Points of View Explained

What’s the difference between the following:

  • I ate the cheese.
  • She ate the cheese. 
  • Somebody ate the cheese. 
  • Shelly ate the cheese.

The difference is point of view. Your narrator tells the story in your book, and the narrator’s relationship with the story and its protagonists deeply impacts your reader’s experience. Point of view, POV, is the term that describes this. As a writer, choosing POV and maintaining it throughout the book (or a section of the book) is one of your most important choices and tasks. 

To help you with both, here’s your no-nonsense, high-speed, low-drag review of something you probably got twenty minutes on in middle school…but which, as a professional writer, you must master. We’ll look at the four basic points of view, and then some bells and whistles about them. 

Third Person POV

Third person POV is when the narrator tells the story telling third-person pronouns. That’s he, she, it, they, and all the variations thereof like him, her, its, and theirs. It is the most common point of view and used in books like:

  • Fahrenheit 451: She didn’t want to know how a thing was done, but why. That can be embarrassing.
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Harry then did something that was both very brave and very stupid.
  • Equal Rites: She was already learning that if you ignore the rules, people will, half the time, quietly rewrite them so that they don’t apply to you.

The key here is one step of removal for the narrator. The narrator might well be part of the story, but isn’t the main character himself or herself.

First Person POV

First person POV tells the story using first person pronouns like I, me, my, our, ourselves, and us. It’s the second most common POV, and you’ll see it quite often in romance, erotica, young adult, middle grade, and hard-boiled detective (though cozy mysteries and procedurals tend to be third person). Some books that use first person POV include: 

  • Twilight: I decided as long as I’m going to hell, I might as well do it thoroughly.
  • The Help: I always thought insanity would be a dark, bitter feeling, but it is drenching and delicious if you really roll around in it. 
  • 50 Shades of Grey: Sometimes I wonder if there’s something wrong with me. Perhaps I’ve spent too long in the company of my literary romantic heroes, and consequently my ideals and expectations are far too high.

Your narrator is immersed in the story, speaking from their own perspective, and usually either the main character or a sidekick to the main character. (For an example of that second one, look at Sherlock Holmes, where Watson is telling the story from his own point of view). 

Second Person POV

Second Person POV uses second-person pronouns like you and your, creating a unique and sometimes unsettling reader experience. Choose Your Own Adventure books are the 2nd person books most of us remember, but some other examples include:

  • The Night Circus: You think, as you walk away from Le Cirque de Reves and into the creeping dawn, that  you felt more awake within the confines of the circus. 
  • The Sweetheart: You want to be somebody else. You don’t know who this person might be; all you know is that she should be confident, beautiful, beloved. 
  • The Sound of My Voice: It used to be that each time you fell in love, the effort of loving released in you the energy to hold everything together a little longer. Then, after several months or years, when things began to crack apart, you would fall in love with someone else. 

Second person is very rare in fiction, usually found only in literary fiction and experimental pieces. However, you can find it frequently in nonfiction, especially self-help titles and other books of advice.  

Fourth Person POV

Some languages other than English have an official fourth person POV, which changes from language to language. Recently, within English, it’s come to refer to using indefinite pronouns in the main body of the text. Indefinite pronouns are those not attached to a particular person: one, somebody, anybody, oneself. 

You almost never see fourth person used as the main POV in a book, but rather as a diversion when it’s necessary to use indefinite pronouns. I’m only mentioning it here for completeness, and so you don’t get surprised when you see it mentioned in some textbook or blog post. 

Other Considerations

First, Second, and Third Person are only the top-level decisions you need to make in your writing. Within each are other subdivisions, decisions, and nuances. Some of the more important include:

Omniscient POV

An omniscient point of view is what it sounds like: the narrator is aware of every aspect of the story. Everything any character is doing or thinking, what’s happening in the future, what’s happening in the past…everything. Whether or not the narrator chooses to share all of what they know is another matter. 

