Point of View in Writing
As an editor, point of view problems are among the top mistakes I see inexperienced writers make, and they instantly erode credibility and reader trust.
All stories are written from a point of view. However, when point of view goes wrong—and believe me, it goes wrong often—you threaten whatever trust you have with your reader and fracture their suspension of disbelief.
However, point of view is simple to master if you use common sense.
This post will define point of view, go over each of the major POVs, explain a few of the POV rules, and then point out the major pitfalls writers make when dealing with that point of view.
Point of View Definition
Point of view, or POV, refers to two things in writing:
- A point of view in a discussion, an argument, or nonfiction writing is an opinion, the way you think about a subject.
- In a story, the point of view is the narrator’s position in the description of events.
In this article, we’re going to focus on the second point of view definition. The first definition is helpful for nonfiction writers, and for more information, I recommend checking out Wikipedia’s neutral point of view policy.
Point of view comes from the Latin word, punctum visus, which literally means point sight, suggesting it’s where you point your sight.
I especially like the German word for it though, which is Gesichtpunkt, translated face point, or where your face is pointed. Isn’t that a good visual for what’s involved in point of view?
Note too that point of view is sometimes called “narrative mode.”
Why Point of View Is So Important
Why does point of view matter so much?
Because point of view filters everything in your story. Everything in your story must come from a point of view.
Which means if you get it wrong, your entire story is damaged.
For example, I just finished judging a writing contest for Becoming Writer. I personally read and judged over ninety stories, and I found point of view mistakes in about twenty percent of them, including a few stories that would have placed much higher if only the writers hadn’t made the mistakes we’re going to talk about later.
The worst part is these mistakes are easily avoidable if you’re aware of them. But before we get into the common point of view mistakes, let’s go over each of the four types of POV.
The 4 Types of Point of View
Here are the four primary POV types in fiction:
- First person point of view. First person is when “I” am telling the story. The character is in the story, relating his or her experiences directly.
- Second person point of view. The story is told to “you.” This POV is not common in fiction, but it’s still good to know (it is common in nonfiction).
- Third person point of view, limited. The story is about “he” or “she.” This is the most common point of view in commercial fiction. The narrator is outside of the story and relating the experiences of a character.
- Third person point of view, omniscient. The story is still about “he” or “she,” but the narrator has full access to the thoughts and experiences of all characters in the story.
I know you’ve seen and probably even used most of these point of views.
Let’s discuss each of the four types, using examples to see how they affect your story. We’ll also go over the rules for each type, but first let me explain the big mistake you don’t want to make with point of view:
Don’t Make This Point of View Mistake
Do not begin your story in first person and then switch to third person. Do not start with third person limited and then abruptly give your narrator full omniscience.
The guideline I learned in my first creative writing class in college is a good one:
Establish the point of view within the first two paragraphs of your story.
And above all, don’t change your point of view. If you do, you’ll threaten your reader’s trust and could fracture the architecture of your story.
That being said, I recently finished a 7,000 page novel called Worm which uses two point of views—first person with interludes of third-person limited—very effectively. By the way, if you’re looking for a novel to read over the next two to six months, I highly recommend it (here’s the link to read for free online).
The first time the author switched point of views, he nearly lost my trust. However, he kept this dual-POV consistent over 7,000 pages and made it work.
Whatever point of view choices you make, be consistent.
First Person Point of View
In first person point of view, the narrator is in the story and relating the events he or she is personally experiencing.
First person point of view example:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.
—Moby Dick by Herman Melville
First person point of view is one of the most common POVs in fiction. If you haven’t read a book in first person point of view, you haven’t been reading.
What makes this point of view interesting, and challenging, is that all of the events in the story are filtered through the narrator and explained in his or her own unique voice. This means first person narrative is both biased and incomplete.
First person narrative is unique to writing. There’s no such thing as first person in film or theater. Although, voiceovers and mockumentary interviews like the ones in The Office and Modern Family provide a level of first person narrative into third person film and television.
