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Point of View: What Is it? How Do I Use It?
Carl E Reed
Posted: Thursday, April 12, 2012 4:48 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Point of view comes up frequently in discussions and reviews on Book Country. Here is my attempt to describe and differentiate amongst these different POVs in the simplest, most direct manner possible.

The first distinction to be made is to identify what perspective (or point of view) your story is being told from: first-person, second-person or third-person. Examples:


First-person: “I walked into the bank . . .”

Second-person: “You walked into the bank . . .”

Third-person “He walked into the bank . . .”


First- and second-person POVs are fairly self-explanatory, but there are sub-categories within third-person POV that need to be elaborated on for purposes of clarity.

The secondary distinction to be made in third person POV is along the “subjectivity/objectivity axis”:  whether or not the writer gets inside the head (or heads) of the characters he (or she) is describing.

If the writer confines himself (or herself; no sexism intended here) to describing the behavior, emotional reactions and thoughts of one single character at a time while other character’s observed emotions and conjectured thoughts are only described as externally-perceived phenomnema, you are writing in third person limited POV.

If the writer confines himself to describing only the actions and sounds of a scene, you are writing in the third person objective POV. You are chronicling the scene as if you had a good camera and recording device trained on the action. No character thoughts or emotions are directly revealed or described.

If your narrative has a single, god-like viewpoint from which we view all other characters and perspectives—or you talk directly to the reader—or your narrator travels freely backward and forward in time—or the narrator can transfer their all-knowing perspective into animals or inanimate objects—you are writing in the third person omniscient POV. (Much frowned upon today, but a very popular POV in 19th-century novels.)

—Sharon was angry and confused.  (You are making a flat declaration of fact about Sharon's interior emotional state, hence are writing in third person omniscient POV.)

—Sharon looked (or seemed) angry and confused. (You are confining your description to only those facts an objective, not omniscient, narrator might observe or know; hence you are writing in third person limited or third person objective POV.)


Q: What if I describe the actions, conjectured thoughts and observed emotions of, say, five different characters in a scene. Isn’t that the omniscient POV?

A: Nope. You didn’t declare anyone’s emotional state as a flat declarative fact (hence talk directly to the reader), nor did you reveal anyone’s inner thoughts. You are still writing in a third person POV, but now it’s a multiple third person POV. If no one’s thoughts or emotions are directly shared or revealed, it would be an objective multiple third person POV. If you reveal or share the focal character's thoughts or emotions with the reader you are writing in the third-person limited POV.

Here’s where a lot of confusion comes in: You “head-hop” into another character within the same scene and directly reveal their emotions and/or thoughts to the reader. This does not mean that your narrative has necessarily suddenly shifted from third person limited to a third person omniscient viewpoint (remember, the omniscient viewpoint is an over-arching, unifying viewpoint that contains all characters and perspectives), but rather that the focal point character has shifted within the scene. A writer can use multiple viewpoints in a work of fiction but it is strongly recommended that the text show a clearly-demarked line or chapter break when you switch amongst multiple points of view. 

Q:  My focal point character—the one I’m following most closely in this scene—reveals his inner thoughts and emotions to the reader. But the other four people in this scene do not. Since I’m only directly revealing the thoughts and emotions of one of the five people in this scene, I’m writing in third-person limited POV, correct?

A: Correct. If you didn’t directly reveal the thoughts and/or emotions of even one character in this scene, you’d be writing in the objective third person POV. (Camera and sound recording device only, remember?)

Q: My reviewers are accusing me of head-hopping. So what? I’m writing in multiple third person limited POV; what’s the big deal?

A: The big deal is that every time you jump into another character’s head to directly reveal the inner life of that character, you steal focus from the scene’s focal point character—and thus inject emotional distance into your text by diffusing empathy and muddying the over-all clarity, dramatic pacing and concision of your scene. A clean line or chapter break when switching amongst POVs will help keep your reader focused, involved and empathizing with the most important person in the narrated scene.       


 First Person POV:  allows for the closest reader identification with your narrator. Drawbacks include: (a) the narrator is strictly confined to discussing what he or she directly experiences or observes, (b) first person voice can come across as comically narcissistic and melodramatic, and (c) first person voice is not the easiest (or most credible) stylistic vehicle to use for describing the thoughts and motivations of others.

Second Person POV: almost never used, for obvious reasons. (Who’s this joker telling me what I think and feel and do?!”)

Third Person POV: has the most credibility with the reader.

