Point of View
Point of view in fiction means what parts of the story the reader can see.
Think of the reader as a ghost. The characters don’t know the reader is there (usually) and the reader can move anywhere in the story very quickly. However, it is up to the writer, where they go. There are four main types of points of view that are used in fiction. These are 1st Person, 2nd Person, 3rd Person Limited and 3rd Person Omniscient.
The Three People
You might wonder why we label points of view with numbers. That is because when we think of a story, there are three people involved. These are:
1. The Storyteller
The most important person for a story is the storyteller since there is no story until someone tells it. Every story has to have a storyteller. They are also called the narrator. They might be in the story or might be outside of it.
2. The Reader/Listener
The next most important person is the person reading the story. I will call them the reader here since we are talking about written stories, but if you tell a story out loud, then this person would be the listener, or the viewer if it is TV or a movie.
3. Another person
This is anyone else besides the first two people.
Imagine I come up to you and say, “Oh wow, do I have a story for you!” In this situation, I am the story teller and you are the listener. The next question is why is the story about? That is the question answered by the point of view. If the story is about the storyteller (Person #1), it is 1st Person; if it is about the Reader/Listener (Person #2), it is 2nd person; if it about someone else (Person #3), it is 3rd person.
Types of Point of View
1st Person Point of View
As we just said, this is a story about the storyteller. So, the story will use “I”, “my”, etc. and the reader will stay with the storyteller, sensing everything they sense and listening to their thoughts.
I was almost finished the test when my carefully calculated answer to question #75 was covered by a splotch of red. It wasn’t until another drop joined it that I realized my nose was bleeding. Dear God, not again. I dropped my pencil and pinched my nose while fumbling for a tissue.
With 1st Person point of view, we have access to all the thoughts and feelings of that one character. The advantage of this is that we get to know that person very well. The disadvantage is that we are stuck inside their head for the whole story. If you choose 1st Person, make sure the character is interesting enough to keep the reader engaged for the whole story.
2nd Person Point of View
This is a story about the reader, which you can imagine is very rare in fiction. After all, why you would tell someone a story about themselves? The only advantage of this type of point of view for fiction is to make the reader feel like they are in the story.
You wake up to find a huge lizard crouched by your bed, looking at you. This isn’t normal, you realize. What happened to the giant snake? You slip out of bed, moving slowly.
The most common places you’ll see this point of view is with directions (e.g. “Go down the straight, turn left and you’ll see a post office. Go past that and turn right…”) or with role-playing games, where a game master will describe what the players are seeing (e.g. “You open the door and see a huge room, full of treasure…”).
The main problem with using 2nd Person in fiction is that you are telling the reader that they are in the story, but the reader knows they are not in the story, so this makes it difficult to believe. There are times when it might work, but I wouldn’t recommend it most of the time.
3nd Person Limited Point of View
In this type of story, the storyteller is telling the reader a story about another person (a third person). There could be lots of people in the story, but with 3rd Person Limited, the reader stays with one person and only knows what they see and hear. In that way, it is similar to 1st Person since we are only know what one person is seeing and thinking.
The wind was as soft as a mother’s kiss and made Ellie sleepy. She thought back to that first day she had stepped out of the spacecraft onto this plain, so full of a hundred types of anxiety. Now they had made a life here. It was not necessarily the life she had dreamed of, but it was theirs. She looked over at Randolph, sitting by the fire. She wondered if he felt the same way.
In this scene we have two people (Ellie and Randolph) but we are only following Ellie. We know what she is thinking and feeling but we don’t know what Randolph is feeling. We can only guess based on what Ellie knows and thinks.
3rd Person Omniscient
The word omniscient means “knowing everything”. That means that the reader can hear the thoughts of anyone in the story or anything else, including what happened in the past or what will happen in the future. In this kind of story, the storyteller and the reader are both watching the story happen for high above, not just in the head of one person. Let’s look at the example from before, but written in 3rd Person Omniscient:
The wind was soft as a mother’s kiss and made Ellie sleepy. She thought back to that first day she had stepped out of the spacecraft onto this plain, so full of a hundred types of anxiety. Now they had made a life here. It was not necessarily the life she had dreamed of, but it was hers.
By the fire, Randolph was wrestling with his thoughts. He needed to get away, but he did not want to hurt Ellie either. This house and this life that was the same every day felt like a blanket covering him, blocking out the air and light.
In this example, we can hear the thoughts and feelings of both characters at the same time. This is useful if we need to know what several people are thinking to understand the story. The disadvantage is that we don’t get to know any one character very well. It can also be confusing it we are reading the thoughts of many people at a time.
Which Point of View Should You Choose?
The best points of view to use most of the time are 1st Person or 3rd Person Limited, but here is a table that shows the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Other Points to Consider
Switching Points of View
If your story is all about one person and what happens to them, it is okay to use 1st Person. However, if it is a big story with several parts, it would be best to use 3rd Person since you have the option to change points of view.
However, even if you do switch points of view, it is good not to do it too many times. A general rule in writing fiction is the smallest amount possible, so if you can tell a story through 3 points of view, don’t use 6.
An example of this is The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit is a shorter story and is told completely through the perspective of Bilbo. When he gets knocked out near the end of the story, we don’t find out what happens after that until he wakes up and the others tell him what happened. The story is all about him and we get to know him very well.
The Lord of the Rings is a much bigger story with many more characters. It is told mostly through the points of view of the four main hobbits (Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin); however, if they are all together it is told through Frodo or Sam’s point of view only. Only when they are separated is it told through the other two (it is told from other points of view too, but if any of the hobbits are there, it is told through their points of view).
Do not switch between 1st, 2nd and 3rd Person point of view in a story. There are examples of stories that do this, but it is difficult to do and can be very confusing for the reader. Also, you should not switch between two characters when using 1st Person. It is possible but can be very confusing. Here is an example of what it might be like if you did not signal it.
Mandy skipped up the block, waving at everyone she saw.
The old man sat on his porch and watched the girl go past.
I skipped up the block, waving at everyone I saw.
I sat on my porch, watching the girl go by.
The first one is perfectly clear but the second one is not at all. Switching like this can cause a “Wait, what?” moment, which is usually a bad thing.
Can you lie in a story? Of course you can, but why would you? Let’s look at this example to see:
“I didn’t take your money!” Yasser shouted. “Just leave me alone.”
Yasser had actually taken the fifty dollars from his mother’s purse the night before and now it was pushed into the very back of his T-shirt drawer.
In this example, we have two people saying two different things. Yasser is saying he didn’t take the money but the storyteller is saying he did. Who do we believe? The storyteller, of course. That is because Yasser has a reason to lie (he doesn’t want to get in trouble) but the storyteller has no reason to lie.
Now, let’s say that Yasser is the storyteller, meaning the story is in 1st Person point of view. Here is how it might look.
“I didn’t take your money,” I shouted. “Just leave me alone.”
Did he take the money? We have no idea. We tend to believe him, but when the story is in 1st Person, he might be lying too. So, 1st Person is good for stories where the storyteller might not be trustworthy. This could also be good for stories where the character is insane, or has memory loss or is lying to themselves about something. They say one thing but through the story we realize that what they say is not true.
Now it’s your turn
- Look at a book you are reading now. What point of view does it use? If it is 3rd Person, is it a limited or omniscient point of view? How would the story be different if it had a different point of view?
- Look at a story you have written. What point of view did you use? How would the story be different with a different point of view? Would it be better with a different point of view?
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.