Perspective writing is an aspect of narration many writers struggle with. Yet point of view is an important element of storytelling. Read a complete guide to point of view including first person, second and third, plus objective point of view, with definitions and examples:
Contents of this POV guide
In this guide, we’ll begin by exploring what point of view is and involved vs objective narrators. From there, we’ll discuss ten tips to use point of view in your story like a pro.
What is point of view?
Point of view means the perspective from which a story is told. For example, a first person narrator shares their perspective of events using the pronouns ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’.
What is a viewpoint narrator?
Viewpoint narrator means the character whose perspective we are currently reading (or group of characters).
For example, Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), narrates the opening chapter (and the rest of the story). He is thus the viewpoint narrator (no other character gives their own perspective, except via what Holden shares).
Reading a story via a character’s point of view helps us understand them, through what they say (and what they leave out) and experience. As Harper Lee says in To Kill a Mockingbird:
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (J. B. Lippincott & Co, 1960), p. 36
Points of view and the meaning of ‘person’
‘Person’ in grammar is what helps us understand who is speaking, who is being spoken to or about, and who is neither speaking nor being spoken about. For example, if I say ‘I’ll give the letter to him’ to someone, the person I’m speaking to (the addressee) knows I will not give the letter to them, because I did not say ‘to you’.
In narration, person helps us understand the connection between characters and the action – for example, whether the person narrating the story is directly involved in the action or the narrator is standing outside the action, looking in (more on involved vs objective narrators below).
The most often used person in point of view (according to several blogs and other sources) is third-person POV (where narration uses he/she/they or gender-neutral, third-person pronouns).
He had to walk with care. The stone steps were ancient, worn smooth, their valleyed centres ready to trip him up.Karen Jennings, An Island (Karavan Press, 2020), p. 3. Read our interview with the author here.
The argument for why this is the most common, is, according to The Balance Careers, that it provides the most options. It allows female narrators, male narrators, gender-neutral narrators. The non-human ‘it’. Groups or individuals. A story restricted to a single perspective or switching between characters’ private viewpoints and experiences.
Points of view and persons
|First person||I/we||I wandered, lonely as a cloud.|
|Second person||You (s. or pl.)||You turn the page, and suddenly…|
|Third person||She/he/they/neutral||They said that they were gender non-binary. She told them she was going to get their pronouns right.|
Per the table above, English grammar has three persons (first, second, third) whereas other languages (for example Gujarati) have different forms of ‘we’ depending on whether the word ‘we’ includes or does not include the people being addressed. See Quora for more about differences between languages and grammatical persons.
Examples of books in each point of view
What is first person point of view used for?
It is the most common POV used in stories that are written as fictional autobiographies. For example, coming-of-age novels where the narrator is closely involved in the events of the story such as Charles Dickens’ classic, David Copperfield.
First person POV example: I Capture the Castle
Dodie Smith’s novel I Capture the Castle (1948) about a 17-year-old coming of age during wartime, begins, ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’
Second person POV example: If on a winter’s night a traveler
Second person novels are much more uncommon, due to the ‘choose your own adventure’ effect of addressing the reader as ‘you’. The reader, in effect, becomes a character in the story.
Italo Calvino uses this viewpoint to whimsical effect in If on a winter’s night a traveler, where you, the reader, go to a book shop and buy the book you are reading at the start of the story:
In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which are frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you…And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered.Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler (1981).
Another use of ‘you’ is slightly different – ‘you’, the intended recipient of a letter. If you write a chapter (or a whole book) in letters, you might write your character addressing another character as ‘you’. For example:
When you wrote to me about air raids back home, I couldn’t sleep for weeks. You must keep safe, and have courage that this time will pass.
Third person POV example: A Game of Thrones
Examples of books written in third person POV are everywhere.
The first book in George R. R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series, A Game of Thrones (1996), is written in third person limited. This means one character’s perspective is given at a time, in third person, with the narration limited to what they know, see, think and feel.
There are eight different viewpoint narrators in A Game of Thrones who take up the story at different points over its course.
It reads as though the narrator is a camera following each viewpoint character, seeing what they see:
Will could see the tightness around Gared’s mouth, the barely suppressed anger in his eyes under the thick black hood of his cloak.George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (Bantam Spectra, 1996), p. 3.
Objective point of view vs involved
Before we continue with tips on using point of view, it is useful to explore two types of POV: Objective point of view and involved.
What is objective point of view?
In an objective point of view, the narrator is not involved in the action of the story. Like a fly on the wall, they might report characters’ actions, words, and expressions, yet the narrator cannot tell the reader exactly what any one character is thinking or feeling.
This point of view relies heavily on inference. If you want to tell your reader a character is angry, for example, your narrator has to show this through characters’ words, expressions and gestures.
Think of this POV like a CCTV camera – simply recording events within its field of view, without any emotional or interpretive partiality.