In fact, the very first novels were written in first person, modeled after popular journals and autobiographies.
First person point of view is limited
First person narrators cannot be everywhere at once and thus cannot get all sides of the story. They are telling their story, not necessarily the story.
First person point of view is biased
In first person novels, the reader almost always sympathizes with a first person narrator, even if the narrator is an anti-hero with major flaws.
Of course, this is why we love first person narrative, because it’s imbued with the character’s personality, their unique perspective on the world.
Unreliable narrators. Some novelists use the limitations of first person narrative to surprise the reader, a technique called unreliable narrator, in which the audience discovers the narrator’s version of events can’t be trusted.
For example, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl pits two unreliable narrators against each other, each relating their conflicting version of events, one through normal narration the other through journal entries.
Other Interesting Uses of First Person Narrative:
- The classic novel, Heart of Darkness, is actually a first person narrative within a first person narrative. The narrator recounts verbatim the story Charles Marlow tells about his trip up the Congo river while they sit at port in England.
- William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom is told from the first person point of view of Quentin Compson, however most of the story is a third person account of Thomas Sutpen, his grandfather, as told to Quentin by Rosa Coldfield. Yes, it’s just as complicated as it sounds!
- Salman Rushdie’s award winning Midnight’s Children is told in first person, but spends most of the first several hundred pages giving a precise third person account of the narrator’s ancestors. It’s still first person, just a first person narrator telling a story about someone else.
2 Big Mistakes Writers Make with First Person Point of View
When writing in first person, there are two major mistakes writers make:
1. The narrator isn’t likable. Your protagonist doesn’t have to be a cliché hero. She doesn’t even need to be good. However, she must be interesting. The audience will not stick around for 300 pages listening to a character they don’t enjoy. This is one reason why anti-heroes make great first person narrators. They may not be morally perfect, but they’re almost always interesting.
2. The narrator tells but doesn’t show. The danger with first person is that you could spend too much time in your character’s head, explaining what he’s thinking and how he feels about the situation. You’re allowed to mention the character’s mood, but don’t forget that your readers trust and attention relies on what your character does, not what he thinks about doing.
Second Person Point of View
While not used often in fiction—it is used regularly in nonfiction, song lyrics, and even video games—second person POV is still good helpful to understand.
In this point of view, the narrator is relating the experiences of another character called “you.” Thus, you become the protagonist, you carry the plot, and your fate determines the story.
We’ve written elsewhere about why you should try writing in second person, but in short we like second person because it:
- Pulls the reader into the action of the story
- Makes the story personal
- Surprises the reader
- Stretches your skills as a writer
Here’s an example of second person point of view:
You have friends who actually care about you and speak the language of the inner self. You have avoided them of late. Your soul is as disheveled as your apartment, and until you can clean it up a little you don’t want to invite anyone inside.
—Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
Novels that use second person point of view. Second person point of view isn’t used frequently, however there are some notable examples of it.
Remember the Choose Your Own Adventure series? If you’ve ever read one of these novels where you get to decide the fate of the character (I always killed my character, unfortunately), you’ve read second person narrative.
Bright Lights, Big City, the breakout bestseller by Jay McInerney about the New York City nightlife and drug scene in the 1980s, is probably the most popular example of a second person novel.
However, there are many experimental novels and short stories that use second person, and writers such as William Faulkner, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Albert Camus played with the style.
Breaking the fourth wall. In the plays of William Shakespeare, a character will sometimes turn toward the audience and speak directly to them. “If we shadows have offended,” Puck says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “think but this, and all is mended, that you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear.”
This technique of speaking directly to the audience or the reader is called breaking the fourth wall (the other three walls being the setting of the story). To think of it another way, it’s a way the writer can briefly use second person in a first or third person narrative.
It’s a lot of fun! You should try it.
