Point of view in fiction is an important element of storytelling. The viewpoint narrator’s personality or subjective understanding 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 lets readers see everything a character and/or narrator feels and experiences from their perspective. This enables us to empathize with characters and understand their motives and desires.
Point of view can also be more impartial. It can be like 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 in which the narrator uses the pronoun ‘I’ (or, in plural first person, ‘we’). The strength of first person narration is that the reader inhabits 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. 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 the viewpoint narrator, and not the ‘you’ addressed.
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! [Simplify brainstorming viewpoint characters and other elements of your novel and create a blueprint for your book, step-by-step.]
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 stick to what they know and experience, we call this ‘third person limited’. ‘Limited’ because perspective follows a single viewpoint at a time.
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’.
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 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 external 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.
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 the style of your story
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 wrote his autobiography using 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 play characters, in a way.
So although first person has a comfortingly confidential feeling, there are no ‘rules’, other than to be consistent and clear so that your reader can enjoy the journey without getting confused.
2: Think about the implications of the point of view you choose
Whether you’re telling a story from a single viewpoint or different viewpoints, these have specific effects.
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. 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.
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, whereas a ‘detached’ narrating voice is not involved in the story. 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 could interpret as ‘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.
If you want to shift POV often in your story, it is best to either use third person point of view or to alternate first person sections told from different characters’ viewpoints. Michael Cunningham does this in A Home at the End of the World, simply titling alternate chapters using each of his three main characters’ names. This type of multi-perspective use of point of view is safer because it’s clear when the story has changed to a new viewpoint.
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Cover source image by Sharon Christina Rørvik