As an editor, point of view problems are among the top mistakes I see inexperienced writers make, and they instantly erode credibility and reader trust. Point of view isn’t easy though, since there are so many to choose from: first person, third person limited, third person omniscient, second person.
What do those even mean? And how do you choose the right one for your story?
All stories are written from a point of view. However, when point of view goes wrong—and believe me, it goes wrong often—you threaten whatever trust you have with your reader and fracture their suspension of disbelief.
However, point of view is simple to master if you use common sense.
This post will define point of view, go over each of the major POVs, explain a few of the POV rules, and then point out the major pitfalls writers make when dealing with that point of view.
Point of View Definition
Point of view, or POV, refers to two things in writing:
- A point of view in a discussion, an argument, or nonfiction writing is an opinion, the way you think about a subject.
- In a story, the point of view is the narrator’s position in the description of events.
In this article, we’re going to focus on the second point of view definition. The first definition is helpful for nonfiction writers, and for more information, I recommend checking out Wikipedia’s neutral point of view policy.
Point of view comes from the Latin word, punctum visus, which literally means point sight, suggesting it’s where you point your sight.
I especially like the German word for it though, which is Gesichtpunkt, translated face point, or where your face is pointed. Isn’t that a good visual for what’s involved in point of view?
Note too that point of view is sometimes called “narrative mode.”
Why Point of View Is So Important
Why does point of view matter so much?
Because point of view filters everything in your story. Everything in your story must come from a point of view.
Which means if you get it wrong, your entire story is damaged.
For example, I just finished judging a writing contest for Becoming Writer. I personally read and judged over ninety stories, and I found point of view mistakes in about twenty percent of them, including a few stories that would have placed much higher if only the writers hadn’t made the mistakes we’re going to talk about later.
The worst part is these mistakes are easily avoidable if you’re aware of them. But before we get into the common point of view mistakes, let’s go over each of the four types of POV.
The 4 Types of Point of View
Here are the four primary POV types in fiction:
- First person point of view. First person is when “I” am telling the story. The character is in the story, relating his or her experiences directly.
- Second person point of view. The story is told to “you.” This POV is not common in fiction, but it’s still good to know (it is common in nonfiction).
- Third person point of view, limited. The story is about “he” or “she.” This is the most common point of view in commercial fiction. The narrator is outside of the story and relating the experiences of a character.
- Third person point of view, omniscient. The story is still about “he” or “she,” but the narrator has full access to the thoughts and experiences of all characters in the story.
I know you’ve seen and probably even used most of these point of views.
Let’s discuss each of the four types, using examples to see how they affect your story. We’ll also go over the rules for each type, but first let me explain the big mistake you don’t want to make with point of view:
Don’t Make This Point of View Mistake
Once you pick a point of view, you’re stuck with it.
Do not begin your story in first person and then switch to third person. Do not start with third person limited and then abruptly give your narrator full omniscience.
The guideline I learned in my first creative writing class in college is a good one:
Establish the point of view within the first two paragraphs of your story.
And above all, don’t change your point of view. If you do, you’ll threaten your reader’s trust and could fracture the architecture of your story.
That being said, I recently finished a 7,000 page novel called Worm which uses two point of views—first person with interludes of third-person limited—very effectively. By the way, if you’re looking for a novel to read over the next two to six months, I highly recommend it (here’s the link to read for free online).
The first time the author switched point of views, he nearly lost my trust. However, he kept this dual-POV consistent over 7,000 pages and made it work.
Whatever point of view choices you make, be consistent.
First Person Point of View
In first person point of view, the narrator is in the story and relating the events he or she is personally experiencing.
First person point of view example:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.
—Moby Dick by Herman Melville
First person point of view is one of the most common POVs in fiction. If you haven’t read a book in first person point of view, you haven’t been reading.
What makes this point of view interesting, and challenging, is that all of the events in the story are filtered through the narrator and explained in his or her own unique voice. This means first person narrative is both biased and incomplete.
First person narrative is unique to writing
There’s no such thing as first person in film or theater—although voiceovers and mockumentary interviews like the ones in The Office and Modern Family provide a level of first person narrative in third person film and television.
In fact, the very first novels were written in first person, modeled after popular journals and autobiographies.
First person point of view is limited
First person narrators cannot be everywhere at once and thus cannot get all sides of the story. They are telling their story, not necessarily the story.
