Point of view definitions and examples: Getting POV right

Point of view is an important element of storytelling. The viewpoint narrator version of events shapes the reader’s own understanding and judgments. Read on for POV definitions and examples:

Point of view is an important element of storytelling. The viewpoint narrator version of events shapes the reader’s own understanding and judgments. Read on for POV definitions and examples:

What is point of view?

Point of view is a term we use when talking about narration. It means whose perspective narrative is given from. A first-person narrator, for example, tells the reader everything from their perspective using the first-person pronouns ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’.

Point of view can be ‘involved’ or more impartial. Your narrator can be a ‘fly on the wall’ that reports characters’ experiences without being involved (the omniscient or ‘non-involved’ narrator). Read on for examples of each type of point of view:

Point of view definitions: First, second, third

Each type of point of view has strengths of its own:

First person point of view

This is narrative where the narrator uses the pronoun ‘I’ (or, in plural first person, ‘we’). The strength of first person narration is that the reader sees the story unfold from the subjective (or biased) viewpoint of a single character (or group, in the case of ‘we’).

This point of view is common in novels written as fictional autobiographies. For example, Charles Dickens’ coming-of-age classic, David Copperfield (1850). Chapter 1 (‘I am born’) opens:

‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.’

Second person point of view

Second person POV is rarer than first or third.

In second person narration, you tell the story as though the reader is the viewpoint character, using the second person pronoun ‘you’. This creates a ‘choose your own adventure’ type of effect. Because it makes the reader the subject of the action.

Italo Calvino uses this uncommon point of view in his postmodern novella, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979). For example, in this passage:

‘Now you are on the bus, standing in the crowd, hanging from a strap by your arm, and you begin undoing the package with your free hand, making movements something like a monkey, a monkey who wants to peel a banana and at the same time cling to the bough.’

Another use of ‘you’ is slightly different – ‘you’, the intended recipient of a letter. If you write a chapter (or a whole book) as a letter, you might address a ‘you’.

Here ‘you’ can be either the viewpoint character or not. If we read the letter as its author writes it, they are still the viewpoint narrator, with us (readers) peering over their shoulder.

If we read the letter coinciding with the recipient reading it, however, then the ‘you’ addressed is the viewpoint character.

When we break it down like this, we see how complex POV truly is as a storytelling device!

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Ursula K. Le Guin quote - POV and narration | Now Novel

Third person point of view

Third person point of view describes characters’ actions using the pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’ or ‘they’, as well as gender-neutral pronouns. It offers readers a little distance from the main characters of your story.

When the author describes events from outside a single character’s perspective, but sticks to what they know and experience, we call this ‘third person limited’. ‘Limited’ because perspective follows a single viewpoint at a time.

For example:

He thought she looked extraordinary as she passed through the archway, but she shot him a glance that had something odd about it – was it mockery? – he couldn’t be sure.

Here, we only have access to the male viewpoint character’s perspective in the scene. We can only know what another character in the scene thinks or feels by his own understanding (‘was it mockery?’).

Alternatively, you can roam freely between multiple characters’ points of view, even within a single scene.

If we rewrite the above interaction in third person omniscient point of view:

He thought she looked extraordinary as she passed through the archway, but she shot him a glance, thinking, ‘Who is this wretch with his mouth all agape?

In third person POV, the narrative voice can stay close to a single character or move between characters more freely:

Choosing between limited, objective and omniscient point of view

Third person POV is either ‘limited’, ‘objective’ or ‘omniscient’.

Limited POV

In limited point of view, as described above, the narration sticks closely to a focal character. An entire book doesn’t necessarily have to be in a single character’s point of view in limited third person. Yet when a specific character’s viewpoint is in focus, others’ private thoughts are off limits.

J.K. Rowling uses this type of narration in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998):

‘Harry saw at once that it was a diary, and the faded year on the cover told him it was fifty years old. He opened it eagerly. On the first page he could just make out the name “T. M. Riddle” in smudged ink.’

Objective POV

Objective point of view (also called dramatic point of view), unlike limited point of view, does not interpret characters’ thoughts and feelings for the reader. As Ursula K. Le Guin says in her writing manual Steering the Craft:

‘There is no viewpoint character [in objective POV]. The narrator is not one of the characters, and can say of the characters only what a neutral observer (an intelligent fly on the wall) might infer of them from behaviour and speech.’

