When I first started writing fiction, I didn’t give much thought to point of view. I just started writing in whatever felt natural to me at the time, usually third person. As I learned more about the craft of writing, however, I realized that point of view is an important stylistic choice that can greatly impact how a story is told. After experimenting with different perspectives, I’ve gained a much deeper appreciation for the nuances of point of view and how writers can leverage it as a powerful storytelling tool.
In this comprehensive guide, I’ll share everything I’ve learned about the major forms of point of view in fiction: first person, second person, third person limited, third person omniscient, and even the elusive fourth person. For each type, I’ll provide clear definitions, illustrate how they work with examples, discuss genres where they’re commonly used, and point out potential pitfalls to avoid.
My goal is to provide a helpful resource for writers looking to understand point of view on a deeper level. Learning about the perspectives available to us allows us to make more intentional choices that serve our stories and connect with readers. So let’s dive in!
What is Point of View in Writing?
Point of view refers to the perspective from which a story is told – who is narrating, and how do they see the events unfolding? The point of view sets the relationship between the narrator and the reader, shaping how information is conveyed.
There are a few key elements that determine point of view:
- Narrative voice: The “I”, “you”, “he/she/they” telling the story.
- Access to information: How much does the narrator know about the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of different characters?
- Relationship to the reader: How close or distant does the narrator seem to the reader? How much can they perceive about the narrator’s own biases?
The choices made regarding these elements allow writers to control the reader’s access to the story. Let’s look at how different POV options make use of these elements.
First Person POV
In first person narrative, the story is told from the perspective of one character using “I” pronouns. The reader experiences the events through this character’s eyes. We only know this narrator’s internal thoughts, reactions, and emotions.
This creates an intimate, but limited perspective focused on the narrator’s personal interpretation of events.
The narrator may be unreliable or have limited knowledge since we only get their singular perspective. The story’s tension and mystery can be heightened as readers only know what the narrator knows.
Examples of First Person POV
Here are some more examples of sentences written in the first person point of view:
- I love waking up early to watch the sunrise.
- My sister and I fought over the last cookie, but she snatched it before I could.
- When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut.
- Yesterday was the worst day ever! I failed my math test and my best friend moved away.
- I grabbed my lucky fishing hat and headed down to the river, hoping to finally catch that legendary trout.
Common Genres for First Person POV
Some genres of fiction that commonly employ first person narration include:
- Young Adult: The immediacy of first person aligns well with coming-of-age stories and teen protagonists. Examples include The Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars, Twilight.
- Science Fiction: First person lends itself to conveying awe and high stakes in sci-fi scenarios. Examples include The Martian, Flowers for Algernon, Ready Player One.
- Urban Fantasy/Paranormal: Supernatural events can feel more vivid and accessible through a direct firsthand account. Examples include the Sookie Stackhouse series, The Dresden Files.
- Memoir: Real-life stories benefit from the intimacy and personal voice offered by first person. Examples include Educated, The Glass Castle, Night.
The limited perspective of first person provides focus, immediacy, and connection to the protagonist. However, it narrows the scope of what the narrator – and in turn the reader – can perceive.
Second Person POV
The least common perspective in fiction is second person, where the narrator refers to the reader as “you”. This creates a direct, conversational tone that pulls the reader into the protagonist’s experiences.
However, the reader does not get access to the internal thoughts of this character they embody. The narrator describes the physical sensations, actions, and dialog as they unfold around “you.” This adds vividness but distances the reader from the inner workings of the character they inhabit.
Examples of Second Person POV
Here are some sample sentences written in second person point of view:
- You look in the mirror and barely recognize the person staring back at you.
- Grabbing your suitcase, you head downstairs to catch your early flight.
- As you crawl through the damp cave, you hope the treasure map is correct.
- Nervously, you walk on stage and wave to the massive crowd waiting for your speech.
- The librarian tells you to keep your voice down or you’ll have to leave.
Common Genres for Second Person POV
While less common overall, second person narration can be powerful in certain contexts:
- Short Stories: The intimacy of second person is well-suited to compact stories. Examples include Sandra Cisneros’ Eleven.
- Poetry: Poems often address the reader as “you”, seeking to provoke emotion or ponder universal experiences.
- Interactive Fiction: Second person aligns well with the participatory nature of “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories and text-based games.
- Nonfiction: Second person is frequently used in self-help books, guides, and listicles to directly address the reader.
Second person narration brings readers closer to the action. But its unfamiliarity to most readers makes it difficult to sustain for long stretches.
Third Person Limited POV
In third person limited, the story follows the experiences of one character by referring to them with pronouns like “he” or “she.” The narrator has insight into this character’s viewpoint, revealing their thoughts, feelings, and motivations to the reader.
However, the narrator cannot tap into the inner lives of secondary characters, and can only see the thoughts of the viewpoint character (one at a time). Events not directly witnessed by the central character must be described objectively.
Limiting the narrative to one perspective creates mystery around other characters’ knowledge and motivations.
Examples of Third Person Limited POV
Some more sentences demonstrating third person limited point of view:
- Staring at the canvas, she felt overwhelmed, without a single idea for her next painting.
- As he boarded the plane, he wondered if he would ever see his hometown again.
- She wanted to tell him the truth, but couldn’t find the right words.
- They put on brave faces, but each knew their supplies would run out in a matter of days.
- No matter how he tried, he just couldn’t fall asleep the night before the marathon.
Common Genres for Third Person Limited POV
Some genres that make frequent use of a third person limited point of view include:
- Romance: Third person limited allows insight into how both main characters feel, from alternating perspectives. Examples include Pride and Prejudice, The Notebook.
- Mystery/Thriller: The limited perspective builds tension and suspense by restricting what both the protagonist and reader know. Examples include Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train.