First person point of view is biased
In first person novels, the reader almost always sympathizes with a first person narrator, even if the narrator is an anti-hero with major flaws.
Of course, this is why we love first person narrative, because it’s imbued with the character’s personality, their unique perspective on the world.
Unreliable narrators. Some novelists use the limitations of first person narrative to surprise the reader, a technique called unreliable narrator, in which the audience discovers the narrator’s version of events can’t be trusted.
For example, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl pits two unreliable narrators against each other, each relating their conflicting version of events, one through typical narration and the other through journal entries.
Other Interesting Uses of First Person Narrative:
- The classic novel Heart of Darkness is actually a first person narrative within a first person narrative. The narrator recounts verbatim the story Charles Marlow tells about his trip up the Congo river while they sit at port in England.
- William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom is told from the first person point of view of Quentin Compson; however, most of the story is a third person account of Thomas Sutpen, his grandfather, as told to Quentin by Rosa Coldfield. Yes, it’s just as complicated as it sounds!
- Salman Rushdie’s award winning Midnight’s Children is told in first person, but spends most of the first several hundred pages giving a precise third person account of the narrator’s ancestors. It’s still first person, just a first person narrator telling a story about someone else.
2 Big Mistakes Writers Make with First Person Point of View
When writing in first person, there are two major mistakes writers make:
1. The narrator isn’t likable. Your protagonist doesn’t have to be a cliché hero. She doesn’t even need to be good. However, she must be interesting. The audience will not stick around for 300 pages listening to a character they don’t enjoy. This is one reason why anti-heroes make great first person narrators. They may not be morally perfect, but they’re almost always interesting.
2. The narrator tells but doesn’t show. The danger with first person is that you could spend too much time in your character’s head, explaining what he’s thinking and how he feels about the situation. You’re allowed to mention the character’s mood, but don’t forget that your readers trust and attention relies on what your character does, not what he thinks about doing.
Second Person Point of View
While not used often in fiction—it is used regularly in nonfiction, song lyrics, and even video games—second person POV is still good helpful to understand.
In this point of view, the narrator is relating the experiences of another character called “you.” Thus, you become the protagonist, you carry the plot, and your fate determines the story.
We’ve written elsewhere about why you should try writing in second person, but in short we like second person because it:
- Pulls the reader into the action of the story
- Makes the storypersonal
- Surprises the reader
- Stretches your skills as a writer
Here’s an example of second person point of view:
You have friends who actually care about you and speak the language of the inner self. You have avoided them of late. Your soul is as disheveled as your apartment, and until you can clean it up a little you don’t want to invite anyone inside.
—Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
Novels that use second person point of view. Second person point of view isn’t used frequently, however there are some notable examples of it.
Remember the Choose Your Own Adventure series? If you’ve ever read one of these novels where you get to decide the fate of the character (I always killed my character, unfortunately), you’ve read second person narrative.
Bright Lights, Big City, the breakout bestseller by Jay McInerney about the New York City nightlife and drug scene in the 1980s, is probably the most popular example of a second person novel.
However, there are many experimental novels and short stories that use second person, and writers such as William Faulkner, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Albert Camus played with the style.
Breaking the fourth wall. In the plays of William Shakespeare, a character will sometimes turn toward the audience and speak directly to them. “If we shadows have offended,” Puck says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “think but this, and all is mended, that you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear.”
This technique of speaking directly to the audience or the reader is called breaking the fourth wall (the other three walls being the setting of the story). To think of it another way, it’s a way the writer can briefly use second person in a first or third person narrative.
It’s a lot of fun! You should try it.
Third Person Point of View
In third person, the narrator is outside of the story and relating the experiences of a character. The central character is not the narrator. In fact, the narrator is not present in the story at all.
An example of third person limited point of view:
A breeze ruffled the neat hedges of Privet Drive, which lay silent and tidy under the inky sky, the very last place you would expect astonishing things to happen. Harry Potter rolled over inside his blankets without waking up. One small hand closed on the letter beside him and he slept on, not knowing he was special, not knowing he was famous…. He couldn’t know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices: “To Harry Potter—the boy who lived!”
—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
There are two types of this point of view:
Third Person Omniscient
The narrator has full access to all the thoughts and experiences of all the characters in the story.
Third Person Limited.