You often encounter this in little asides like “If he’d known then what I know now, he would have made a different choice”, implying that the narrator is fully aware of the future of the action. First person omniscient is tricky to pull off, unless it’s written with a memoir kind of vibe.

The advantage of omniscient POV is that you can tell the reader whatever you think is necessary without worrying about whether or not it’s consistent with the book’s point of view. The disadvantage is figuring out what not to say. Writing from omniscient POV can become overwhelming because of how many options you have. It’s also less intimate than more limited POVs, in the same way third person isn’t as intimate as first person. 

Limited POV

Writing from a limited POV, the narrator only knows a certain set of information. How much is determined by how focused the narration is. With first-person limited, the narrator only knows what the narrating character knows at the time. In third person, the author limits narrator knowledge to whatever the main character in a scene (or the whole book) would logically know. 

The advantage of limited POV is it’s easier to manage both for the writer and the reader. It makes the book more approachable and logical. The disadvantage is, if you want to add information the narrator wouldn’t reasonably know, you have to either leave it out or find a way to make it available to your narrator. It can be trickier to manage, but often ends up more successful. 

Limited POV can be from a range of perspectives, depending on your goals and the perspective of the narrator.

Distant POV 

Distant POV stands back from the action, taking in action from multiple people at once. It’s often mistaken for omniscient POV because the narrator knows what all the characters in a scene would know (but it’s mistaken for omniscient because the narrator doesn’t know anything they wouldn’t). 

This POV is like most TV shows or movies. You see what’s going on, and the focus is rarely on less than two people at a time (or one person interacting with scenery and challenges). You can’t read their minds, and you don’t know what’s happening in the next room unless they cut away for a different scene.

Tight POV

Tight POV focuses on a single character, to the point that while the POV remains on that person the narrator doesn’t know anything that a single person wouldn’t. It’s often more immersive: less of a presentation of the facts, and more examining how the events of the story impact a certain person. 

One trick authors successfully use for tight POV is to “head hop”, moving from the tight POV of one character, then moving to another, telling the whole story from multiple perspectives much like a director depicting a scene from multiple cameras set at different angles. 

Deep POV

Deep POV immerses the reader into a single individual’s point of view. You get all of their thoughts and feelings, see things only from their limited perspective, and get as close to their take on the action as you can without slipping into first person. 

In fact, Deep POV could be described as “first person, only written in third person.” As with a tight POV, it’s not cheating to hop from Deep POV of one character to another to tell the story from different perspectives.

Unreliable Narrators

Many stories, especially mystery and detective yarns, have a character lie to another character. With an unreliable narrator, the narrator is lying to the reader: telling a story that the reader later finds out wasn’t true. 

This is a tricky technique, famously used in Fight Club to produce a stunning reveal. If you choose to try this, have all of your ducks well in a row. If you have one slip up, the whole thing falls apart…but if you do it right, it can produce some of the best writing you’ve ever done. 

Final Thought: The Other Three Ws

At first glance, POV seems to be all a question of Who and What, as in “who is telling this story, and what are they telling us?” But the other three Ws: When, Why, and hoW also play a key role, especially for advanced storytelling mojo. This could be another blog post in and of itself, but for now, consider:

  • When is the narrator telling the story, as compared to when it happened? Does he have the benefit of hindsight? Is she in the middle of it and filled with emotion? Has their recollection faded with time?
  • Why is the narrator telling the story? Does she want to report the facts as accurately as possible? Does he want to convince the reader to believe something in particular? Als, why is the narrator telling the story now? What moved them to the effort?
  • hoW is the narrator telling the story? Are they speaking informally to a friend? Is he testifying in court or before some kind of tribunal? Is she putting everything down for posterity?

All of these factors will help you refine your book’s point of view from the very broad, down to the specific factors that make your narrator’s voice unique among the millions of books out there. Once you have this nailed down, you’re on to your next challenge: maintaining it from word one to the end. 

Next month, we'll dive a little deeper into what goes into writing in the third person.