Menu

Point of View

“Point of view” or “narrative mode” describes the pronouns used when writing a story. At the most basic level, the…

“Point of view” or “narrative mode” describes the pronouns used when writing a story. At the most basic level, the points of view can be broken down as follows:

POV Pronouns
First person I, we
Second person you
Third person he, she, it, they

Stories written in the third person are probably the most familiar to most of us. Consider this sentence from Melville’s The Confidence Man:

His cheek was fair, his chin downy, his hair flaxen, his hat a white fur one, with a long fleecy nap. He had neither trunk, valise, carpet-bag, nor parcel.

As an example of first person narrative, consider another hopefully familiar passage from Melville:

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.

Although second person narratives are fairly rare in writing for grown-ups, there are dozens if not hundreds of instances available in the form of Choose Your Own Adventure books. Here’s a sample from one entitled Space and Beyond:

You are born on a spaceship traveling between galaxies on a dangerous research mission. The crew of the spaceship includes people from five different galaxies. Your parents are not from the same galaxy, but both have features common to those found on the planet Earth in the Milky Way galaxy.

Of course, point of view isn’t really just about the pronouns — it’s about how the use of those pronouns orients you in relation to the story. Third person generally keeps you at a little distance as an outside observer, as if you’re watching the story like a movie.

A story told in the first person lets you stare out from the eyes of the narrator. Even if you wouldn’t necessarily expect to identify with a particular first-person narrator, looking at the world he describes as if from his vantage can have the effect of making you feel more sympathetic to his perspective. It’s easier to relate to melancholy Ishmael in the first person than it might have been in the third.

Second person narratives turn the camera around and dump you into the story. They can be pretty gimmicky (see Choose Your Own Adventure above) and accordingly aren’t terribly common.

Other narrative modes abound, however. For example, there’s a subdivision between third-person limited and third-person omniscient. In the limited POV, the narrator has access to the thoughts and feelings of one character but not others. In the omniscient POV, the narrator can tell you what any character is thinking and feeling. By contrast, in straight third-person POV, the narrator simply relates events as they happen, without subjective access to any character’s thoughts and feelings.

For an example of third-person omniscient narrator, I give you Dan Brown in Angels and Demons:

Before ascending, Langdon knew he needed a weapon, any weapon… He hoped the element of surprise, combined with the Hassassin’s wound, would be enough to tip the scales in his advantage.

That’s followed on the next page by the following:

When she had first awoken to find them tied behind her back, she’d thought she might be able to relax and work her hands free… Vittoria knew in an instant that she was capable of killing.

Within a very short span, we have not only descriptions of different characters’ behaviors but actual access to the things going through their minds. Third-person limited provides the same sort of access, but for just one character within the story.

Then there are epistolary stories. These are written in the forms of letters between characters, and though each letter is written in the first-person, the effect to me is one of almost a third-person omniscient narrative. The first novels were written in this form, and you can find fairly palatable examples in books like Dracula, Frankenstein, and another little favorite of mine, Ella Minnow Pea (which is also incidentally a riff on the lipogram).

Authors can choose to mix narrative modes, of course, switching from one POV to another as theme or character merits. Some of the most fun fiction to read, I think, is fiction that does this sort of switching, keeping the reader really on her toes.

Some authors write from the perspective of what’s known as an unreliable narrator. It’s POV-independent and is often used to comment on the nature and mechanism of story-telling itself. Of course, it can also be used, as in movies like Fight Club and The Usual Suspects, to turn around a big surprise at the end. You find unreliable narrators all through literature, but one striking example lies in David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress:

Though perhaps another reason why I did not remember it is that I am feeling somewhat tired.

Actually, I am not feeing tired. How I am feeling is not quite myself.

Again and again in Markson’s book, the speaker makes a statement and then corrects or contradicts it, so that you begin to wonder over time whether there’s any truth at all in what she’s saying. In a book partially about the slipperiness of language, it’s a very fitting device.

There are plenty of other ways to tell stories. James Joyce’s Ulysses switches styles and viewpoints in at least 18 noteworthy ways. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (out in theaters now but well worth a read if you like ambitious novels) includes an astonishing set of nested stories told in different modes and voices. William Gaddis’s J R is written almost completely in unattributed dialogue that makes it, I suppose, a strange variant on third-person omniscient but that’s really sort of unclassifiable.

When choosing a point of view, I think most of us will choose a first-person voice if we’re telling a story that’s fairly personal or close to the truth, a third-person voice if we want to distance ourselves from the story a bit, and a second-person voice if we’re trying to be innovative (but we’ll probably fail). Sometimes when I run into a roadblock when writing something, I’ll think about changing the POV to see if it lets me think about the story a little differently and head in a better direction.

58 Comments

  1. I usually write my blog in the first person because it’s about me, but maybe I should try the third person, just to experiment. I don’t think I’ll ever write in the second person unless it’s for humour.

  2. I write in the first person on my blog, third person for novels, and I’m attempting a memoir in the second person. I think I have a multiple point of view disorder.

  3. My wife just finished an unreliable narrator novel, Sense of an Ending; she thought it was excellent.

    My favorite POV-switching is Robert Henlein’s Number of the Beast, where each chapter is a first-person narrative rotating through the four main characters.

    And I well remember Space and Beyond.

    As for my blog, I commonly write first and second person, and occasionally thrid person – first person relating my experiences, and second person asking the reader for their input regarding their experiences, or telling them how they should do things, and use third person to relate the experiences of others.

  4. Another common use for second person is ghost stories. “As you walk into the haunted mansion, you hear a sound coming from upstairs…”
    My favorite voice is an over-the-shoulder third person that follows one character around. It allows for the omniscience of third person, preserves some of the intimacy of first person, but leaves room to build suspense by limiting the field of view.

