Everyone has a point of view. And everyone’s point of view is most important to themselves. It colors everything. It’s the reason eye witnesses aren’t always reliable. What you see may not have been what actually happened. And what you see isn’t necessarily what someone else sees even if you’re both looking at the same place in the same moment. It’s intrinsic.
The same thing applies to writing. Yes, you have to know your characters, figure out the plot (outline!), and create the world in which they live, but you also have to tell the story from someone’s point of view. Some stories can only be told from first person; any other pov just rings false. You need the immediacy and intimacy of the reader seeing things only from the eyes of one character. Other stories must share the spotlight between two or more characters to properly delve into the story and world.
A brief refresher of your high school English class:
First Person: this is told through the eyes of a single character and uses “I,” like you’d read in someone’s journal. Can be past or present tense, though in my reading experience, most of the novels out there stick to present tense. I’ve noticed that about 95% of YA/NA and PNR (paranormal romance) books are in 1st person.
Second Person: this is more someone telling your story and using “You,” etc., etc. to get the point across. I honestly can’t remember any work of fiction I’ve read where an author uses this, but it’s out there somewhere, I’m sure. You could find some if you wanted. (see what I did there? ;o))
Third Person/Omniscient: this is where we know the thoughts of anyone and, possibly, everyone involved in the story. The writer is God and tells the story with “he/she” and “him/her,” etc., etc.
(There’s also a Third Person Limited Omniscient where you still have the “he/she” but only get the thoughts of 1 character.)
I’ve noticed that pov usage goes in cycles. When I was growing up (back in the dark ages), almost everything was in 3rd person pov. Or at least, everything I read which was scifi, fantasy, YA, and romance. I really want to blame Twilight for the explosion in 1st person pov novels, but really, I’d say it was closer to 15 years ago that it truly blossomed into popularity.
I drive one of my friends crazy because I hate 1st person pov and rarely take her book recommendations because almost everything she reads is 1st person. There are a couple of reasons for my almost universal hatred of 1st person:
1) I want to know what everyone’s thinking! I don’t like to guess at motivation. If I’m going to emotionally invest in a 500+ page book, I want to know everythingggg.
2) I’m a practical person. Now, it might sound like a contradiction to be a practical person who’s a speculative writer, but it’s not. 1st person exists, basically, to give people an escape and let the reader believe that they’ve gone on these wild adventures. Sadly, there’s not enough imagination in the world to make me believe I could run from vampires or zombies, or chase after elves, or even win any sort of physical competition.
(Yes. I’ll probably be one of the first people to die in a zombie apocalypse.)
That’s why 3rd person is such a great fit for me. I get to follow along on other people’s adventures. I can see their world through their eyes and still feel wholly satisfied because it’s not my world. It’s still an escape, but I don’t have to imagine it myself going through things I’d never actually be able to do short of a whole body exchange.
That is, by the way, how I feel about reading and writing fiction. I have written in 1st person before, but rarely. It’s far more satisfying for me to explore other worlds and other people’s lives than attempt to create a new life for myself in another universe or whatever. Granted, it’s my own neuroses talking and a shit ton of writers probably feel completely differently.
How do you know which pov to use when starting a new project? Sometimes you don’t. I actually wrote 9 chapters of a novel and came to the soul crushing realization that no, my attempt at 1st person was horrible. I then had to go through and change every single blessed pronoun. Wow was that fun. /sarcasm.
Generally, though, I find that authors have a penchant for one pov over the other when they write. Some only like to write in 1st while others (like me) only like to write 3rd. And then there are the crazy talented people who can write both with ease.
Hope that helps! Happy writing.