When people talk about what makes a strong story, they often turn to things like believable characters, engaging plots, or fascinating settings. It’s easy to forget that the way in which you tell the story is just as important, and it is present in Every. Single. Moment. This is where we get our point of view in a story, or PoV.
Let’s look at what is point of view, the range of different points of view we can use in our writing (hint: it’s more than just three!), and how to avoid the pitfalls of using point of view.
What is Point of View?
The narrative style, or point of view (sometimes called the PoV), is the direction from which the story is being told, and the way you’re choosing to communicate that with the reader. In other words, the point of view is what determines “who” is telling the story. Some stories are told from only one character’s point of view, while others are told from many different ones, or even points of view of a narrator who is outside of the story being told.
It’s common for a story to be told mainly from the point of view of the protagonist. If you find yourself wanting to tell it from the point of view of someone else, you may want to reconsider who is the true protagonist of your story.
When telling your story, you can go right into the character’s thoughts, or you can pan out into a wider, less intimate view. Both have their benefits and their drawbacks, and as the writer it’s up to you to explore and discover which one works best for your story.
Point of View vs. Perspective
Point of view and perspective are sometimes used interchangeably, since they both refer to the characters through which we see our story. Both point of view and perspective give us a range of choices as to how we want our reader to understand the events that are happening in the plot. However, perspective and point of view are not quite the same.
Perspective has to do with your character’s place in the world, who they are, the way they see things, and the way the world sees them. Your story will usually be told in one point of view, but it may have multiple perspectives.
For example, imagine you’re writing a story set in a high-powered high-rise marketing company—think workplace politics, slick heels, secret liaisons in the janitor’s closet, designer blazers, ambitious interns… you get the idea. You might be writing your entire story in the third person omniscient point of view (more on that down below), which means that the relationships between the reader and each character will be expressed in the same way, but the perspectives will be completely different.
Maybe the company’s just been inherited by a rich party boy who wants nothing to do with it; maybe the head of operations is its first ever female CEO; maybe the intern is a young black guy from the worst part of town who got the job by lying on his resume. Every single one of these characters will bring a completely different filter to the events of the plot. That’s perspective at work.
If point of view is the style with which we communicate with the reader, then perspective is the unique view that each character brings to the story. Their understanding of the world, of the other characters around them, and of themselves will shape the way they see the story as it unfolds.
Playing with different perspectives in your story can be a fun way to look at your plot in new ways and to show different facets of it to your reader.
The 7 types of Point of View and how to use them
You’ll be forgiven for thinking that the terms “first,” “second,” and “third” person PoV mean that there’s only three of them. That’s partly true—there are three different overarching PoV categories, with several PoV types within them.
First person point of view is told from the perspective of the character, using the pronoun “I.”
Second person point of view is told from the perspective of the reader as a character, using the pronoun “you.”
Third person point of view shows the characters from the perspective of the author, or an external narrator, using the pronouns “he,” “she,” or “they.”
Let’s look at each of these PoVs, and their subtypes, a little more closely.
1. First Person Subjective
You’ll see two “first persons” in the wide world of literature, and they have much in common. Both are written as though the story is told by the central character—for example, I closed the door behind me and walked down the steps. This point of view makes the reader feel as though they’re experiencing the world of the story right beside them.
Most first person narratives are told in a subjective manner—the way the character might speak as though they were writing in a journal or talking to a dear friend. This means that the character’s thoughts, feelings, and ideas are shown to us on the page. For example, I closed the door behind me and walked down the steps, holding my head high as I bit back my tears, resisting the urge to turn and run back inside. The access to the narrato’s inner thoughts and emotions are what make this point of view “subjective.”
2. First Person Objective
First person objective is a more removed point of view that can be used to great effect, especially when dealing with very difficult emotions. It’s characterized by only showing the surface actions happening in the story, and not the deeper thoughts or emotions of the narrator. For example, I closed the door behind me and walked down the steps. I did not turn back. If we’ve seen enough of the story leading up to this moment, then that short, simple sentence might be enough to show us everything the character is going through.