  5. Excellent breakdown. I see things I’ve tried but never knew how to classify. And it does help to classify to stay consistent throughout. That unreliable narrator style is quite interesting.

  6. I loved this post also. I am glad I found WordPress.com. I an author not by choice but by gift 15 years ago. I graduated from Bible college ’93, C.P.E the same, and a Kaplan Online University communication major. Check out my blog. I have to check if I use the second person but definitely the 1st and third. I wrote, :About Myself” in the third person. and I even used the acronym of my ministry name as the person who wrote it! I am very vulnerable.

  7. I write non-fiction. I find myself using third person and second person narratives, more often. My question is: Can we switch between third person and second person in the same article? Is it considered to be unprofessional?

    Destination Infinity

    1. I think the deal is that you can do whatever you want as long as you do it well. :) The trick to breaking rules is that you have to have demonstrated that you know them and are breaking them for a purpose or else people will just think you’re not very well educated and may tune you out.

      Second-person in non-fiction seems like it’d be kind of tricky to pull off. There is a mode in which we use the word “you” but really mean something more like “one.” So “you can’t fly if you don’t have wings” is really more like a generic third-person than second-person even though it uses the second-person pronoun. Maybe that’s what you’re asking about?

      Many authors switch perspectives, so it’s certainly something you (one!) can do, but you (one!) must be careful to do it in a way that makes sense and for a rhetorical effect.

  8. Loved the post! As rightly put, it is easier to write from a first person or a third person POV, which obviously many of us have been trying than from a second person POV. Why don’t we have a second person POV ‘Post Every Day’ exercise? ;) That sounds fun.

  9. I am not convinced that “unreliable narrator” is a true point of view. It seems to me that it is more of a structure technique. I believe that deliberately deceiving a reader can come back to haunt a writer.

    1. You’re right that it’s not a distinct point of view. It’s just a technique that some authors use that seemed worth mentioning in a post on POV.

      With regard to deception, it depends on what the writer’s trying to accomplish. In nonfiction, your narrator should be pretty trustworthy. In fiction, making a narrator unreliable can be a cue that helps the reader more subtly to form impressions about characters. It’s a way of instilling distrust in a “bad” character, for example, without having the character tie a damsel to the railroad tracks.

  10. I have a memoir that I want to write about a particularly tough and shameful period in my life. I began writing in first person, but after the first 100 pages, I became so overwhelmed with shame that I put it away. I haven’t picked it up in four years. It’s a good story, but I think I am going to have to switch to third person. That will be tough because of the emotional content of it… How am I supposed to know what all the other main characters were feeling at the time? My perspective was pretty jaded by my experience and emotions.

    1. Здравейте! Вашият коментар е много интересен. Вие сте толкова откровен Аз също пиша в първо лице Можете според мен да смените заглавието на книгата , тогава няма да има нужда от обработка Приемете това като приятелски съвет. Ще се радвам, ако ми пишете лично какви са Вашите тревоги Аз също имам своите проблеми Надявам се да разберете моето съучастие С поздрав! krasi_dankova@abv.bg

      1. Translated via Google Translate: Hello! Your comment is very interesting. You are so honest I write in first person you think to change the title of the book, then there is no need for processing Accept this as friendly advice. I would be glad if you write what your personal concerns I have my problems I hope you understand my participation Best regards!

  11. As for me, I often use first persoPOV. When I’m sentimenting, it’s either the 2nd or 3rd person. The point is I want to exclude myself from the story even though I’m involved. However, I have a question. Is it alright to use all POVs in one post? Or it’ll be messy?

    1. It depends. If you’re good at switching, it can have a neat effect. If you’re not, or if it seems haphazard, then it can come off as simply disorganized. I think that for most of us, it’s probably best to stick mostly to one POV within a work (especially short works). I’ve seen very deft authors pull off POV switches mid-sentence, though.

  12. True, changing POVs has helped me get a fresh perspective on the writing I’m working on.

    It’s also interesting to consider that we switch between all kinds of POVs in our internal monologues.

  13. My writing teacher told me to NEVER write in first person…. I don’t follow rules well as it seems. Thank you for this insight. I didn’t know who the other “persons” were or what in the world it would mean when ppl spoke of them… Honestly, I just thought I needed to get out more. hehehe, guess I was wrong and right all at the same time.

    1. Writing teachers often have to give blanket advice to cover the most common cases. For example, in a persuasive essay or something purporting to be a factual essay, you wouldn’t generally want to write in the first-person because it lends an air of subjectivity to what should be received as an objective piece of writing and sort of undercuts the argument.

      That said, there’s some great persuasive, philosophical, and journalistic writing that uses the first-person. It’s best to know the general rules/trends before breaking them, though, and I suspect that’s what your teacher was trying to help with.

  14. Намирам темата за интересна- всички ние се занимаваме с литература Моята грижа е ,че текстът в блога ми е на български Много моля всички приятели от цял свят да ми помогнат с превод на английски.Може би ще се намери чрез вас някой преводач на художествени произведения Ще ви бъда много благодарна и щастлива, щастлива… krasi_dankova@abv.bg

  15. I love this post. It is improved my grammar exponentially and taught me more about POV;s and different narrative styles.

  16. This is a controversy even in non fiction writing. The question below is an example.

    Active versus Passive Voice! Which one is Preffered in Scientific Writing?
    In scientific writing we can write using both active and passive voice. However there is controversy regarding this issue. Some prefer active voice because through that, you should accept your responsibility of the article and the performed research. But some believe that passive voice is more journalistic and suits the journals better. What do you think?

    https://www.researchgate.net/post/Active_versus_Passive_Voice_Which_one_is_Preffered_in_Scientific_Writing?ev=tp_feed_post_xview

Comments are closed.