a good story into a great one.