(a)    The third person omniscient narrator can move backwards and forwards in time; talk directly to the reader; inhabit the bodies and psyches of animals, insects, toasters and toys—but this can come across as mightily contrived and corny to the contemporary reader.

(b)   The third person limited narrator must confine his description of directly-revealed thoughts and/or emotions to only one character, in any given scene, at a time.    

(c)    The third person objective narrator mechanistically chronicles the scene like a camera and sound recording device, never entering his character’s emotional or cognitive lives.

Feel free to elaborate on, or argue for or against, anything stated in this posting. I welcome the correction of any and all errors.

PS. Confession: I wrote this "ready-reference cheat-sheet" to help keep things as clear as possible in my own mind when discussing POV.

Atthys Gage
Posted: Friday, April 13, 2012 1:50 AM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

Carl.  A very useful and helpful guide.  I confess I sometimes get muddled.  I generally like the objective POV, but then -- ugh -- there'll be some thought, some emotion, just braying out for expression.  And, because I am in love with my own voice, I find myself giving in.  

Of course, it's far more elegant (ideally) when you can convey the thoughts with some subtle action, but that (as has been noted) can get awful cumbersome.  As with most things, the devil is in the details.  Does it feel contrived or labored?   Do the info-dump detectors start flashing from the very first sentence?  Or does it sail by so smoothly that you (the reader) aren't even aware, and you happily turn the page, never even breaking stride?

We fling pebbles at the stars, and our arms are very short.   I think I'd rather find a clear pond wherein the stars are reflected, and drop my pebbles there, one at a time.   I would trouble a tiny cosmos, and only temporarily. 

GD Deckard
Posted: Friday, April 13, 2012 7:59 AM
Carl, that's the most logical, clearest explanation of POV that I have read to date. And I've read, um, three, now. I've copied your "cheat-sheet" into Notebook for handy reference. Thank you!
Carl E Reed
Posted: Friday, April 13, 2012 3:14 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

A couple of typos in there, the most egregious being the misspelling of phenomena. Mea culpa!

(Note to self: always spell-check before posting.)

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Saturday, April 14, 2012 12:43 AM

You’ve given a good description of the various modes of presenting POV, but what’s missing is the basic “this is what point of view is.”

Is there any difference between:

“He went to the garage to get his car.”
“I went to the garage to get my car.”
“You go to the garage to get your car.”

No difference at all. The protagonist got the car so in all cases the message is the same.

But in all cases, too, the POV is the narrator because what was presented was an overview, and people don’t live overviews. Only the narrator can give a summation. People live moment-by-moment.

POV is the way a given character sees their world. The modes you described are how the author chooses to impart that information, which is useful, and necessary to know, but different from point of view.

Look at several different people viewing the same scene: We’re at the edge of a road, looking out at a view of farmland that slopes off, both right and left, toward a long narrow valley, with a river snaking through the middle. In front of us is a field with growing plants, perhaps knee high. In the valley there are farms, a small town, and wooded areas. On the other side of the river a modest mountain rises, its angles softened by age and wooded slopes. Rainclouds hang heavy over the mountain, though the sky where we are is only hazy.

By that road our protagonist stands.

The Farmer
The farmer looks out over his dying crop. Two months have passed with no rain. His plants are half the height they should be and their leaves are drooping. If another week passes without rain they will die, along with his future. And if they die he will lose his farm.

This man has seen the view many times, but now he sees nothing but death. In frustration he studies the rainclouds on the flank of the mountain, alternating silent prayers and curses.

The Artist
She gazes out over the field, entranced at the way the new growth contrasts with the ancient mountain. She studies the contrast of the wet mountainside and the dry conditions where she is, then digs in the trunk of her car for an easel and a blank canvas so she can record the beauty she sees. With luck this one will sell. She sees the dying plants but knows little of farming,, and doesn’t recognize it for what it is.

The Lover
The man leans back against his car, thinking of the previous night, and the joy he found with his new lover. He glances at the crops and thinks of harvest and plantings, and that brings thoughts of the children that may be in his future, as his own life renews. The rain clouds bring a fantasy of he and his love making love in the rain.

The woman stands, staring out at the view. Her eyes are open but she sees little. Before nightfall she must make a decision: live or die. Her beloved husband is dead for six months and today the mourning ends. Today she must say yes to a man she hates, he of the stinking breath and a soul filled avarice. The rainclouds weep for her. She sees the plants and knows they are dying, as she died inside when her man was taken—in an accident she’s certain was engineered by the man who will soon own her. Now she must decide if she is to join her husband in death before dark or accept a devil’s bargain.