The narrator has only some, if any, access to the thoughts and experiences of the characters in the story, often just to one character.
However, this distinction is messy and somewhat artificial. Full omniscience in novels is rare—it’s almost always limited in some way—if only because the human mind isn’t comfortable handling all the thoughts and emotions of multiple people at once.
The most important consideration in third person point of view is this:
How omniscient are you going to be? How deep are you going to go into your character’s minds? Will you read their thoughts frequently and deeply at any chance? Or will you rarely, if ever, delve into their emotions?
To see this question in action, imagine a couple having an argument. Tina wants Fred to go to the store to pickup the cilantro she forgot she needed for the meal she’s cooking. Fred is frustrated that she didn’t ask him to pick up the cilantro on the way home from the office, before he had changed into his “homey” clothes (AKA boxer shorts).
If the narrator is fully omniscient, do you parse both Fred and Tina’s emotions during each back and forth?
“Do you want to eat? If you do, then you need to get cilantro instead of acting like a lazy pig,” Tina said, thinking, I can’t believe I married this jerk. At least back then he had a six pack, not this hairy potbelly.
“Figure it out, Tina. I’m sick of rushing to the store every time you forget something,” said Fred. He felt the anger pulsing through his large belly.
Going back and forth between multiple characters’ emotions like this can give a reader whiplash, especially if this pattern continued over several pages and with more than two characters. This is an example of an omniscient narrator who perhaps is a little too comfortable explaining the characters’ inner workings.
“Show, don’t tell,” we’re told. Sharing all the emotions of all your characters can become distraction. It can even destroy any tension you’ve built.
Drama requires mystery. If the reader knows each character’s emotions all the time, there will be no space for drama.
How do you handle third person omniscient well?
The way many editors, and many famous authors, handle this is to show the thoughts and emotions of only one character per scene or per chapter.
George R.R. Martin, for example, uses “point of view characters,” characters whom he always has full access to. He will write a full chapter from their perspective before switching to the next point of view character. For the rest of the cast, he stays out of their heads.
This is an effective guideline, if not a strict rule, and it’s one I would suggest to any first-time author experimenting with third person narrative. Overall, though, the principle to show, don’t tell should be your guide.
The Biggest Third Person Omniscient Point of View Mistake
The biggest mistake I see writers make constantly in third person is head hopping. When you switch point of view characters too quickly, or dive into the heads of too many characters at once, you could be in danger of what editors call “head hopping.”
When the narrator switches from one character’s thoughts to another’s too quickly, it can jar the reader and break the intimacy with the scene’s main character.
We’ve written about how you can get away with head hopping elsewhere, but it’s a good idea to try to avoid going into more than one character’s thoughts per scene or per chapter.
Which Point of View Will You Use?
Please note that these distances should be thought of as ranges, not precise calculations. A third person narrator could conceivably draw closer to the reader than a first person narrator.
There is no best point of view. If you’re just getting started, I would encourage you to use either first person or third person limited point of view because they’re easy to understand.
However, that shouldn’t stop you from experimenting.
Whatever you choose, be consistent. Avoid the mistakes I mentioned under each point of view.
And above all, have fun.
How about you? Which the four point of views have you used in your writing? Share in the comments.
Using a point of view you’ve never used before, write a brief story about a teenager who has just discovered he or she has superpowers. Make sure to avoid the POV mistakes listed in the article above.
Write for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to give feedback to your fellow writers.
The following Graduation Writing Proficiency Examination essays were written by HSU students during a regularly scheduled GWPE. Except for the elimination of cross-outs, the essays are reproduced here exactly as written. Insofar as possible, the essays were chosen to represent the entire range of possible scores. (No essay received a score of One on Essay Topic I.) The majors represented by the authors of these essays are, in alphabetical order, Art, Biology, Business Administration, Environmental Resources Engineering, Fisheries, Geography, Geology, Industrial Arts, and Resource Planning and Interpretation.
Personal-Experience Essay Prompt
You have 45 minutes to write on the following topic.
A distinguished essayist once wrote: "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested."
Write an essay in which you:
- Describe a book that has strongly affected you.
- Explain how your reading of this book changed your outlook.
- Tell why you think this book had such a profound effect on you.