Stephen King used this narrative style very effectively in his memoir On Writing, when he described his experience in a near-fatal car crash. Instead of describing his fear and the feelings he was going through in that moment, he simply laid out the events in close detail, allowing the reader to watch it alongside him like video footage. This made it seem all the more real and more “objective,” because the narrative isn’t being filtered through the narrator’s inner thoughts and emotions.
3. Second Person
Second person point of view stories are told from the perspective of the reader—an intimacy so closely woven that the reader and the protagonist become one and the same. This is difficult to do well. It’s often highly stylized, and not commonly seen outside of fantastical flash fiction. However, it’s not a bad exercise to try using second person point of view to stretch your limits as a writer.
You may recognize this point of view from those middle grade “choose your own adventure” books. The ones that go, You sneak a glance down the hall, relieved to see it empty. The door to the library is open just a sliver. Do you open it? Yes of course you do, because the alternative is to turn off the light and go to sleep, and what eleven-year-old is going to choose that for their adventure?
Jay McInerney’s ambitious novel Bright Lights, Big City, which is often credited as a cornerstone of this type of writing, begins, “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.” Right away the reader knows they’re in for something very special. Second person point of view takes immersion in the story to a new level. Instead of reading about another person, your reader follows the story as though they were reading about themselves—things that they could only dream of doing, living, experiencing.
Then—unlike the protagonists of first or third person narratives, who continue living their story long after—your reader closes the book when they’re finished, knowing that they lived something wonderful and now it’s time to go home.
4. Third Person Limited Subjective
Third person narratives use the pronouns “he,” “she,” or “they” to describe the central character. They’re told from the point of view of a camera following the actions of the characters. Depending on how close the camera moves in, you might be following the thoughts of just one character, or you might be following all of them.
Third person limited subjective is a subtype of the third person narrative, and it’s quite similar to first person subjective: it follows one character, your protagonist, through the story and allows the reader to see what they’re thinking and feeling in response to the world around them. This is a classic storytelling style that allows us to view the events of the story through the intimate lens of a single character.
Like the first person point of view, the reader may get access to the characters’ inner thoughts. The difference between the two points of view is that in the first person point of view, the protagonist is telling us their own thoughts and feelings; in the third person limited subjective point of view, an outside narrator, the camera, is telling us what the protagonist is thinking and feeling. This makes the third person point of view less “subjective,” and possibly more trustworthy from a storytelling standpoint, than the first person point of view.
5. Third Person Objective
This point of view style most closely resembles the way we would see a story being played out on screen. We follow several characters throughout the course of the story, but only as an external observer. We see their actions, experiences, moments of joy and sadness, hear what they say out loud and see what they’re communicating with their bodies, but never go any deeper into their consciousnesses. Think of the narrator as a camera: the narrator can only observe events.
Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” effectively uses an objective third person point of view to show the unfolding of a terrible cultural event. While we can perceive some of the characters’ emotions showing in their actions and reactions, she never goes right into their thoughts; we see the story building to its apex as an onlooker.
6. Third Person Multiple Subjective
This type of third person PoV is like the third person limited subjective point of view in that it can peer into the minds of the characters. The difference is that third person multiple subjective goes deeper into the thoughts and feelings of several characters, not just the protagonist.
This narration style might explore all the central characters in a story, or only a selection of the—for example, like alternating between two siblings. The crucial part of third person multiple subjective point of view is that when a character comes in to focus, they become the center of that moment in the story—whether that moment is a scene, a chapter, or a longer “part one.” In other words, we see their thoughts and feelings, but not those of the other characters around them.
7. Third Person Omniscient
Like third person multiple subjective, the third person omniscient point of view allows the reader to see into the minds of several different characters. The difference is that in third person omnisicent, it’s all happening at once. We can watch a conversation between two characters unfold and know what each of them is saying, thinking, and not saying. We’ll know if someone in the next room is overhearing them and drawing conclusions of their own. And we’ll know what every one of these people is planning to do next.