- - - - - - - - -
The setting is the same in all cases. But what the character “sees”—what matters to that character—is very different. And that’s POV. The paragraphs above were all from me, and about the character, so there is no POV character. But though I discussed the facts of the situation, it was all about the factors influencing the character’s mind state, their emotions in other words. And though I said not one word about how the character feels, you clearly know, because you know how the character views the scene.

You can use first person, third, omniscient, or any mode you care to. They do influence the reader’s perception, but mostly, are a writer’s choice. But the POV will still be yours, alone, if you don’t make the reader know your character enough to care. And to know them we must know how they perceive their world.

Carl E Reed
Posted: Saturday, April 14, 2012 5:14 AM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Excellent, Jay! Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

GD Deckard
Posted: Saturday, April 14, 2012 3:27 PM

Dangit Jay just when I thought I had a clear understanding of the logic of POV, you throw a wrench at me. Did you ever teach dodgeball?

Actually, it makes sense to say that POV belongs to the character & that the mode is how the author chooses to present that view. Thanks!

Carl E Reed
Posted: Monday, April 16, 2012 1:58 AM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Understanding Point of View in Literature

By Geraldine Woods

Literature provides a lens through which readers look at the world. Point of view is the way the author allows you to "see" and "hear" what's going on. Skillful authors can fix their readers' attention on exactly the detail, opinion, or emotion the author wants to emphasize by manipulating the point of view of the story.

Point of view comes in three varieties, which the English scholars have handily numbered for your convenience:

  • First-person point of view is in use when a character narrates the story with I-me-my-mine in his or her speech. The advantage of this point of view is that you get to hear the thoughts of the narrator and see the world depicted in the story through his or her eyes. However, remember that no narrator, like no human being, has complete self-knowledge or, for that matter, complete knowledge of anything. Therefore, the reader's role is to go beyond what the narrator says.

For example, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is told from the point of view of Scout, a young child. She doesn't grasp the complex racial and socioeconomic relations of her town — but the reader does, because Scout gives information that the reader can interpret. Also, Scout's innocence reminds the reader of a simple, "it's-not-fair" attitude that contrasts with the rationalizations of other characters.

  • Second-person point of view, in which the author uses you and your, is rare; authors seldom speak directly to the reader. When you encounter this point of view, pay attention. Why? The author has made a daring choice, probably with a specific purpose in mind. Most times, second-person point of view draws the reader into the story, almost making the reader a participant in the action.

Here's an example: Jay McInerney's best-selling Bright Lights, Big City was written in second person to make the experiences and tribulations of the unnamed main character more personal and intimate for the reader.

  • Third-person point of view is that of an outsider looking at the action. The writer may choose third-person omniscient, in which the thoughts of every character are open to the reader, or third-person limited, in which the reader enters only one character's mind, either throughout the entire work or in a specific section. Third-person limited differs from first-person because the author's voice, not the character's voice, is what you hear in the descriptive passages.

In Virginia Woolf's wonderful novel Mrs. Dalloway, you're in one character's mind at a time. You know the title character's thoughts about Peter, the great love of her youth, for example, and then a few pages later, you hear Peter's thoughts about Mrs. Dalloway. Fascinating! When you're reading a third-person selection, either limited or omniscient, you're watching the story unfold as an outsider. Remember that most writers choose this point of view.


Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Wednesday, June 20, 2012 9:37 AM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 353

Bumping this up.

Posted: Monday, September 9, 2013 1:20 PM
Joined: 9/8/2013
Posts: 4

I think this discussion is very helpful, but in my own writing, I'm never satisfied by any other form than, what I think would be categorized as third person omniscient, but in addition, I always write it in past tense. For example:


Sophia looked out the window and saw the man get off the ship. "He has found me, after all this time" she said. "Is there no way for me to escape him, short of hiring an assassin?" she asked. She moved away from the window and began to pace, wringing her hands, brows furrowed in thought.


Have I categorized this style properly? I see so many who would change "looked" to "looks" and "moved" to moves and "began" to "begins". What category would this style fall under? Somehow, to me, changing those verbs to present tense seems incorrect but I see it so often, even in Jay's examples: "The farmer looks out...", "She gazes out...", "The man leans..." All three of these examples feel wrong to me, yet I have a feeling I just don't understand which category they fall under. Can someone help me get my thinking straight here please? Is third person omniscient supposed to be written using past tense or, as Jay's examples, present tense?