Sample Essay Score: Six
During my third year of college I became acutely aware of the Womens Rights Issue. I made an attempt to re-examine many of the cultural norms that I had previously accepted as just being "the natural order of things." One of the paths I took to expand my awareness of the female psyche involved women's literature. That is why I spent one weekend of my life in bed--crying, laughing, feeling sometimes confused, and often, incredibly angry and distraught. On that rainy Humboldt Friday night I had decided to read "The Women's Room."
The author, Marilyn Fridey, describes the lives of several women from the 1950's to present. These women are nothing out of the ordinary. They either go to college and then get married, or they get married without bothering about the pretense of college--after all, they know that college is only a way to find more economically promising husbands. Myra, the main character whose life is traced throughout the book vaguely wonders why she is not content cooking pot roast, scraping shit from the baby's diapers, and picking up her husband's dry cleaning. Her only solace is the neighborhood of women who share concerns over coffee in the afternoons.
They wonder why Katherine, a Catholic woman who has 9 children and an alcoholic husband, committed suicide. "She had a normal life, they thought, she just should have talked her husband into using birth control." As for the rest of the women, including Myra, their lives, fears, disappointments and yearnings, were much more subtle, yet equally suicidal in their quiet desperation.
Many years down the road, Myra's life finally changes. Her husband has "made it", the kids have grown, and life is easy economically. Myra has a nervous breakdown. Once recovered, she divorces, and becomes a graduate student at Yale. Though painful and difficult, it is here that she comes to terms with herself, realizes her potential, and learns to live with herself--not necessarily happily--but at least honestly.
After I finished the story of Myras world that Sunday evening, I woke up in the middle of the night sobbing uncontrollably from a terrible nightmare. Though I couldn't remember the dream, I came to a profound realization. Myra's life was my mothers.
Most of my life I had revered, respected and admired my father for going to college, being intelligent and worldly, having power and control. In short for being a man.
My mother always seemed too "wishy-washy", easily trodden upon, overly dependent because she had chosen the role of HOUSEWIFE, MOTHER. I rebelled against the tradition, and feared wearing those chains someday. Consequently, I strove to be like my father.
Until this book, I never realized how much more courage it took for a person to live within a stifled role, and find contentment by living through other people. During that night of crying I understood my mother for the first time--I respected her inner strength, compassion, gentleness.
Ever since then, my relationship with my mother has evolved, and we are very close. I will probably never adopt the role in life that she chose to take, but I now respect her for her life, and understand the reasons why she made those choices. Reading of Myra's evolution as a female changed the way I feel towards myself, my feelings and compassion for my mother, and provided me with a much more sensitive view towards the lives of many women in our society today.
Comment:Clearly a well-written, superior essay. Each of the three parts of the topic is covered and well developed, with considerable detail provided. Despite an occasional lapse in the use of the possessive and a few other matters, the paper is strong in mechanics. Sentence structure is sophisticated and effective.
Sample Essay Score: 5
Through the ages of 8-15 I was an avid reader of pleasure books. The majority of the books were mysteries such as Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. Books about animals were avoided because they usually had a very sentimental theme, and I was very emotional when it came to animal suffering.
When I was approximately 10 years old I read a book titled Misty & Chatlenaque. This book was about a young horse that was stranded on an island. It had been on a horse-trading ship when the ship wrecked on the rocks. Misty went through several adventures where wild dogs tried to kill her, horse traders tried to capture her (and beat her in the process), and the sea tried to swallow her.
A little girl who lived on the Island found Misty and tried to protect her from the wild dogs and horse traders. The story was told from the horse's point view, and the agony and terror Misty went through passed on to me. I felt as if it were me who was being chased and beat.
A girl at the age of ten is influenced by the things she sees and reads. Years after reading the book I had the notion that horse ranches were terrible to horses. I also felt that horses were very human in the sense that they could think, feel, understand, and have emotions.
Whenever I passed by a horse who was behind a fence I had to stop and feed it, talk to it, pet it, and feel sorry for it. Every horse had that "Misty" look in its eyes, and I felt it was "crying out to me".
After reading Misty and Chatlenaque, horses became more than just an animal to me. They became something I could relate to and sympathize with. I myself was a lonely child who felt neglected (even though I wasn't) and "penned". While reading the book I felt the horse and I were one. Years later I felt like horses and I had something in common and could relate to each other.
Now, I know horses do not understand what I say to them, but I still stop and talk to them as if they were human. I feel that if I had not read that book eleven years ago I wouldn't feel as attached to horses as I do now. To this day, I refuse to read another horse book or watch a horse movie that looks like it might be "emotional" or "sentimental".
