What is Point of View? A Quick Guide to Narration From the First-Person, Third-Person, and Everything in Between

Being able to answer “What is point of view?” is a key first step to developing any narrative—let’s check out your options for how to tell your story.

Simply put, point of view is the perspective from which the story is told. The narrator of the story determines the point of view. When deciding how to start your story, it’s key to consider your narration options. Different points of view offer different ways to let your reader get to know your characters.

Whether you’re writing a short story, a self-help narrative, a choose your adventure book, a novel, or another type of prose, it’s smart to think through your options for types of point of view before you get started, as this is one aspect of your story that’s not particularly easy to go back and change once you get started.

Choosing the right point of view for your work will boost your creative writing and help your readers understand what’s happening from a character’s perspective. Read through each option for point of view, and check out our point of view examples to find the style that resonates most with the story you want to tell.

First-Person Point of View

First-Person Point of View
In the first person POV, your character speaks directly to your reader, providing a glimpse into their innermost thoughts

First-person pronouns: I, we, us, me, my, our

A first-person narrator is a single character who shares their inner thoughts directly with the reader, as they get a direct glimpse into the main character’s mind. In the first person POV, your character speaks directly to your reader, providing a glimpse into their innermost thoughts. There are two general options for writing from a first-person point of view: first-person central and first-person peripheral.

The first-person central point of view means the story is being told from the main character’s perspective, and that character is speaking directly to the reader. For example, this iconic opening line makes it clear that Holden Caulfield is going to be speaking directly to the reader in Catcher in the Rye:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

This is different from a first-person peripheral point of view. In the less commonly used form of first person POV, a side character speaks directly to the reader, which can provide an interesting outsider’s perspective on the story’s events. The character of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby is a fantastic example of an outsider looking in, telling the story from a perspective different than that of the main character:

“I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought—frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

It makes sense to write in the first person for many reasons. You can use the narrator to create a sense of mystery and intrigue—after all, they can’t know exactly what’s going on inside another character’s mind. You can also use this point of view if your story requires your reader to buy into a certain character’s opinion, as you can use the biases and perspective of your narrator to help your reader see the story in a certain light.

Second-Person Point of View

Second person pronoun: You

Second-person narration can provide an immersive experience for your reader, much like a choose-your-own-adventure story. Second-person POV is typically used for shorter prose, as it can be tough to maintain this style for long writing pieces. When you use a second-person point of view, your reader isn’t just listening to your story—they’re becoming a part of it.

Typically, this POV is used in non-fiction works, such as self-help books in which the writer speaks and offers the reader advice. Writing from a second-person point of view is unusual but can be a valuable way to draw your reader into your story. See how Erin Morgenstern expertly uses this perspective to draw you into this evening scene:

“What kind of circus is only open at night?” people ask. No one has a proper answer, yet as dusk approaches there is a substantial crowd of spectators gathering outside the gates. You are amongst them, of course. Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do. You stand in the fading light, the scarf around your neck pulled up against the chilly evening breeze, waiting to see for yourself exactly what kind of circus only opens once the sun sets. The ticket booth clearly visible behind the gates is closed and barred.

The tents are still, save for when they ripple ever so slightly in the wind. The only movement within the circus is the clock that ticks by the passing minutes, if such a wonder of sculpture can even be called a clock. The circus looks abandoned and empty. But you think perhaps you can smell caramel wafting through the evening breeze, beneath the crisp scent of the autumn leaves. A subtle sweetness at the edges of the cold.”

Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

Third-Person Point of View

Third-Person Point of View
The third-person point of view is common and can be split into three categories: limited, omniscient, and objective.

Third-person pronouns: He, she, they

In third-person narration, a narrator, separate from the events of the story, describes the actions of the characters. This point of view is common and can be split into three categories: limited, omniscient, and objective. You might also be interested in learning what is faulty parallelism.

Third Person Limited

From this point of view, the narrator doesn’t know everything happening in the characters’ world. While they can see and describe the story’s events, they aren’t privy to the inner workings of each character’s mind or motivation, leaving the reader on the hook to read between the lines and learn more about what’s happening.