Here you simply present characters’ actions and dialogues to the reader. The narrator doesn’t explicitly tell the reader what a character thinks or feels. [You could argue, of course, that there is only limited POV, and the difference between ‘limited’ and ‘objective’ is whether the author does more telling or showing (this would be ‘objective’).]

Limiting narration to only neutral observation is useful for avoiding telling readers’ feelings more than showing them.

For example, you could write ‘the boy ran in circles, like a footballer just after his victory goal’. This conveys the character is celebrating something and is happy, without the narrator delving into his mind and telling his feelings (e.g. ‘The boy was happy he’d scored a goal’).

Omniscient POV

Omniscient narration is the narrative voice where the narrator knows and sees all. Unlike objective narration, the narrator can access characters’ private thoughts and feelings. This is the POV of the narrator who, in Le Guin’s words, ‘knows the whole story, tells it because it is important, and is profoundly involved with all the characters.’

Le Guin notes that omniscient narration has fallen out of favour to an extent, with limited third person being the most common modern point of view. She attributes this to the popularity of omniscient narration in Victorian fiction. An example of its abuse is Victorian moralists’ fondness for preaching to the reader. For example:

‘…so he spent his afternoon’s in drunken reveries. But remember, dear reader, that idleness is the Devil’s plaything.’

Now that we defined different points of view, here are 5 tips for choosing your point of view wisely:

1: Use a point of view that will suit your story’s style

If your story has the character of a memoir, mostly focusing on one character recalling life experiences, first person POV makes sense. It has an autobiographical feel to it because of the dominance of the pronoun ‘I’.

You can of course, be different. Roland Barthes, the French theorist, wrote a memoir called ‘Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes’. He prefaced it with ‘All this must be regarded as if spoken by a fictional character’. Then the text used the third person ‘he’ instead of ‘I’. This was part of the theory of the time, for example the idea that even when we write about ourselves we can’t help but recreate ourselves as characters, in a way.

There are no ‘rules’ for which person to use, other than to be consistent and clear enough for readers to not get totally lost. However, some POVs are more common in certain genres than others. The best thing to do is pay attention to POV in your favourite genre and note which authors tend to choose.

2: Think about the implications of the point of view you choose

The number of viewpoints you tell a story from can change the effect.

A single first person narrator can only tell the reader what she knows, for example. The narrator can prove unreliable because they could either be delusional or wish to hide a truth they privately admit. This often only comes out when we switch to another viewpoint that gives a contrasting version of events.

Many authors use this device to surprise readers, when they reveal the narrator was distorting ‘true’ events all along.

Multiple points of view allow you to show characters from multiple angles, via their own minds and perceptions and others’ views of shared events.

Point of view infographic - explaining points of view | Now Novel
Save or share this infographic for an easy reminder of different POV types.

3: Practice rewriting your scenes from different points of view

A simple exercise:

Take a scene written from one of your character’s perspectives and rewrite it from another character’s viewpoint.

This will make you think more about how your characters experience the same events differently according to their personalities, motivations and goals.

Don’t be afraid to rewrite pivotal scenes in your novel or short story from a different point of view. You might find that a character who felt awkward or unreal comes to life in another POV.

4: Take notes on your favourite authors’ use of POV

Whenever you read your favourite authors, take notes on what point of view they use throughout their stories. For example, when you read a novel, ask yourself:

  • What is the main point of view for most of the story?
  • Does the point of view change during the course of the book? What does this contribute to the story’s overall effect?
  • What would the story gain and what would it lose if rewritten using a different POV? Try rewriting a paragraph or even a page or chapter (if you’re feeling ambitious) using another character’s POV

5: Don’t shift between objective and involved narration in a single story

This is excellent advice from Ursula Le Guin. ‘Involved author’ is Le Guin’s preferred term for ‘omniscient author’, and describes:

‘[T]he voice of the narrator who knows the whole story … and is profoundly involved with all the characters.’

Here, the author tells the reader one or another character’s private thoughts.

A ‘detached’ (or ‘non-involved’) narrating voice is not inside the characters’ heads at any moment.

Instead, it resembles a fly-on-the-wall, never giving characters’ views or judgments explicitly. For example, instead of saying ‘she was afraid’, the ‘detached’ narrator could describe gestures (tentative steps, peering over a shoulder) that an objective viewer of the scene might interpret as a character’s ‘fear’.

