What Is Point of View

POV: How first, second, and third person become the Babel fish of fiction.

Joshua Essoe, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #715


What Is Point of View

What is "point of view"? For fans of the book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” let’s think of point of view (POV) as the Babel fish of literature. It is a universal translator turning your brainwaves into the perspective through which your readers will understand your story. Luckily it isn't wet, it isn't slimy, and you really don't have to stick it in your ear.

There are three main points of view that you can use, all with different strengths and weaknesses.

First Person

First person: I rock. We rock.

In first person, past tense, the problem is time. The story is told from some indefinite point in the future looking backward, and the viewpoint character already knows how everything turns out. A character using first person, past tense, would say something like “I reached for his arm three seconds too late.”

The creation of present tense was a solution to bridge that gap, because storytellers and readers both crave immediacy. But, since many readers are turned off by first person, and even more by present tense, it didn't work so well. That is why third person limited with deep penetration is the most popular way to tell a story these days, but more on that in a moment.

First person limits you to only what the viewpoint character can sense, feel, and think, but it creates deep intimacy. One of the best reasons to use first person is it allows us to see from a total stranger's eyes for a time.

Unreliable Narrators

First person is generally thought to be the most difficult point of view to do well.

It also offers the opportunity to play with your readers. As an author, you have to know your character inside and out. You know what your character would exaggerate, tell truthfully, hesitate over, and even leave out. An unreliable narrator lies to your readers. Is that okay? Absolutely, as long as your readers understand that the character is a liar, and they’re given the chance to figure out what is and isn't a lie.

First person is generally the go-to for beginning writers. It seems so easy, as if it would flow like water . . . but it is widely understood by experienced writers to be the most difficult point of view to do well.

Great examples of popular first person books are Suzanne Collins' “Hunger Games” series, and Stephenie Meyer's “Twilight” series.

Second Person

Second person: You rock. Y’all rock.

Most stories, fiction and non-fiction, are written in first or third person. How-to books, on the other hand, are often written in second person. Consider cook books. Recipes are invariably written in second person with the imperative mood: do this, do that, now do the other thing. The "you" is implied.

It is interesting to read snippets of a story written in second person—Erin Morgenstern did it in “The Night Circus,” as we talked about in episode 306—but most readers find it tedious and difficult if it goes on too long.

Consider the idea of writing some flash fiction told in second imperative from the perspective of a man who hears voices telling him to do horrible things. It could be interesting, even compelling, but most people certainly wouldn’t want to read an entire novel done that way.

Having said that, there are always exceptions: Notably, Jay Mcinerney's best seller, “Bright Lights, Big City.” Second can be done in fiction, and it has the potential to make your reader part of the story, but it has a lot going against it.

Third Person

Third person: He rocks. She rocks. They rock.

In the third person, the narrator isn’t present as a character. Just as there is a distance in time with first person, there is a distance in space with third person. Writers have always struggled to break down those barriers to make the story, the drama, the conflict as up close and personal, as immediate, as possible.

There are two kinds of third narration, omniscient and limited.

Third Person Omniscient

In omniscient you are godlike in your perspective, seeing everything, but touching nothing. Time, distance and perspective don't constrict, and you know all, see all, and tell all. It's like surfing the Web--you have access to untold amounts of information, but you’re detached, never actually there. Since you tell every character’s story, omniscient doesn't allow for an intimate connection with the characters involved. As you can imagine, though, you can use this view point to get across tons of detailed information quickly. It is ideal for huge, sweeping epics.

A good example is Tolkien's “Lord of the Rings.” Lemony Snicket's “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is a more recent, less epic example.

Third Person Limited

In third person limited, on the other hand, the narrator is one character at a time, aware of only what that character thinks, senses, and feels. You have no access to the inner lives of other characters.

Unlike in omniscient, you can never change viewpoints mid-scene; but after a scene or chapter break, you can. Limited has the advantage of allowing your readers to become completely engaged with your characters. It can be very intimate, with deep penetration.

And we're not talking romance here.

Light Penetration

Third person limited can go with light or deep penetration into the viewpoint character's mind. In light penetration you show scenes only where the character is present, but show them as they actually happen without bias, only giving the character's thoughts and feelings when you slip into the character's mind.

Deep Penetration

The creation of deep penetration was a solution to that problem of space I mentioned earlier. You show scenes from the viewpoint character's eyes--not necessarily how they actually happen, but as that character perceives them to happen. You never actually leave the character's mind. It is a point of view that melds first and third, attempting to take the best from both--the world is completely colored through the character's attitude and perspective, and is done so at the time events in the story take place.

It's easy to find examples. Throw a rock into a bookstore and you're bound to hit several on the fiction shelves. George R. R. Martin's “Song of Ice and Fire” series, Robert Jordan's “Wheel of Time” series, and the “Harry Potter” novels are all third person limited.

There are some uncommon variations of these points of view, and the difference between narrator and viewpoint character, but that's a Babel for another day.

Joshua Essoe is a full-time, freelance editor. He's edited for bestsellers, Piers Anthony and David Farland, including the multi-award-winning novel, "Nightingale." He's also edited for Dean Lorey, lead writer of "Arrested Development," Mark Leslie Lefebvre, former director at Kobo, numerous Writers of the Future winners, USA Today bestsellers, and many other top-notch independents. He was lead editor at "Urban Fantasy Magazine" from 2014-2015. From 2012-2015 he recorded the weekly writing podcast "Hide and Create" with co-hosts Michael J. Sullivan, Diana Rowland, Jay Wells, and Debbie Viguie.

You can find Joshua teaching about pitches, back cover copy, and editing at the Superstars Writing Seminars in CO. His approach to editing is to help you make your story the best version of itself it can be. 

When not editing . . . ha ha, a joke. He was a 2014 finalist in the Writers of the Future contest, and is currently at work with James Artimus Owen on a dream anthology project containing many of the top names in the business. More details to come. You can find him at http://www.joshuaessoe.com.

Related Articles