Picking a point-of-view (POV) might be the most important decision for a story. You may default to first-person or third-person limited. After all, they are the POVs you most often see in fiction and maybe those are the ones you’re most comfortable with as a writer. Still, you need to understand the effect that all narrative POVs have on a story, including the one you consider the “easiest.”
How do the points of view differ?
First-person point-of-view: The narrator is a character in the story and uses “I” to refer to themselves, as in “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath.
Second-person point-of-view: The narrator addresses the reader directly as “you.” This is not as common as the other points of view. Check out “Bright Lights, Big City” by Jay McInerney for a classic example of how it’s done.
Third-person point-of-view: The narrator is not a character in the story and uses “he, she, they,” etc. to refer to the characters. There are three types of third-person point of view:
- Third-person limited: The narrator only reveals what one character is thinking and feeling. Point of view may shift to another character after a scene or chapter break or an entire novel may stick with a single POV character.
- Third-person omniscient: The narrator knows everything about all the characters and selectively reveals their thoughts and feelings — or even information that none of the characters could know. Arguably very difficult to do well. This “god-like” narrative style went out of fashion in the 20th century, though there are hints of a comeback in the 21st.
- Third-person objective: The narrator only reports on what is happening and does not reveal any character’s thoughts or feelings. In “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway, this narrative style is used to heighten the sense of tension in the story, as the two characters avoid talking about the very thing that’s most on their minds.
There is no right or wrong point of view for a story. Only successful or unsuccessful execution. The choice of POV depends on the story you want to tell and how you want to tell it. Consider what will allow you to most effectively convey the emotions and experiences of your characters, create the tone you want for your story, and, of course, the genre conventions your readers expect.
Genre and POV
It’s important to consider the genre of your story when choosing a point of view, as it can affect how the story is told and the effect it has on the reader, especially if you are writing commercial fiction.
Mystery and suspense novels often use the first-person or third-person limited point of view to create a sense of mystery and tension. The sleuth doesn’t know what’s around the next corner — and nor do you.
Romance novels often use the first-person or third-person point of view to allow the reader to get close to the thoughts and feelings of the main characters, creating a strong sense of intimacy and relatability.
In contrast, fantasy and science fiction novels often create a greater distance between the characters and the reader. In these stories, third-person POV depicts story events from multiple perspectives, creating a larger scope and providing a wider view of the world.
There are no rules, though. There are intimate first-person fantasy and science fiction stories. In Golden Age detective fiction, there is omniscient narration, though it’s hard to pull off in a modern whodunnit and still build mystery and tension.
As I mentioned above, if you are writing commercial fiction — i.e. you want to sell a lot of books to a lot of readers — then you should pay attention to the POV used in most stories in that genre.
For mainstream fiction, the choice is often between first-person an third-person limited POV.
The benefits of first-person POV
With first-person point of view (POV), the narrator is the main character. There’s no distance between the two, and that can create a strong sense of intimacy, bringing the reader close to the action. It can be a good choice for stories that are heavy on dialogue and inner monologue, as it allows the narrator to directly express their thoughts and feelings to the reader. In fact, narrators in first-person POV stories often have the strongest, most distinctive voices (e.g. Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”).
First-person POV stories often have an immediacy that’s particularly effective in thrillers or stories where the main character faces a serious threat (e.g. Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” or Harlan Coben’s “Tell No One”).
For the first-person narrative to succeed, the main character needs to be well developed. One thing I’ve seen in story drafts that fall flat is a main character who is bland and passive. Often in those stories, there is another character — one the narrator observes — that is much more interesting. The writer should consider changing the point of view character or developing the narrator further. If you recognize this problem, try this: Rewrite a scene from the other character’s point of view to see if the story comes alive.
The benefits of third-person limited POV
The third-person limited point of view (POV) also provides access to the thoughts and feelings of a character. As with first-person POV, the narration can give the reader a strong sense of intimacy and connection with the POV character. But since the narrator describes the actions of “he, she, they, etc.,” there can be more distance between narrator and character, and the reader may not expect as much inner monologue as with first-person POV narration.
