I’ve been staring at my screen for ten minutes trying to come up with a hook that somehow, someway will lead off an article about literary point of view. I’ve come to a definite conclusion: you can’t. To do so would subvert the laws of man, physics and God. It’s impossible. I defy you to try it.
Anyway, let’s talk about POV.
If you’re a beginning writer you might not think much about point of view. But, you should.
What is point of view in writing?
Point of view tells your reader who is important in your story. It affects the relationship your reader builds with your characters. And, if done poorly, the point of view can ruin an otherwise perfect story.
You’d like to avoid that, wouldn’t you? Of course! So, for your consideration, I bring to you the ultimate guide to point of view.
(Is it really the ultimate guide to POV? Probably not, but it makes for a good title, right?)
In this article I will explain every type of POV you could possibly use in your writing, and when to use each one. I’ll also answer all your burning questions about POV. You know the ones you’ve always wondered about but didn’t want to ask.
More importantly, I’ll cover some of the common POV mistakes and how to avoid them.
But first, let’s start with the basics-
Point of view is the term used to describe who the author chooses to tell their story. But really, and more importantly, it’s who your reader is engaging with.
When we talk about point of view we’re talking about the narrator. An author might have the main character or a secondary character speak directly to the reader as if you are reading that character’s journal.
Or, the narrator might not be in the story at all, but a voice above the fray who can describe the action of a story.
The narrator may also know certain characters’ thoughts and feelings about the events unfolding. While some POVs will insert the reader directly into the action of the story.
The point is, point of view is an important consideration for any story, and mistakes in POV can ruin a story. So, it’s important to choose your POV carefully and avoid the common pitfalls.
With that said, let’s discuss the different types of POV, why they are used, and the common POV mistakes that you need to avoid.
What are the different types of point of view?
Point of view can be divided into three categories- first person, second person, and third person. Third person point of view can be broken down further into limited, omniscient, and objective.
All POVs can be written either in the past or present tense.
Let’s take a look at each of these individually.
First Person POV
What is First Person POV?
You’re the reader and the character is telling you the story. You and the character are like old friends; they’re very open with you about their thoughts and feelings. It’s as if you’re reading their journal. Usually, the perspective character is the main character of the story, but not always.
Take, for instance, The Great Gatsby which is written in the first person, but the perspective character is Nick Caraway. Nick takes part in the events of the story and relays them to the reader, but he is not the main character.
However, this is an exception, not the rule. Your point of view character should be the protagonist unless you have a good reason for them not to be.
You’ll know your reading a story in the first person when you see pronouns like I, me, or my. The character is the narrator, so they will be speaking directly to the reader.
How to write First Person POV
Writing from a first person point of view is a solid choice if your beginning writer. It’s a straightforward perspective that isn’t too difficult to work with. Choose a character, like your protagonist, and write the story as if they are retelling the events to the reader.
If you choose the first person perspective you’ll need to know your character intimately. You want their personality to remain consistent throughout the narrative. That is unless they’re a dynamic character. Even then, changes in the character will need to have a cause that develops from your plot.
Interview your point of view character. Know their background, what their fears are, and what motivates them. The challenge of the first-person perspective is keeping your character’s voice, actions, and reactions consistent and believable.
In other words, don’t change your character’s personality for the needs of the plot. What does that mean? If your character has been even-keeled and calm throughout the story don’t force them to blow up in anger because you need to inject some tension into a scene.
Know your perspective character, and don’t deviate from the personality that you’ve established, unless that change is earned through the narrative. Your reader will notice otherwise.
When to use First Person POV
There are times when using the first person perspective is axiomatic like when writing a memoir or a personal essay. The first person POV is a good choice for writers who are just starting out. The limited nature of first person will help beginning writers avoid some common POV mistakes such as head-hopping. But, more on that later.
Because of its natural limits, the first person is a good choice if there are details of the plot that you want to hide from the reader. Take the example of an unreliable narrator who is lying about the events of the story. Discovering new information a narrator has kept hidden can be an exciting revelation for your reader.
Or, because your writing from the perspective of one character, the reader can discover story details as your character does. This works to great effect in the genres of mystery, horror, and romance. These genres require the character, and reader to work through the details of an event slowly to discover startling truths.