This is useful in creating a sense of suspense in the reader, as it shows us things that the protagonist doesn’t yet know. An expert storyteller can reveal just enough to us in this point of view that we understand the goals and motivations of several of the players on the stage, while still leaving us room to be surprised.
Why does Point of View matter in storytelling?
Contrary to what you might see in some other writing guides, there’s no “wrong” point of view for your story. But it is important to be aware that your story can be very different depending on which PoV you choose to tell it from.
Perspectives shown from the first and second person points of view lend an immediacy and intimacy to your story. Writing in the third person point of view allows more distance between the reader and the characters, but offers the benefit of seeing more of the story world than the characters can. This adds tension, intrigue, and suspense to your story.
In the first and second person points of view the reader will experience the story right in the thick of the characters’ experiences. In the third person, the reader will experience the story externally, like watching an exciting film.
All of the points of view we discussed have been used very successfully in short stories and novels across history. When starting your story, you may want to try out a few of them to see which one you feel most comfortable in. Some will be more challenging than others, and that’s okay. That’s how writers learn and grow.
The biggest Point of View mistake new writers make
One more time for the people in the back: There is no “wrong” PoV for your story. There is no wrong choice. Every one of these seven points of view we’ve shown you can be used to marvellous effect to create a powerful, engaging story through the voices of your characters. However—pay attention, because this is really important information—you need to keep it consistent.
While every one of these perspectives is valuable and can be explored to create wonderful stories, the danger lies in slipping out of one point of view and into another—for instance, writing a story in the third person limited subjective point of view (where a camera tells us the inner thoughts of a single character), and then finding yourself jumping in to the thoughts of another character completely. Or writing in the first person point of view, and accidentally mentioning a thought another character has had, even though your protagonist couldn’t have known it.
Doing this is called “head hopping.” It’s very easy to do without noticing, and even experienced authors often have to go back over their work and pick out these moments during the editing process.
The same problem is a common weakness of second person writing—the point of view may shift into first person as the author begins writing to the reader instead of as them. For example, check out this moment of second person narrative:
Staying a safe distance away, you looked at the old house. Its windows were dark, and for that you were grateful. Keeping out of sight, you sent me our old signal to open the back door.
Stop the presses! Are we still in second person point of view? No we aren’t, because we slipped up and used the word “me,” instantly changing the point of view to the first person—where a character is talking to the reader—and not the second person.
When beginning your story, make sure you choose the point of view you want to write from—not just first, second, or third person PoV, but the subtype of point of view within that category. Making your PoV choice as specific as possible will make it easier to stay with it as you write.
Once you’ve decided which point of view is right for your particular story, make sure you keep it consistent from beginning to end.
Which Point of View is best for your story?
With all these fantastic narrative choices, how do you know which one to choose? The right PoV for your story depends on two things: the level of intimacy you want the reader to have with your character, and how much information you want them to have about what’s happening in the story.
Speaking very generally, first person point of view is a good choice for more literary stories with a lot of character development, because we can see the characters change and grow from the most intimate perspective possible—hearing it from the character’s own thoughts. Third person point of view is often a better choice for epic stories like fantasies and thrillers, because it gives your reader an expanded view of what’s happening in the story at any given moment.
But every genre has been approached with just about every point of view possible, and there’s no reason you can’t do the same. You may even do something no one has ever done before! When looking for the right PoV for your story, the best thing to do is try writing a few paragraphs in several point of view styles to see which one flows the most naturally. If you get stuck a chapter or two in, try switching to another point of view and see if that unlocks your story. The right PoV will always be the one that the story wants to follow—your job is to discover it by carving away everything it doesn’t want.
Point of View is a fundamental building block of writing
Like any craft form, writing is full of pieces that we need to maneuver into place to get the best out of work. Point of view is one of these pieces—an essential cog that quietly supports the other building blocks of our story and helps make them as powerful as they can be. Our point of view style helps us engage readers with our characters, bring them into the world of our story, and manage the delicate balance of tension, revelation, and suspense. As you experiment with these different narrative styles, you’ll see that a well-chosen point of view in your story can make all the difference.