Plus, since the narrator is not the main character, you have two levels of voice in the story:
- The voice of the narrator.
- The voice of the main character — as filtered through the narrator.
Here’s an example:
Greg didn’t curse. He didn’t yell at the vanishing cattle. He simply got up and dusted off his jeans, thinking what a lucky bastard he was to have survived the fall.
The herd had rounded the bend. Only the dust in the air and the distant thunder of hooves told him the cattle weren’t miles away already. Soon they would be, though.
His horse walked in the brush, nudging the ground innocently, as if the stupid animal hadn’t just thrown him off.
Who’s the stupid one, huh, Greg? Who insisted on going out alone today?
He sighed and scratched the back of his neck. Well, he’d made a real mess of things, hadn’t he?
The narrator is outside of Greg but close enough that we readers can both see him and hear his thoughts. One way to think of narration and point of view is a zoom function. In the passage above, the narration zooms in and out, depending on whether we’re viewing Greg from outside or getting his thoughts.
This zooming has to be smooth, and with third-person limited POV, the writer has to be careful not to jump into another head in the same scene or allow the narrator to reveal information that the main character couldn’t know.
What happens when POV breaks?
Point-of-view (POV) can fall apart. It happens all the time in first drafts, even in third or fourth drafts. The “zoom” of POV is a subtle tool and it can easily go flying off to the wrong places.
In fact, if the point of view changes too frequently within the same story, readers will get confused. This happens a lot in third-person stories. For example, a scene is told from character A’s perspective, but then midway through the scene, the narrative zooms in on character B and we get their thoughts. Then it’s back to character A. This is called head hopping. It can be confusing.
It’s best to choose a point of view and stick with it through a scene.
Most short stories will stick with one point of view character from beginning to end. Sometimes two is done by experienced writers. But once you get to three or four, you have to be masterful to pull it off in such a short form.
In a long novel you can move around more, but consider that every time you provide access to a character, the reader will expect that character to be developed further — resist the temptation to give access to a character’s thoughts because it’s convenient for the plot, never to return to that characters interiority again.
Mixing first and third-person point of view is rare. But it happens. Charles Dickens does it in “Bleak House,” with some chapters in third-person omniscient narration and others in first-person. But even Dickens was criticized for this choice, and some readers found it jarring. If it were done within the same scene, the whole thing would likely fall apart.
In the passage about Greg, the narrator provides direct access to the main character’s thoughts. Those thoughts are set off in italics to make it easy for the reader to understand that “now it’s Greg talking.” He’s not talking to the reader, of course, and if he were, the readers would probably get mighty confused. They’d ask, Why is Greg suddenly the narrator? I thought I was reading a third-person story…
Another error might be that Greg isn't speaking to us, but the narrator is. In most contemporary fiction, readers expect the third-person narrator to be impartial, unobtrusive. In 18th and 19th century fiction, authorial intrusion wasn't shocking. It is today. So avoid the temptation to drop information into your narrative that the main character couldn't know – or wouldn't agree with – simply becuse it's conventient.
Generally speaking, choose a single point of view and stick with it.
Experimenting with point of view can be gratifying, and if you pull off a difficult point-of-view trick, the effect on the story — and its readers — can be profound. In Henry James’s classic ghost story, “The Turn of the Screw,” we get layers of narration that make what happens questionable: Was there really a haunting or was the governess tormenting the children?
But if you’re writing mainstream commercial fiction, your readers may have less appetite for such subtleties. They want a ripping yarn that isn’t complicated by point of view.
The novice writer, whether interested in commercial or literary fiction, should keep it simple. Telling a good story is difficult enough without a complex approach to point of view.
Start with first-person or third-person limited — whichever you are most comfortable with — and get writing. Then try the other POV for your next story. The more you write, the better you will become at managing the effects of point of view.