- Historical Fiction: Third person limited allows immersion in a historical setting without the awkwardness of a protagonist speaking modern slang. Examples include The Book Thief, The Pillars of the Earth.
By zooming in on one character’s perspective, third person limited balances intimacy with narrative distance. However, it also necessarily limits the scope of the narrator’s knowledge.
Third Person Omniscient POV
An omniscient third person narrator acts as an unrestricted observer, providing insights into any character’s perspective. It shifts flexibly across scenes to describe different characters’ inner lives, situations, and histories.
Providing a multi-perspective view of events, characters, and storylines. However, jumping between character heads can distance readers as they must reorient themselves to each new point of view.
Examples of Third Person Omniscient POV
Some additional examples of third person omniscient point of view:
- The coach saw great potential in the young athlete, even if the player lacked confidence in themself.
- The smell of pie baking in the oven made the children excited for dessert, though their parents planned to serve vegetables first.
- As the fog rolled in, each sailor quietly hoped the rumors of sea monsters were pure fiction.
- The bitter feud between the two families stretched back generations, though neither could remember how it first started.
- While the kingdom celebrated the royal wedding, political tensions brewed in the background unnoticed.
Common Genres for Third Person Omniscient POV
Some genres that lend themselves well to an omniscient third person point of view include:
- Epic Fantasy: Omniscient narration allows sprawling world-building across locations, cultures, and character perspectives. Examples include The Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire.
- Historical Fiction: An omniscient vantage point permits exploration of the thoughts, motivations, and societal forces driving historical events. Examples include War and Peace, Gone with the Wind.
- Satire: Comedy and social commentary benefit from an omniscient narrator’s freedom to irony and sarcasm. Examples include Gulliver’s Travels, Candide.
Though not as intimate in tone, third person omniscient grants expansive narrative freedom. The challenge is balancing widespread access with narrative coherence and reader connection.
Fourth Person POV
Extremely rare in fiction is the elusive fourth person point of view, where the narrator refers to characters using indefinite pronouns like “one”, “you”, or “people”.
Examples of Fourth Person POV
Here are some additional examples of fourth person point of view:
- One ought to dress nicely when meeting one’s girlfriend’s parents for the first time.
- You can only resist temptation for so long before you give in, he justified to himself.
- Someone has to take responsibility when things go wrong, she determined, even if it’s unclear who is at fault.
- People will talk no matter what you do, so you should ignore the gossip, he thought angrily.
- One has to grow and change throughout life, even if one feels afraid, she told herself.
Fourth person POV is highly uncommon, but adds an extra layer of distance and uncertainty. The vagueness of pronouns like “one” and “people” generalizes the story, losing intimacy.
Switching Point of View: Can You?
Generally, it’s wise to choose one main point of view and stick with it for narrative cohesion. But some authors do switch between perspectives, either between scenes, chapters, or even within chapters.
If you do choose to shift points of view, here are some tips to ensure it’s not jarring:
- Use scene or chapter breaks as transition points for a new POV. This prepares the reader for the change.
- Open each section by establishing the POV character – name them in the first sentences so it’s clear whose eyes we’re now looking through.
- Limit yourself to 1-3 POV characters in a single story. Jumping between 10 different perspectives will quickly confuse readers.
- Consider using different first person narrators if you want to maintain the intimacy of first person while exploring multiple POVs.
- Avoid rapid head-hopping – don’t jump between POVs within the same scene, especially without any transitions.
When done skillfully, changing perspectives can reveal new angles and enrich the narrative. But take care not to give readers whiplash by shifting POVs too abruptly or frequently.
What is the Difference Between Third Person Limited and Third Person Omniscient?
Third person limited and omniscient may sound similar on the surface – they both use third person pronouns like “he” and “she.” But the crucial difference lies in how much narrative access the author has to the inner lives of the characters.
In third person limited, the author can only reveal the thoughts, feelings, and perspective of a single character at a time. We experience events through the lens of that character’s limited knowledge and perceptions.
In third person omniscient, the author has unlimited access – like a god overlooking the characters and their world. The narrator can reveal anything about any character at any time, revealing their secret motivations, unknown pasts, hidden agendas, and more.
Third person omniscient affords much greater narrative freedom, though some argue this comes at the expense of character intimacy provided by a limited perspective. Ultimately, it comes down to whichever aligns best with your creative vision and story needs.
How to Choose the Right Point of View
With all these options to consider, how do you determine the most fitting point of view for your story? Here are some factors to consider when deciding which POV to use:
- Genre conventions – Research POVs commonly used in your genre. For example, YA often uses first person, omniscient third person is common in fantasy. Don’t feel bound by conventions, but be aware of reader expectations.
- Character intimacy – First person and third person limited create closer bonds between readers and individual characters. Omniscient third is more distant.
- Structure flexibility – Omniscient third allows more flexibility to explore storylines involving many characters across settings and time periods.
- Information control – First person and limited third limit what readers can know to a character’s subjective view. Omniscient provides more leeway to reveal objective truths.
- Tone – First person lends itself to conversational, humorous, or introspective tones. Omniscient can more easily strike a serious, sweeping, epic tone.
There’s no universally “right” choice – each offers trade-offs and is better suited to different stories. Ultimately you have to feel out which perspective resonates most with your vision. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
The exciting journey of developing your novel often begins in first steps – establishing point of view, introducing a narrator, deciding where to start. As you move forward, remember that each choice regarding perspective opens some doors while closing others. But restrictions can spur creativity and insight.
This is what makes point of view such a key technical consideration – and such a useful art. It shapes our eyes and guides our steps into the story. So take the time to make intentional choices, know both the powers and limits of your chosen perspective, and then make full use of the vehicle you have. Where it can take you – and your readers – may surprise you wonderfully along the way.