Example of objective POV
In her excellent writing manual Steering the Craft, Ursula K. Le Guin has a detailed chapter on POV. Here, she also refers to objective point of view as ‘detached author’, ‘fly on the wall’, ‘camera eye’ and ‘objective narrator’. Le Guin says:
The author never enters a character’s mind. People and places may be exactly described, but values and judgments can be implied only indirectly. A popular voice around 1900 and in “minimalist” and “brand-name” fiction, it is the most covertly manipulative of the points of view.Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft: Exercises and discussions on story writing for the lone navigator or the mutinous crew (The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998), p. 88.
Le Guin says Raymond Chandler is a good example of an author who frequently uses this POV, and gives her own example of objective POV, in third person:
The princess from Tufar entered the room followed closely by the big man from Hemm. She walked with long steps, her arms close to her sides and her shoulders hunched.Le Guin, p. 88.
Note how the princess’ hunched shoulders and arms close to her sides suggest a controlled, anxious quality, but the narrator in objective POV cannot say ‘she was anxious’. Description in objective POV does all the telling.
What is involved POV?
Involved POV or an involved narrator is a narrator who is involved in the action of the story. Unlike an objective narrator, they can access what characters are thinking or pass judgments on characters’ actions.
Le Guin uses the term ‘involved author’ as a synonym for the omniscient narrator. Says Le Guin:
[In involved author the] story is not told from within any single character. There may be numerous viewpoint characters, and the narrative voice may change at any time from one to another character within the story, or to a view, perception, analysis or prediction that only the author could make […] The writer may tell us what anyone is thinking and feeling, interpret behavior for us, and even make judgments on characters.Le Guin, pp. 86-87.
Example of involved POV
Le Guin uses the same example of the girl from Tufar to show how omniscient narrators are able to tell us what characters are feeling, or interpret what their movement, expressions, or gestures mean:
The Tufarian girl entered the room hesitantly, her arms close to her sides, her shoulders hunched; she looked both frightened and indifferent, like a captured wild animal. The big Hemmian ushered her in with a proprietary air…Le Guin, p. 87.
Le Guin contrasts omniscient narration with limited third person, describing limited third as ‘the predominant modern fictional voice’. She suggests that this is because modern authors moved away from uses of POV in Victorian fiction such as narrators breaking the fourth wall to address the reader and share asides or moralize.
To modern readers, an omniscient narrator who addresses the reader directly can read as the author being overly or preciously involved in the reader’s progress through the story. Yet, as Le Guin says, omniscient or ‘involved author’ is also a highly flexible POV option for narration. Omniscient narrators also do not have to address the reader directly, necessarily.
Brainstorm Viewpoint Characters
Find each of your viewpoint narrators’ personalities and attributes in structured steps to build your story outline.START
Point of view tips: Choosing, changing and more
To use point of view in your story well:
- Ensure who narrates is clear
- Use caution with major POV changes
- Note how point of view impacts structure
- Let genre guide POV choices
- Have a clear reason for each viewpoint
- Ask – can my reader trust this narrator?
- Use character voice for deeper POV
- Reserve first person thoughts in third for key moments
- Study books with multiple viewpoint narrators
Let’s explore point of view further:
Ensure who narrates is clear
Clarity is the largest challenge in using points of view, especially when there are multiple viewpoint narrators in your story.
If you have have two or more viewpoint narrators, consider using the name of the viewpoint narrator who tells a chapter either beneath the chapter number or instead of it.
William Faulkner does this in his novella As I Lay Dying (which has 15 narrators in total!). Faulkner simply prefaces each chapter, each POV change, with the next narrator’s name.
If you are changing POV within a chapter, consider using a dinkus or asterisk to set apart different viewpoint narrators’ sections clearly.
If you want points of view to switch with less interruption, make sure you use transitional phrases, for example, ‘Meanwhile, on the other side of town…’ to show the cut, the scene change, one would see in a film or TV show.
Dom observed the guards’ routes on the sly, dressed in rags, mingling with the usual beggars on the square. Right under your noses, he thought, smirking. Meanwhile, across town, his accomplice Sol inspected their plan again, brow furrowed as he tried to imagine every possible surprise.
Use caution with major POV changes
In stories with multiple perspectives sharing the telling, POV changes are inevitable. Think carefully, however, about:
- How often the POV changes (how often will your reader have to readjust to who’s narrating?)
- Changes from one person to another (e.g. from a first person narrator to a third person POV)
The bigger the change or leap, the more of an adjustment it is for your reader.
Your reader may also wonder who is the main character if, for example, one character has a smaller part in first person (which reads more immediate) and then you give other characters each their own POVs which tell the lion’s share of the story.
On major POV changes, Le Guin says:
Any shift from one of the five POVs outlined above [first person, limited third person, omniscient/involved author, objective/detached author, observer-narrator] to another one is a dangerous one. It’s a major change of voice to go from first to third person, or from involved author to observer-narrator. The shift will affect the whole tone and structure of your narrative.Le Guin, p. 90
If you are writing a story with, for example, four narrators, it may make the most sense to write all four using the same person (first or third) unless you have a very good reason to ask your reader to make a greater adjustment whenever you switch POVs.
Note how POV impacts structure
As Le Guin cautions in the extract from Steering the Craft above, shifts in point of view affect the tone and structure of your story.
