We all have a point of view, and we know that our characters probably have one too. We’ve heard that point of view is crucial to story telling, but what does that phrase mean exactly? Below is a complete guide with examples to get you started on your POV journey.
Point of view refers to who is narrating the story, and to whom. Sometimes the narrator is a character, this is first person POV. Sometimes the narrator is an outside observer of the story, this is third person. Sometimes the narrator is speaking directly to one person, this is second person.
What is the difference between a narrator, a character, and an author?
The author is the real life person who writes the story (you). The narrator is a character or person who tells the story. A narrator can be fictional, or it can be the real life author. A character is an entirely fictional being within the story. This is complex but soon it will seem easy!
What is first person point of view?
In first person POV you tell the story from one individual’s perspective using “I” e.g. “I went to the shops”. First person can be from the author’s perspective, or from a fictional narrator’s perspective. These are stories that use “I”, but where the narrator is not the author.
What is third person point of view?
Third person is when the narrator tells the reader about the events of the story but the narrator is not a character within the story world. The narrator uses “He / She / It / They / Them” to refer to characters e.g. “They went to the shops”.
Third person is often omniscient or limited.
In third person omniscient the narrator knows everything about the world being described, as though the narrator were a God in the world.
For instance, ‘The universe unfolded in this way until Harry looked into his soul and decided to walk to the shops. Little did he know that across the world thousands of others were preparing to do the same thing.’
A style that is very popular at the moment is third person limited. This is when the narrator has roughly the same amount of knowledge as the character they are describing, and can more or less only know what the characters know or what the audience can infer from the narration.
What is second person point of view?
Second person is when the narrator directly addresses the reader. The narrator may be the author or a character. The narrator uses “You” e.g. “You walk to the shops”. Second person is used far less frequently than first and third person as it feels less natural but can be an effective tool.
One interesting and unsettling effect that can be utilised in second person is making the reader complicit in an action that makes them feel uncomfortable.
This might perhaps make the reader aware of how strongly they reject the action being described.
For instance, ‘You take no pity on the worker who comes to you to complain about workplace bullying.’
Doesn’t that make you wish you have been more supportive of the poor person?
Does it matter which point of view I write in?
Some readers have preferences for which style they enjoy the most, so it may matter to the reader. First and third person tend to be more popular than second, which is worth remembering. The point of view can also affect what is written, not just how it is written.
What are some point of view exercises?
Take a photograph of the natural world, or an urban landscape. Now describe what you see in first person from the point of view of someone whose close relative has just died. Now describe that scene in third person. Now describe it in second person. Big difference, right? POV impacts perspective.
Can a third person narrator be a character in a story?
Usually a third person narrator is not a character in a story. If the narrator is a character then they can use “I” to refer to themselves while narrating, and this means that the story is now being told in the first person. There are of course exceptions to every rule and breaking rules is part of writing.
What is free indirect discourse?
If there is always a narrator in a story, aren’t we always hearing the story from the perspective of the narrator, and therefore isn’t a story always in first person? The answer is no. In third person the narrator takes up a neutral point of view, by positioning themselves outside of the story world.
Now things begin to get a bit more complex. Often you will see an “unobtrusive narrator”, who is trying to hide and pretend they are just an impartial reporter (they never truly are, right?). This is the game of third person, even though every point of view is a narrator, in third the identity of narrator is deliberately obscured, like a reporter who doesn’t refer to themselves.
Sometimes the perspective of the character and the perspective of the narrator appear to blend. What’s happening in this instance is what the literary critic James Woods calls ‘Free Indirect Discourse’. The narrator will suddenly be ‘speaking’ as if they are the protagonist.
It’s a way to bring the narrator in third person into closer alignment with the consciousness of the character they are describing, so that the narrator appears to enter the mind of the character, and be the character for a moment. e.g. “He walked to the shops. After all, wasn’t that what was needed?”
In this example the narrator has described the actions of character as though the narrator has intimate access to the interior spaces of the character, without having to write ‘he thought.’
This is a very useful technique, and doesn’t always come naturally to writers. So we recommend that you research it, and practice it. It’s definitely worth the time and effort.
Can a story have more than one or multiple points of view?
Some stories feature more than one, or multiple points of view. This is not a technique that is used as often as utilizing a singular point of view. Having multiple points of view can sometimes be jarring for a reader, and make them aware of the writing, rather than the story.
This is not always the case though and there are lots of techniques to make multiple points of view easy and rewarding to read. It’s relatively easy to do using free indirect discourse, as described above. That technique will allow the narrator character to enter the POV of as many different characters as they like: it’s a handy little trick.
Next you might be wondering who this narrator character you’ve created is, and how they differ from your own POV. Then you’ll start to wonder if you have a stable POV at all. Then the universe will implode.
But before it does, you will consider books like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying which relates the same events from the first person perspective of a number of different characters. You can have multiple first person points of view in a story (usually divided up into one character per chapter).
Or you have a passage in a novel told in first person, in a novel which is otherwise in third person. For example, No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy.
We hope this has helped to make point of view a little bit clearer. Don’t worry if it gets confusing again, it’s always good to revisit the rules and have a think about how to break them, or what combinations of point of view you can use to serve your story and your readers best.