Often, the limited third-person narrator can glimpse into the mind of one of the characters (and tells the story from that character’s perspective). For example, J.K. Rowling uses this narration in the Harry Potter novels. Readers get to hear about Harry’s motivation and thoughts but are left in the dark, for the most part, about precisely what’s happening in the minds of the other characters. This is also known as close third-person narration. In this passage, readers get to know what Harry is thinking—but don’t get to hear about the inner workings of the minds of Harry, Malfoy, or Fang:

“It was the unicorn all right, and it was dead. Harry had never seen anything so beautiful and sad. Its long, slender legs were stuck out at odd angles where it had fallen, and its mane was spread pearly-white on the dark leaves. Harry had taken one step toward it when a slithering sound made him freeze where he stood. A bush on the edge of the clearing quivered….Then, out of the shadows, a hooded figure came crawling across the ground like some stalking beast. Harry, Malfoy, and Fang stood transfixed. The cloaked figure reached the unicorn, lowered its head over the wound in the animal’s side, and began to drink its blood.”

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Third Person Omniscient Narrator

This type of narrator is all-knowing. Often, readers recognize this type of narration as the voice of the author speaking to the reader directly. This is the most flexible point of view a writer can use to tell a story, as there are no limits on what the reader can know about the characters. This type of narration can be considered an unnoticed outsider looking in on the story’s characters.

“Just then another visitor entered the drawing room: Prince Andrew Bolkónski, the little princess’ husband. He was a very handsome young man, of medium height, with firm, clearcut features. Everything about him, from his weary, bored expression to his quiet, measured step, offered a most striking contrast to his quiet, little wife. It was evident that he not only knew everyone in the drawing room, but had found them to be so tiresome that it wearied him to look at or listen to them. And among all these faces that he found so tedious, none seemed to bore him so much as that of his pretty wife.”

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Third Person Objective

This type of narrator differs from the other types of third-person narrators, as they cannot access the character’s innermost thoughts. They observe from a distance without offering the reader inside information. This approach can provide the reader with voyeuristic insight. The narrator speaks as an eavesdropper and may miss parts of the conversation or story that the reader must fill in from their inferences. One of the most well-known stories using a third-person objective is Hills Like White Elephants:

“The hills across the valley of the Ebro’ were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.”

Ernest Hemingway, Hills Like White Elephants

Unreliable Narrator

Time for a wild card—the unreliable narrator. Readers don’t know they’re dealing with an unreliable narrator until they reach a certain point in the story and realize they’ve been fooled. This type of writing is ideal for when the author is working to provide the reader with a twist at the end of a story. It’s smart to provide some serious foreshadowing when using this type of narration, as you don’t want readers to simply feel like they’ve been lied to.

Providing subtle clues that something isn’t quite right is smart for helping readers stay hooked on learning more about the story. In Life of Pi, the narrator—Pi Patel—tells the story of his voyage at sea in a way that allows him to survive. The stories he tells are his reality—but are not congruent with what is happening in the story.

“I wish so much that I’d had one last look at him in the lifeboat, that I’d provoked him a little, so that I was on his mind. I wish I had said to him then – yes, I know, to a tiger, but still – I wish I had said, “Richard Parker, it’s over. We have survived. Can you believe it? I owe you more gratitude than I can express I couldn’t have done it without you. I would like to say it formally: Richard Parker, thank you. Thank you for saving my life.

And now go where you must. You have known the confined freedom of a zoo most of your life; now you will know the free confinement of a jungle. I wish you all the best with it. Watch out for Man. He is not your friend. But I hope you will remember me as a friend. I will never forget you, that is certain. You will always be with me, in my heart. What is that hiss? Ah, our boat has touched sand. So farewell, Richard Parker, farewell. God be with you.”

Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Looking for more? Check out our guide with examples of hyperbole!

Join over 15,000 writers today

Get a FREE book of writing prompts and learn how to make more money from your writing.

Powered by ConvertKit

Author

  • Amanda has an M.S.Ed degree from the University of Pennsylvania in School and Mental Health Counseling and is a National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer. She has experience writing magazine articles, newspaper articles, SEO-friendly web copy, and blog posts.