Point of view case study: Using multiple viewpoint narrators
For example, a client for a manuscript evaluation had written a psychological thriller about a protagonist caught between two antagonists.
Part of the challenge in the narration identified in the evaluation lay in the choice to give both antagonists’ perspectives with each having their own viewpoint chapters.
Although this was an interesting (and typically modern) approach to narration, it created structural challenges:
- The POV departed from the main character who the reader would likely be rooting for (and most emotionally invested) in for long stretches of time
- The antagonists’ viewpoint chapters often recapped the same events from each other’s contrasting perspectives, which diluted narrative suspense as the reader knew what would happen already in the next narrator’s section
- The antagonists were not as likeable as the protagonist, so the reader could grow impatient to return to the character they could empathize with
In this scenario, the point of view recommendations were:
- To cut between the antagonist’s viewpoints more frequently, even combining them within the same chapter to give both perspectives, so that the narrative could return to the protagonist at more regular intervals to maintain suspense and a sense of their own progress
- To not recap events whose outcomes the reader already knew unless the recap provided new information that moved the story forwards
Let genre guide POV choices
How do you choose the right POV for your story?
Genre is a helpful guide. For example, according to editor Kathryn Lye writing for Harlequin:
The recommended POV [for publishing romance with Harlequin] is third person with some first person thoughts included as well, usually in key moments. More Harlequin series romance books have been written entirely in first person the past five years, so it’s not off the table if the author thinks the POV serves the story better.Kathryn Lye, ‘Back to Basics: POV Tips from Editor Kathryn Lye’, Harlequin, February 24 2022.
Read widely (and recently) in your genre. What are the most common POVs? You may find readers expect a specific POV simply because it’s what they’re used to.
A reader had very strong words on the Now Novel blog for a post that suggested anything other than third person POV was acceptable in any story. Point of view raises strong feelings in some readers.
Have a clear reason for each viewpoint
If you are going to mix persons in a multi-character novel where you use several points of view, make sure you have a clear reason for this choice.
If, for example, you have two narrating characters who both seem equally important to the story’s events, your reader may well wonder why one tells their story in first person while the other’s perspective uses third person limited, with third person pronouns.
The third person viewpoint narrator may have, for example, a dissociative personality condition where they think of themselves more like a character, from outside. Or they struggle to gain subjectivity, a sense of self. Unless the reason for the mix is self-evident, using the same person viewpoints in a multi-narrator story is advisable for the smoothest transitions between POVs.
Ask – can my reader trust this narrator?
Another interesting aspect of point of view in stories is the idea of the unreliable narrator. Do each of your narrators tell the complete, unvarnished truth? Do some embellish, lie, distort or manipulate the reader? Or simply not fully understand what they’re seeing or experiencing?
This is a very modern aspect of POV, with the rise of the anti-hero-as-narrator (think of the serial killer character Dexter, for example) in the 21st Century.
This is particularly interesting to think about in terms of deception (of self and other) as well as the limitation on what individual narrators see and understand.
In Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, for example, one of the viewpoint narrators is a child member of an American missionary family who relocates to Central Africa. Because the narrator is a child, she misreads the visual signs of malnutrition as children having full bellies.
A gripping point of view often reveals both what a narrator knows and is able to understand, and the limits of their knowledge, awareness, or development.
Use character voice for deeper POV
What is deep POV in narration? It is narration which shows your reader how your characters think, feel and perceive by getting right into their heads.
Deep POV is of course impossible in objective narration, because the narrator can only show the signs of what characters think or feel.
In this example of deep POV, by contrast, every passing feeling influences the way a character tells the story, the words they choose (and their positive/negative subtext or inference):
Oh my God! The exam venue’s doors (the shitty, rundown PE hall at the bottom of campus) are about to close as I squeeze through at the last second. My elation quickly becomes despair when I see the questions they’ve set. There goes my average.
Use of exclamations, informal language, sarcasm, etc. creates a deeper POV here than if you were to write, ‘I was running late for my exam but got there just in time…’ A cooler, more removed POV may reflect a calmer demeanor, though deep POV gets to the heart of emotion and reaction, putting your reader inside your character’s mind.
Reserve first person thoughts in third for key moments
What about when you’re writing in a specific point of view and want to insert another, for example, a character’s thoughts within third person?
The convention is to italicize to make in-the-moment thoughts distinct from surrounding ordinary narration. For example:
What on earth, she thought. That wasn’t there when last I looked.
As editor Kathryn Lye in the article quoted above for Harlequin says, it is best to add first person thoughts ‘in key moments’.
Use this device too often and it becomes distracting for the reader, to have to adjust between first and third continuously.
Study books with multiple viewpoint narrators
How do you master point of view and changing points of view within a story unobtrusively, without drawing attention to narrative devices?
Read widely and read books written in POVs you may be less familiar with. Even if you stick with the ‘modern’, widely-used limited third person, knowing how to write in first or how to write omniscient narration adds another tool in your narratorial kit.
Try practicing rewriting a short scene in different points of view – first person, second person, third, objective or involved – to get a handle on the effect each has on structure and tone.
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