Point of view seems like such a silly thing to focus on as a plot device in romance novels, but I’d actually argue that it’s one of the biggest ways to influence intimacy and tension. If you read my piece on tension, you’ll remember that tension is created in large part by what isn’t being said. Point of view sets some pretty concrete boundaries in how feelings and information are disclosed and processed within the bounds of the plot, and that means that POV becomes the gatekeeper to what information is provided and what is withheld. It’s like a camera lens—you see what the camera allows you to see; some things are clear and some are fuzzy, and your ability to trust the narrative relies exclusively on what you’re allowed to see—and nothing else.
Let’s talk about how different kinds of POV impact what you’re able to experience.
First, the building of intimacy. There’s going to be a HUGE difference in the way intimacy is built (and it’s effectiveness, if you want to go throw down) based on what kind of POV is used. The same story told in third person will not hit the same way as a story told in first person, where you’re sympathetically feeling what someone else is feeling in real time. Also, a story told in the present tense, where you’re right there with someone experiencing something, is going to hit differently than a story being told by someone relating a story told from the past. Not better or worse, just differently. And an author is going to have to really think about how a relationship’s physical and emotional intimacy is going to unfold if a story is told by a neutral narrator who is omniscient—there’s an added degree of separation between the reader and the characters, and it matters. Intimacy in romance novels is just as complicated and multifaceted as it is in real life—we have books that are absolutely spine tingling yet the only physical touch depicted on the page is an accidental touch of the hand, and we have books that involve copious copulating and yet the moment of binding intimacy is bringing soup to someone when they’re sick.
Second, the ability to manipulate tension. One of the most interesting and hotly debated ways to pull off incredible tension and a slow burn of building intimacy is to have the book set in first person, present, static point of view. This is how Mariana Zapata nails a good slow burn (if you’re into Mariana Zapata). With her works, BECAUSE you can’t see what the MMC is thinking during the slow build of the relationship, every gesture, every lingering glance builds tension between the FMC and the MMC and that’s where both the intimacy and the tension really shine through. But that’s not the only way to build tension—for example, if you’re reading a romance novel and it’s set in third person, present, alternating point of view, you’re going to be able to give the readers a TON of self disclosure—but you’re also going to need to consider how to crank up the tension without it devolving into a well of wallowing/cloying feelings. Outside nemesis? Situation of peril? You see my point. If the story is being told by an omniscient narrator (rare in romance, but still) you have the benefit of being able to watch characters headed towards something YOU know is coming, but they don’t.
In my opinion, the reason a lot of romance writers tend to use alternating third person POV is that it provides a ton of flexibility with the plot and lens while also making it very easy to establish both physical and emotional intimacy. You can describe exactly what’s going on in each character’s mind in the same sex scene, and that builds intimacy within the story and (in a weird way) between the characters and the reader. If you need to ratchet up some tension, you can pause and switch the perspective to the other character. Plus, it’s my personal favorite when the author is able to dive into two very different voices and really bring them to life and then bring them together.
There’s one more interesting factor that plays into POV that I think is worth mentioning: the trustworthiness of the characters. In third person, you’re getting a much more straightforward account of what’s happening–there’s a degree of removal between you and the action, so you can see things they can’t. In first person, you’re kind of held willing hostage by whatever the characters think and experience. I find a lot of the “I Misjudged You” plotlines tend to work better in first person, because you’re strung along by hints of blind spots and misread intentions and can experience the “shame and shift” bit that follows along with the character who was hurtful. On the flip side, I suspect this type of setup is exactly what enrages some readers and I think it can be very difficult to get right. There’s a fine line between seeing that a character is untrustworthy because they have some mess to go through and some growing to do, and feeling like a character is untrustworthy because they’re genuinely someone who shouldn’t be trusted.
The point here (see what I did there) is that point of view is not a choice authors make based on what feels good or what they prefer (although I bet most do have a preference)-—it’s a razor sharp tool that heavily influences how readers interpret their works, and it can make a huge impact on how we as readers feel about a book’s effectiveness.
Want more on POV? Here’s a group post we did in 2022.