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 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?
Point of view (sometimes called the PoV) is the direction from which the story is being told and the way the writer chooses to communicate with the reader. In other words, it determines who is narrating the story. Some stories are told from only one character’s point of view, while others are told from many.
When telling your story, you can go right into the character’s innermost thoughts, or you can pan out into a wider, less intimate view. Both have their benefits and their drawbacks, and it’s up to you as the writer to 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. Each gives us a range of choices as to how we communicate with our reader. However, perspective and point of view are not quite the same thing.
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. Even if you choose one consistent point of view to use throughout your story, each character’s perspective 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 the story 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 8 types of point of view and how to use them
You’ll be forgiven for thinking that the terms “first,” “second,” “third,” and more recently “fourth” person PoV mean that there’s only four of them. That’s partly true—there are four different overarching PoV categories, with several PoV types within them.
First-person PoV is told from the perspective of the character, using the pronoun “I.”
Second-person PoV is told from the perspective of the reader as a character, using the pronoun “you.”
Third-person PoV is told from the perspective of the author, or an external narrator, using the pronouns “he,” “she,” or “they.”
Fourth-person PoV is told from the perspective of a collective consciousness, using the pronoun “we.”
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 narrator’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 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 you’ve developed the story leading up to this moment effectively, then that short, simple sentence might be enough to show us everything the first-person narrator 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 experiencing 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 generally better suited to short stories than novels. 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 second-person PoV 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 second-person point of view 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 narration 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 narration, 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 main character. They’re told from the point of view of a camera following the story. 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 point of view means focusing on just one character, while third-person multiple or third-person omniscient means following many.
Third-person limited subjective is a subtype of the third-person narrative, and it’s quite similar to first-person subjective: it follows the main character 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 with a first-person narrative, the reader may get access to the character’s 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 narrator less “subjective” than the first-person perspective.
5. 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 mind of a character. The difference is that third-person multiple subjective goes deeper into the thoughts and feelings of several characters—not just the protagonist.
This narrative style might explore all the central characters in a story, or only a selection of them—for example, 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 thoughts and feelings of the third-person limited narrator, but not those of the other characters around them.
6. Third-person objective
The third-person objective 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 a character’s mind; we see the story building to its apex as an onlooker.
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 more than one character. The difference is that in an omniscient narration, 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.
Third-person omniscient point of view 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 use an omniscient narrator to reveal just enough that we understand the goals and motivations of several of the players on the stage, while still leaving us room to be surprised.
8. Fourth person
Fourth-person point of view is a newer writing style that’s gathering steam as writers use it to explore big-picture social questions. It’s similar to first-person point of view in that it’s told from the perspective of the character, only in this case the fourth-person narrative perspective is a collective—a group of people, or a representation of a group of people such as a social class.
This narrative style uses the pronoun “we”: “We listened patiently to their words, withstood the tempest of their abuse, knowing we would soon leave it all behind.”
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 immediacy and create intimacy in 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. Fourth-person point of view allows the reader to become part of a community, a movement, on the page.
All of the points of view we discussed have been used very successfully in short stories and novels across history. When starting a new project, 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
Every one of these points of view we’ve shown you can be used to create a powerful, engaging story through the voices of your characters. However, once you establish point of view, you need to keep it consistent through the entire story.
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 another character’s head 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 one of the first-person pronouns, instantly changing the point of view to the first person perspective—where a character is talking to the reader—and not the second person.
When beginning a new project, make sure you establish the point of view you want to write from. Once you’ve decided which point of view is right for your particular story, make sure you keep your narrative voice 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:
1. the level of intimacy you want the reader to have with your character, and—
2. 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 mind. 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 our 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.