Choosing points of view in writing that will help you connect with your reader is a key part of the writing process. Here, we’ll take a look at your options.
You likely have a preferred point of view as a reader. Perhaps you enjoy it when the main character tells the story from their point of view, allowing you to hear the character’s thoughts firsthand and providing you with a unique way of understanding where the character is coming from. Perhaps you prefer a second-person point of view, in which a single character speaks directly to you and asks if you’re a part of the story. Some readers are mainly to the third person POV, in which the narrator acts as an omniscient presence, describing what’s happening in the story from the viewpoint of various characters.
As a writer, it can be tough to decide whether a first, second, or third person POV makes the most sense for your story. Likewise, your preferences as a reader will likely influence how you choose to speak to your reader. There are pros and cons to writing from each point of view, and you’ll need to carefully think about which option is the best fit for helping your readers get to know your characters.
Here, we’ll explore each point of view in writing, as well as provide some tips on how you can decide which option makes the most sense for your next novel or short story.
1. First Person Point of View
From a first-person point of view, a character tells the reader the story directly. This allows the character to develop a relationship with the reader, revealing their thoughts and sharing their interpretations of the story’s events. To write from the first-person point of view, the writer must deeply understand the first-person narrator’s life. This can either be done by relying on your own real-life experience to develop the storyline or through extensive research to help you understand what your main character is going through in your story.
For example, Moby Dick by Herman Melville shows how a first-person narrator can help a reader get to know the story’s main character. The protagonist of the story, Ishmael, starts the story off by sharing his innermost grim thoughts with the reader:
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
While an unreliable narrator can be used as a literary device from any point of view, this technique is most common in stories told in the first person. An unreliable narrator serves to reveal truths to the reader that have been kept hidden throughout the novel or short story. This method is ideal for stories with twists and turns, especially mystery and suspense novels.
2. Second Person Point of View
By far the most challenging point of view option, writing from a second person point of view brings the reader into the story, either by requiring them to place themselves in the presented scenario or by explaining to them that they are taking on the life of the main character. While this is difficult, it can effectively engage readers in unfamiliar situations. In addition, writing in second person POV creates an engaging experience that leaves readers wondering what they would do next if they were actually in the character’s shoes. Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney is an excellent example of a well-done second-person piece:
“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again it might not.”
3. Third Person Point of View
A commonly used literary device, the third person point of view, relies on a narrator to tell the characters’ story. Typically, the narrator is not a character in the story; instead, they act as an all-knowing third party who communicates directly with the reader.
Many writers find it easier to write in the third person than in the first or second person, as this approach allows the writer to keep a distance from the story that allows them to share details with the reader of which the main character(s) may be unaware. Stories written in the third person point of view can leave readers on the edge of their seats, wondering when the main character will discover a crucial piece of information just under their nose. Here’s a third-person point of view example from To Build a Fire by Jack London:
“Day had dawned cold and gray when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail. He climbed the high earth-bank where a little-traveled trail led east through the pine forest. It was a high bank, and he paused to breathe at the top. He excused the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o’clock in the morning. There was no sun or promise of sun, although there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day. However, there seemed to be an indescribable darkness over the face of things.”
Third Person Limited Point of View
A limited third-person point of view means that the reader gets a similar experience to reading a book written in the first person, as the story is told mainly from the point of view of a single main character. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling provides a great example of how a limited third-person narrator can still allow the reader to feel close to the story, as seen in the following passage:
“Harry sat up and examined the jagged piece on which he had cut himself, seeing nothing but his bright green eye reflected at him. Then he placed the fragment on top of that morning’s Daily Prophet, which lay unread on the bed, and attempted to stem the sudden upsurge of bitter memories, the stabs of regret. Of longing the discover of the broken mirror had occasioned, by attacking the rest of the rubbish in the trunk.”
Third Person Omniscient Point of View
An omniscient narrator is all-knowing and can share deep thoughts of the characters with the reader. The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien shows how an omniscient narrator can connect with the reader despite not being a featured character in the story:
“Here was one with an air of high nobility such as Aragorn at times revealed, less high perhaps, yet also less incalculable and remote: one of the Kings of Men born into a later time, but touched with the wisdom and sadness of the Elder Race. He knew now why Beregond spoke his name with love. He was a captain that men would follow, that he would follow, even under the shadow of the black wings.”
When writing in the third person POV, you might be tempted to head-hop or tell the story from different character points of view. However, if you’re able to keep your distance from the story and write as an observer, this can work well to give your reader insight into what’s going on in the minds of your characters.
If you decide to explain your story from various points of view, be careful that you’re not providing too much insight into each character’s inner thoughts. If you bounce back and forth between the points of view of your characters, it can be challenging for your reader to follow the story. This disorienting approach can make it hard for readers to know what will happen next and can cause a struggle to follow the story’s events.
If you decide to share the thoughts of multiple characters with your readers, it’s key that you clearly define who you’re following. This can be accomplished by sharing a different character’s perspective in different chapters or sections of the book. This approach (instead of bouncing back and forth between multiple perspectives within a paragraph or single chapter) can help keep character development tracks straight in your reader’s mind.
Choosing Your Point of View: Helpful Tips
Choosing your point of view before you begin writing your story or novel is wise. Going back and switching up the point of view of your story takes a lot of work and essentially requires a rewrite. When you take your time to choose your point of view in the beginning, you’re saving yourself days (or weeks) of time spent on revisions down the line.
1. Consider the character-reader relationship
You’ll need to think about how you want your readers to relate to the narrator. For example, choosing a first-person point of view makes sense if you want the reader to feel like the narrator is a close friend. This can require creative character development but can be well worth it for the way you reader will be able to understand what’s happening in the inner world of your main character.
If you’re up for a challenge and want to draw your reader in, making them feel like they’re a part of the story, using a second-person POV can be a good fit. In this style of reading, your reader will feel like they’re a character in the story, so you’ll need to keep your writing general enough that each reader can picture themselves going through the different scenes of your story.
If you’d like to use a narrator who can clue your reader into things happening in your story that your main character doesn’t notice, or if you want to provide a broad view of your character’s world, a third-person narrator can be a good fit.
2. Think about your POV preferences
You may find it easier to write from the point of view that makes the most sense to you as a reader, as it’s likely that much of your reading is comprised of books written in your preferred style. Think about your favorite books: what do you love about how the writer utilized point of view to help you feel connected to the story?
3. Consider whether you can embody your main character
If you’re thinking about using first-person POV, you’ll need to consider whether you can embody your main character’s voice. For example, if your main character has vastly different experiences than what you’ve been through in your life, it may be harder for you to create a story with a realistic first-person point of view.
For more advice, learn how to write a thriller.
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