Le Guin says, ‘you really can’t shift between detached and involved authorial voice within one piece.’ Either the narrator has insights into characters’ minds and motives, or they do not.

Outline your story in full in the Now Novel dashboard and brainstorm the viewpoint characters who will tell your story.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

20 replies on “Point of view definitions and examples: Getting POV right”

So can I only use third person limited in one story? I can’t use both third person limited and third person objective in one story?

My apologies, Marissa, this question somehow slipped through the notifications.

You can indeed use both within a story. For example, in ‘To the Lighthouse’ Virginia Woolf shifts between multiple limited third person point of views and even has a lengthy passage from a more objective viewpoint some scholars suggest is narrated by time itself. The important thing is to have clarity so that the reader knows whoever’s viewpoint they’re inhabiting at a given moment. Hope that helps!

can you tell me what PoV Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ is told in? I have always thought is was Third Person Limited but everywhere I look people seem to be saying it’s Omniscient? It’s just something that has bugged me and I can’t seem to get any clarification on it.

Thank You

Hi Scott,

Thanks for this question! Because the story is sometimes told from Will’s POV, sometimes Lyra’s, you could say it’s third person limited, indeed. If it were truly omniscient, the narrator wouldn’t inhabit a specific character’s limited perspective for stretches of time. A classic omniscient narrator stands apart from the action, observing. For example, the Victorian authors often had their narrators comment on their characters’ behaviour and morality, like outsiders looking in.

Hope that helps.

Thanks so much. this was quite helpful and informed me on what point of views there are and how to best use them depending on the book.

In your tip #5, you mention “Involved”, but don’t define it. Does it mean where as a writer you get inside someone’s head and reveal their thoughts, or is it where you take sides or express an opinion, or something else, or all the above??

Thanks for asking, Rick (we’ve updated the article for greater clarity). ‘Involved’ is Le Guin’s preferred term for omniscient, so it’s when the narrator can get inside characters’ heads, indeed, versus ‘objective’ or detached narration that can only report visual signs and leave the reader to guess their possible meanings. Thanks for reading!

In third person limited, can you describe your POV character’s appearance? I’ve heard that third person limited is like a camera following them closely, rather than seeing through their eyes which would be more like first person.

So, for example, in third person limited can you say than your character’s face turns a bit red, or that a gleam in their eye appears, or that their hair is a bit wild after crawling through a bush… Things wouldn’t see without a mirror. Can these be describe in third person limited?

Hi Oli, thanks for the question. You could describe it only, as you say, if your narrating character were able to see their appearance in the moment being narrated. If for example you’re walking into a room and something embarrassing happens and you blush, you could say that you blushed because you could feel the heat in your face, but you wouldn’t be able to see your own face turning red without a reflective surface around (though you could describe that you *imagine* you look red-faced).

I hope that helps! You could always switch POV, however, and have your scene in simple third person with multiple viewpoint narrators.

Hi, I want to write my story in third person limited but want the narrator to describe the main character’s emotions/thoughts in great detail. Any suggestions?

Hi Satyam,

Thank you for sharing your challenge. Generally for the sake of style I would say try to show as many of these emotions and thoughts through actions and brief reflection as possible, as long tracts of characters’ private thoughts told in third person can make the narration read as weighty and bogged down inside a character’s consciousness. This sometimes works – Dostoevsky does this often when describing a particularly troubled character (e.g. Rodion in Crime and Punishment), but other times it can make the reader long for a little movement, description, action. It’s a question of balance, ultimately. I hope that helps!

Hello! I’m a high school student, and I would just like to ask this question; when starting a POV, do you still have to mention it’s already the POV? For example, you’re gonna be starting the POV of a certain character, and you’d say “John’s POV”. Is that right?

I’m doing this for a project ^~^ in school, which is making your own short story. So, thank you so much in advance!

Hi Mary, thank you for asking. It’s useful to signal when the narrating point of view has changed, but we tend to do this in a subtler way than saying ‘John’s POV’. For example, if it were a novel, you might start a new chapter with the subheading ‘John’ to indicate this is in John’s POV (Falkner does this in As I Lay Dying). Otherwise, you might suggest a viewpoint through a short transition in narration. For example:

‘Meanwhile, on the other side of town, John was wondering about…’

This sticks out much less than stating ‘John’s POV’ (as the story is then talking about its own literary devices which makes the author’s presence stick out).

I hope this helps! Good luck with your project.

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