Lastly, the first person POV is a good choice if you’re writing a small, character-driven plot with a limited cast. However, it’s not the best choice for your epic, world-building fantasy.
Example of First Person POV
“I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Second Person POV
What is Second Person POV?
You, the reader, are now in the story. You are the protagonist. You’re taking part in the action. Not literally, obviously. Not yet anyway. Until some advances in VR second person will remain figurative.
The writer uses pronouns like you and your. In fiction, this is not a very common practice. But, you will find the second person POV a lot in non-fiction works. Instructional texts like cookbooks are written in second-person. Think, “You’ll need to preheat your oven to 450 degrees.”
Why isn’t Second Person POV popular?
The limitation of the second person perspective is that you’re asking your readers to put themselves directly into the story. This takes considerable suspension of disbelief on their part. And, it may put your reader off as they’re not used to reading this kind of narrative.
The second person point of view tells your reader that they are someone they’re not. That the events of the story are happening to them, the reader. It’s a funky style, let’s be honest. Reserved, mostly, for those “choose your adventure” books we read as children.
However, when executed well, this funkiness is the secret strength of the second-person perspective. What better way to encourage your reader to empathize with a character and experience a new perspective.
While not traditional, a story written in the second-person perspective could be a great way to set your work apart from the pack. But, only if you put in the effort to make it work. Know that an editor will ask the question- “Why did you choose second person POV?” If you don’t have an obvious answer, revealed in the text, this may be a weakness.
When it comes to digital storytelling though, second person POV could be the dominant perspective. Maybe we should start practicing…
Example of Second Person POV
“Things happen, people change,’ is what Amanda said. For her that covered it. You wanted an explanation, and ending that would assign blame and dish up justice. You considered violence and you considered reconciliation. But what you are left with is a premonition of the way your life will fade behind you, like a book you have read too quickly, leaving a dwindling trail of images and emotions, until all you can remember is a name.”
― Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City
Third Person Limited
What is Third Person Limited POV?
Take one step above the story. The narrator is no longer in the fray and action. They are on the outside looking in, commenting on the action. The narrator tells the reader what is happening, and what the perspective character is thinking and feeling.
A third person limited perspective means that we are limited (get it?) to a single character at a time. So, it’s like the first person perspective, but rather than a character speaking directly to us, the narrator is telling us what the character is doing, thinking and feeling.
How to write Third Person Limited POV
The first thing you want to do is choose a character to limit yourself to. More than likely, this will be your protagonist. You may also switch to another perspective character in your story.
However, don’t switch character perspectives within the confines of a single scene, or even a chapter. In truth, you may want to keep your perspective limited to the same character throughout the narrative.
There are examples of rotating perspective when using third person limited. Authors who do this will change the perspective characters from one character to the next. For clarity, chapters are usually named after the point of view character in that chapter.
How to describe characters in Third Person Limited POV
This is a question that comes up when writing from a limited point of view. Character descriptions can be tricky because overtly describing a non-POV character’s emotions would count as a slip in POV. You don’t want that.
Rely on the old adage- show, don’t tell. If a non-POV character is upset then have them slam a door, throw a punch, or break a window. Demonstrate emotion through action, not through adverbs.
Remember that your narration is limited physically, as well. Your narration can’t describe anything the point of view character isn’t able to see, touch, taste, hear or smell directly. The character’s eyes are your window into the world of the story. Keep this in mind when describing the different aspects of your story.
When to use Third Person Limited POV
Much like first person point of view, the third person is used when you want to limit the reader’s perspective. Use this POV when you want your readers to spend time with, and become very familiar with a character or cast of characters. When you want your reader to become attached to your protagonist(s). Third person POV is perfect for your character-driven story arcs.
Choose third person POV over first person when your story has several character arcs to explore. An example would be the Harry Potter series. Sure, Harry is important, but we care about Hermione and Ron too.
Also, the third person limited POV works well in mysteries, horrors, and crime stories. This is because you can easily hide information from your reader like you can with first person POV.