Misty & Chatlenaque is still a very prominent book in my mind, and details of it are remembered frequently. It has had the profound effect of altering my view of horses and will probably remain in my memory for life. The book also had the effect of making me not want to read those kinds of books again. Their emotional impact was too great on me so I only read mysteries and school books. To this day I have my reservations about reading an emotional book, especially if it pertains to animals.
Comment:A very competent paper, nearly free of mechanical errors but lacking the coherent development of the superior essay. It is also occasionally repetitious and a bit unfocused at times. (The correct title of this book is Misty of Chincoteaque.)
Sample Essay Score: 4
In the summer of 1981 I worked for the Army Corps of Engineers on the Warm Springs Dam Project. Much to my objections I was to spend the entire summer living alone, without my wife, since she had obligations to keep in Eureka, California.
The project was located 7 miles southwest of Cloverdale, Ca., in an area which is essentially agricultural. Housing in the area was very scarce and the lodging which could be found was either too expensive or unsuitable. By my own preference, I decided it would be nice to camp out in the woods for the entire duration of the summer.
At first the evenings after work were hot but beautifully peaceful. It didn't take long though until I found my self bored to death looking for something to do besides play solitare. How did the people in the early days of our world stand life without television. I was forced to find some other means of entertainment which just happened to be reading.
The only reading material which was at my camp was a book left there by my wife on her last visit entitled "The Stix Complex." This book to most of the world I'm sure has no great literary value, but to me, it was the greatest entertainment I had ever found. I realized that in the reading of a book, ones own imagination can bring out much more detail in a story than television ever could.
I don't feel that it was the specific book that struck me so much that summer, and it probably could have been any book. I realized that we expect to be entertained by television and movies so much that we forget that we can entertain ourselves to a much higher degree. I still watch television, but I now read much more for enjoyment.
Comment:Although this essay addresses all three aspects of the topic, development of them is thin. The writer devotes most of the essay to describing his situation and passes rather quickly over the book itself and its effects on him. Still, despite a few mechanical flaws, this is clearly a competent piece of writing.
Sample Essay Score: 3
I was strongly affected by a book I read called Never Cry Wolf. The book discribes a remote animal behavor study, located in a mountainous region of northern Canada. The purpose of the study was to observe the animal behavior of wolfs in there natural environment. The study was conducted by a wildlife biologist, working for the Canadian goverment.
Up until the time I read the book, I had the impression that wolfs where among the meanest creatures on the planet. I may have received this impression from childhood fairy tales that were told to me. After reading the book severl times, my impression of wolfs had changed. I no longer viewed wolfs as mean creatues, but instead viewed them as primarly passive creatures. Their intent was not to harm, but to survive.
Animal behavior became a primary interest of mine after reading the book, Never Cry Wolf. Although, I am not a wildlife major, I have assisted in a wildlife study on wolfs. I would have never gained this experience if I had not read Never Cry wolf. The knowledge I gained from the book has opened my eyes to nature.
Comment:While no parts of the topic are omitted, treatment of them tends to be superficial. The writer provides very little supporting detail. Considerable repetition is present because of the predominantly simple sentences used. (Note, for example, how the three opening sentences can easily be combined into one: I was strongly affected by a book I read called Never Cry Wolf, which describes the behavior of wolves living in their natural environment in the mountains of northern Canada.) Spelling is also weak.
Sample Essay Score: 2
The purpose of this essay is to describe my personal experience; that of a particular book which has greatly affected me. This book is Sweet Thursday by John Stienbeck. This book has greatly affected my over all outlook on life in general. Sweet Thursdaychanged the way I think about myself and others. Also, it has changed the way I feel about my own career.
The main character of the book was Doc. Doc had a very profound outlook on twards life, which I found quite interesting. He gave his career all of his attention yet still felt an emptyness inside. This was because he was without a meaningful relationship with a women. I too feel this emptyness, but because of Sweet Thursday I am able to understand what it is. This understanding gives me hope when career goals are overwelming.
Comment:Although this essay does not ignore the question, it treats it very poorly. The essay is both thin in content and lacking in development. The writer uses repetitious simple sentences rather than more sophisticated sentence structures which would combine and properly subordinate thoughts and eliminate the repetitions.
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