--edited by only1Gin on 9/9/2013, 1:29 PM--

Atthys Gage
Posted: Monday, September 9, 2013 7:07 PM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

 Dear   only1Gin: Your categories are correct, but 3rd omniscient can be written in past or present tense. 


 There is nothing wrong with using present tense ('he walks to the bank') past tense ('he walked to the bank') or even future tense ('he will walk to the bank').   Tense is simply one of the available choices.  1rst person present tense is very much in vogue these days, particularly in YA fiction (partly because of the popularity of the Hunger Games).  People like it for its immediacy, the way it tends to make the action feel as if it is unfolding before the readers eye.  Personally, I think it gets overused, but there's nothing wrong with it grammatically.  It's simply a stylistic choice.  3rd person present is less commonly used, but is certainly still out there.  

Obviously, if you flit from past to present within the same section, you stand a very good chance of confusing people, which will certainly break the narrative spell, and any editor worth her salt will throw her red pencil at you. 

If you like 3rd limited omniscient past, then stick to it.  You'll be in good company.  


Jay Greenstein
Posted: Monday, September 9, 2013 7:12 PM

Bear in mind that you did ask...


• Sophia looked out the window and saw the man get off the ship.


This isn't her POV, it's the narrator talking about her, and giving summation. In her POV:


Sophia went to the window, idly watching the people leaving the ship. Then, as though time had halted, one face jumped out of the crowd exiting the ship: Charles face.


Shit She turned to Tahlia, unable to keep the emotion from her voice as she said, "He's found me." Waving her hands in hopeless frustration she added, "Is there no way of escaping that bastard other than murder?" She extended a hand to Tahlya. "Is there?"


Omniscient POV means you know all, yes, but it doesn't mean you're alone on stage talking about the characters from the narrator's POV. That's data—a report. But summations don't often entertain, or give a feeling of immediacy. And those two characteristics are what a reader seeks.


--edited by Jay Greenstein on 9/9/2013, 8:54 PM--

Posted: Tuesday, January 28, 2014 12:18 PM
Joined: 9/11/2013
Posts: 2

I think it may be useful for new writers to follow the classical 1st person/3rd person (limited-omniscient) rules of POV until they gain enough skill to come up with their own style. Jay's observation on individual characters' POV is astute. Perhaps the narrative POV can be a bit more fluid, so long as the reader remains engaged and empathetic towards the characters.

After having read Stephen King's Under the Dome which is told in the third person because of its sprawling cast of characters and plot, I feel like I have permission to be freer with narrative description. As much as I try to hew to an objective, 'good camera' POV, in an attempt to emulate more a cinematic experience, the texture of the writing can become a little dry. What I saw in King's style was a risky decision to break with the traditional rules and have it pay off.

In an early scene where Junior drops in on his ex-girlfriend, his mood changes very suddenly and he flies into a murderous rage. Technically, the narration is third person and the descriptions are meant to be objective observations of each event as he physically abuses and eventually kills her. But the narration itself, though not explicitly in Junior's voice, takes on the color of his attitude, almost as if the first person were emerging through the description of the scene. The choice of the wording is Junior's, that's clear. But there's no 'I' or 'my'. But we're in his skin. It is quite artful and ironically humorous.

The newbies should try to stick to the academic tradition to start with till they get a hold of a personal, individual style.

Writing, like music and painting and sculpture, is an art. There's nothing wrong with innovation so long as it works in the end.

Carl E. Reed
Posted: Thursday, January 30, 2014 12:31 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Good work there, Garyhorsman! Nice analysis and example.

In addition, I would advise beginning writers (a) stay in one person's POV if writing in 3rd-person limited for the duration of a scene; don't "head-hop" from character to character, and (b) watch the over-weaning narcissism, self-absorption and paranoia that can creep into 1st-person POV. [Note: this is not to say that you shouldn't use 1st-person POV, or even play up the worst aspects of 1st-person for comedic or dramatic effect. Just be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of 1st-person and either accentuate or underplay accordingly.]    

Lucy Silag
Posted: Wednesday, February 5, 2014 11:10 AM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1356

Anybody ever tried writing in the 2nd person? We've got a really interesting essay on the Book Country blog today from author Mohsin Hamid--he's written 3 books that way. Check it out!



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