Because of its versatility, third person limited is the most popular POV in modern fiction. Readers and editors are used to reading in third person limited POV. In most cases, third person limited POV will be a good choice for your story. .
Example of Third Person Limited POV
“For the first time, he heard something that he knew to be music. He heard people singing. Behind him, across vast distances of space and time, from the place he had left, he thought he heard music too. But perhaps, it was only an echo.”
― Lois Lowry, The Giver
Third Person Omniscient POV
What is Third Person Omniscient POV?
You’re the reader, and the narrator is God. They can give you access to every character’s thoughts and feelings, at the same time. Third person omniscient is like third person limited in that the narrator is separate from the story.
However, the narrator is not limited to one character’s viewpoint when describing the story. The narrator has full knowledge of all the characters and has no preference for any single character. Common pronouns used with third person omniscient are “he,” and “she.”
How to write in Third Person Omniscient POV
Third person omniscient can be challenging as you have a lot of characters to keep up with. Each major character will need the same attention from the narrator. It can also be difficult to keep your narrative focused with the POV spread out like this.
Use this perspective to insert your own authorial voice into the narrative. As the narrator, you can comment on the action of the story, or the characters. But, beware that this is not a style of writing that is currently in vogue.
The third person omniscient POV does provide a lot of creative freedom, though. Because of the “God-like” presence of the narrator, you’re not hemmed in by a lot of rules. The author can describe anything that a character is thinking, wearing, doing, seeing, etc.
When to use Third Person Omniscient POV
Never. Just kidding, but keep this in mind:
The third person omniscient perspective, while once omnipresent, is not very popular anymore. It’s a good choice if you have a plethora of characters in your story. This is because this perspective gives you the ability to inhabit any character in the story. However, realize this will make developing any single character difficult.
Choose the third person omniscient POV when you have a very strong voice, and you want the narrative commentary to take the center stage of your story.
Example of Third Person Omniscient POV
“A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he don’t want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there. It ain’t the heart of a creature that is bound in the way that God has set for it. You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.”
― Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West
Third Person Objective POV
What is Third Person Objective POV?
In the third person objective POV, the reader does not have access to any character’s thoughts or feelings. The narrator is completely objective.
How and when to use Third Person Objective POV
Again, show don’t tell.
With third person objective, a writer will have to convey all the characters’ emotions through action alone. If you’re a beginning writer try and write at least one story in the third person objective POV. It’s good for practice.
In order to master this POV, a writer must be a keen observer of people in the real world. How do people show their emotions- on their face, in their body language, with words?
How does someone demonstrate they’re angry with their boss? A real person wouldn’t act out dramatically. They wouldn’t flip a table or punch a hole in the drywall (hopefully). Because acting like that would get them fired, probably arrested. They may, instead, make a snide remark, purse their lips, or cross their arms.
The point is, people can be very subtle in how they display their inward feelings. Many people do their best to mask emotions. Others act out for attention. As a writer, you should be able to identify these subtle tells and insert them into your story. Especially if you plan on using the third person objective.
Third person objective POV is also useful in non-fiction. A biographer can’t always comment on the thoughts of feelings of their subject. Especially if the subject has been dead for hundreds of years. In that case, they can only convey a sense of emotion through their subject’s words or actions.
Example of Third Person Objective POV
“When a friend of Abigail and John Adams was killed at Bunker Hill, Abigail’s response was to write a letter to her husband and include these words, “My bursting heart must find vent at my pen.”
― David McCullough, John Adams
Present Tense versus Past Tense in Writing
Most authors choose the past tense when writing fiction. However, some writers choose present tense for their stories. Why? Immediacy is one reason. Like with second person POV, the use of the present tense can pull a reader into a story in a way that feels intimate. They are experiencing the story along with the narrator in real time.
The downside of writing in the present tense is that you’ll be working against the grain. Most stories are told in the past tense, so unless you have a good narrative purpose for using the present tense you should probably avoid it. Without a clear purpose, using the present tense will come off as gimmicky.
But, I’m no expert on this subject and you can find a very informative post on writing in the past tense here.
Example of Present Tense POV
“I can feel Peeta press his forehead into my temple and he asks, ‘So now that you’ve got me, what are you going to do with me?’ I turn into him. ‘Put you somewhere you can’t get hurt.”
― Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
Common Point of View mistakes
What is head hopping in writing?
Head-hopping is when a writer suddenly changes the viewpoint character without purpose. A story will be narrated from one character’s point of view then that point of view shifts to another character mid-paragraph, or worst mid-sentence.
Head-hopping will leave readers feeling confused and frustrated. It’s a mistake that signals your in the hands of a careless writer. As such, head-hopping should be avoided at all costs.
How to avoid head hopping.
The obvious way to avoid this is to stay in one character’s point of view throughout a story.
If you need to shift perspective wait until a logical point like a scene or chapter break. Think of your character’s viewpoint as a camera lens. The action is being recorded by that single lens. You cannot describe anything that isn’t within the view of that single lens.
When shifting perspective, be sure to establish the change by mentioning the character’s name and something about the setting in your narration. Do this immediately to establish the shift in your reader’s mind.
Here’s an example of how to open a scene that has shifted perspective to a new character:
“Paul glanced at his watch and realized he’d been waiting in the coffee shop for over an hour.”
Who’s the POV character? Paul. Where is he? A coffee shop. What is he doing? Waiting.
Only shift the POV if it serves your narrative. And, establish any shift in POV at the opening of the scene or chapter.
What is an Inconsistent POV?
An inconsistent point of view means that the writer is switching point of view throughout the narrative. One scene may be told in the first person and the next scene’s narration switches to the third person omniscient. Like head-hopping, this will confuse your reader.
How to fix Inconsistent POV
Choose a point of view and stick to it. If your a first-time writer then the first person is the way to go. The first person point of view limits your opportunities to make mistakes like head-hopping.
Third person limited is the most widely used perspective and one that the modern reader is very comfortable with. Again, like the first person, you’re limited to a single character, and this will ensure a consistent POV.
Familiarize yourself with the rules of each of these POVs. Be mindful of what POV you’ve chosen. If your writing in the third person limited POV, don’t describe something that your POV character couldn’t possibly know.
These mistakes will probably occur in your early drafts and that’s okay. But, planning and outlining is key. As well as purposely choosing your POV. And, most importantly, find good editors! Preferably, fiction writers who are more experienced than you.
Also, don’t shift your point of view unless you have a very good narrative purpose behind the shift. I really can’t say that enough.
Choosing the wrong POV for your story
Choosing the right point of view is vital in effective storytelling. Each POV has its pros and cons. Do you want to tell a story that is an intimate character study? Use the first person. Don’t use the third person omniscient. But, if your book is an epic fantasy that spans multiple worlds or realms, then the third person is the way to go.
POV is also how you tell your reader who is important. If a writer is narrating from a single character’s point of view then the reader will assume that character is important. Using the POV of a character who is not essential to the plot will confuse your reader.
The point is, spend a lot of time thinking about what point of view you’ll use and how it will affect your reader’s experience. This should be part of your pre-writing. POV is not a decision to be taken lightly.
Too many POVs
Using more than one POV character can help give your reader a broad view of your story. It can also be used as a way of slowly revealing important plot points.
I once read a story where the author effectively used POV shifts to explain the same event four times. Each time the new character would have a different perspective on the event, like a game of telephone. It was a clever use of shifting POV.
However, if you’re shifting the POV every chapter or scene for no apparent reason than your reader will get annoyed. POV should indicate an important character. And, shifts in POV should have a narrative purpose behind them.
Choose POV characters for a reason. The reader will feel loyal to a POV character, intuitively. The POV character should have something at stake in the story, or a goal. They should be someone like, oh I don’t know, a protagonist! Or, someone equally important. Who could that be? Hmmm. Maybe, an antagonist! Don’t give the POV to any old, schlub, though.
Bottom line- don’t waste time using the POV of a character who isn’t important to your narrative. And, make sure that any shifts in POV are done for a specific narrative purpose. An example would be retelling an event of the story from a new perspective that adds new information the reader didn’t already know.
So, that’s everything I can think of when it comes to POV. Still, have questions? Drop them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them. Or check out some of these other great resources on POV!