In my experience as an editor, point of view problems are among the top mistakes I see new writers make, and they instantly erode credibility and reader trust. Point of view isn’t easy though, since there are so many to choose from: first person, third person limited, third person omniscient, second person.
What do those even mean? And how do you choose the right one for your story?
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. You also 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.
Table of Contents
Point of View Definition
The 4 Types of Point of View
The #1 POV Mistake
First Person Point of View
Second Person Point of View
Third Person Limited Point of View
Third Person Omniscient Point of View
Point of View Definition
Note that point of view also has a second definition.
In a discussion, an argument, or nonfiction writing, a point of view is an opinion about a subject. This is not the type of point of view we’re going to focus on in this article (although it is helpful for nonfiction writers, and for more information, I recommend checking out Wikipedia’s neutral point of view policy).
I especially like the German word for POV, which is Gesichtspunkt, 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 The Write Practice Pro. 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 soon.
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 Four 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.
The #1 POV 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 telling the events he or she is personally experiencing.
The simplest way to understand first person is that the narrative will use first-person pronouns like I, me, and my.
Here’s a first person point of view example from Moby Dick by Herman Melville:
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
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.
Other first person point of view examples can be found in these popular novels:
- The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
- Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
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 in 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 are narrated from a single character’s perspective at a time. They 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.
The most extreme use of this bias is called an unreliable narrator.
Some novelists use the limitations of first person narrative to surprise the reader, a technique called unreliable narrator. You’ll notice this kind of narrator being used when you, as the reader or audience, discover that you can’t trust the narrator.
For example, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl pits two unreliable narrators against one another. Each relates their conflicting version of events, one through typical narration and 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.
Two 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 reader’s 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 helpful to understand.
In this point of view, the narrator relates the experiences using second person pronouns like you and your. 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 from the breakout bestseller Bright Lights, Big City by Jay Mclnerney (probably the most popular example that uses 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.
Second person point of view isn’t used frequently, however there are some notable examples of it.
Some other novels that use second person point of view are:
- 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.
- The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison
- The opening of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
There are also 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. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck says:
If we shadows have offended, 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.
The simplest way to understand third person narration is that it uses third-person pronouns, like he/she, his/hers, they/theirs.
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.
Examples of Third Person Omniscient:
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
- Where the Crawdad’s Sing by Delia Owens
- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
- Still Life by Louise Penny (and all the Inspector Gamache series, which is amazing, by the way)
- Gossip Girl by Cecily von Ziegesar
- Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
- Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (one of my favorites!)
- A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- More third person omniscient examples can be found here
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.
Examples of Third Person Limited
Here’s an example of third person limited point of view from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling:
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!”
Some other examples of third person limited narration include:
- Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin (this has an ensemble cast, but Martin stays in one character’s point of view at a time, making it a clear example of limited POV)
- For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
- The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
- The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
- Ulysses by James Joyce
- Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
- Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Should You Use Third Person Omniscient or Third Person Limited
The distinction between third persons limited and omniscient 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 mind? 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 show the thoughts and emotions of only one character per scene (or per chapter).
George R.R. Martin, for example, uses “point of view characters,” characters whom he always has full access to understanding. 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 Omniscient 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?
Here’s a helpful point of view infographic to help you decide which POV to use in your writing:
Note that these distances should be thought of as ranges, not precise calculations. A third person narrator could conceivably draw closer to the reader than a first person narrator.
Most importantly, there is no best point of view. All of these points of view are effective in various types of stories.
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. After all, you’ll only get comfortable with other points of view by trying them!
Whatever you choose, be consistent. Avoid the mistakes I mentioned under each point of view.
And above all, have fun!
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How about you? Which of the four points of view have you used in your writing? Why did you use it, and what did you like about it? 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.
We can gain just as much value giving feedback as we can writing our own books!