Third Person Point of View
In third person, the narrator is outside of the story and relating the experiences of a character. The central character is not the narrator. In fact, the narrator is not present in the story at all.
An example of third person point of view:
A breeze ruffled the neat hedges of Privet Drive, which lay silent and tidy under the inky sky, the very last place you would expect astonishing things to happen. Harry Potter rolled over inside his blankets without waking up. One small hand closed on the letter beside him and he slept on, not knowing he was special, not knowing he was famous…. He couldn’t know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices: “To Harry Potter—the boy who lived!”
—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
There are two types of this point of view:
- Third Person Omniscient. The narrator has full access to all the thoughts and experiences of all the characters in the story.
- Third Person Limited. The narrator has only some, if any, access to the thoughts and experiences of the characters in the story, often just to one character.
However, this distinction is messy and somewhat artificial. Full omniscience in novels is rare—it’s almost always limited in some way—if only because the human mind isn’t comfortable handling all the thoughts and emotions of multiple people at once.
The most important consideration in third person point of view is this:
How omniscient are you going to be? How deep are you going to go into your character’s minds? Will you read their thoughts frequently and deeply at any chance? Or will you rarely, if ever, delve into their emotions?
To see this question in action, imagine a couple having an argument. Tina wants Fred to go to the store to pickup the cilantro she forgot she needed for the meal she’s cooking. Fred is frustrated that she didn’t ask him to pick up the cilantro on the way home from the office, before he had changed into his “homey” clothes (AKA boxer shorts).
If the narrator is fully omniscient, do you parse both Fred and Tina’s emotions during each back and forth?
“Do you want to eat? If you do, then you need to get cilantro instead of acting like a lazy pig,” Tina said, thinking, I can’t believe I married this jerk. At least back then he had a six pack, not this hairy potbelly.
“Figure it out, Tina. I’m sick of rushing to the store every time you forget something,” said Fred. He felt the anger pulsing through his large belly.
Going back and forth between multiple characters’ emotions like this can give a reader whiplash, especially if this pattern continued over several pages and with more than two characters. This is an example of an omniscient narrator who perhaps is a little too comfortable explaining the characters’ inner workings.
“Show, don’t tell,” we’re told. Sharing all the emotions of all your characters can become distraction. It can even destroy any tension you’ve built.
Drama requires mystery. If the reader knows each character’s emotions all the time, there will be no space for drama.
How do you handle third person omniscient well?
The way many editors, and many famous authors, handle this is to only show the thoughts emotions of one character per scene or per chapter.
George R.R. Martin, for example, uses “point of view characters,” characters who he always has full access to. He will write a full chapter from their perspective before switching to the next point of view character. For the rest of the cast, he stays out of their heads.
This is an effective guideline, if not a strict rule, and it’s one I would suggest to any first time author experimenting with third person narrative. Overall, though, the principle to show, don’t tell should be your guide.
The Biggest Third Person Point of View Mistake
The biggest mistake I see writers make constantly in third person is head hopping. When you switch point of view characters too quickly, or dive into the heads of too many characters at once, you could be in danger of what editors call “head hopping.”
When the narrator switches from one character’s thoughts to another’s too quickly, it can jar the reader and break the intimacy with the scene’s main character.
We’ve written about how you can get away with head hopping elsewhere, but it’s a good idea to try to avoid going into more than one character’s thoughts per scene or per chapter.
Which Point of View Will You Use?
There is no best point of view. If you’re just getting started, I would encourage you to use either first person or third person limited point of view because they’re easy to understand.
However, that shouldn’t stop you from experimenting.
Whatever you choose, be consistent. Avoid the mistakes I mentioned under each point of view.
And above all, have fun.
How about you? Which the four point of views have you used in your writing? Share in the comments.
Using a point of view you’ve never used before, write a brief story about a teenager who has just discovered he or she has superpowers. Make sure to avoid the POV mistakes listed in the article above.