One of the most important decisions you need to make as a writer, especially when writing fiction or creative nonfiction, is deciding which point of view to use. There are three main points of view, first person, second person, and third person. Second person is rarely used and is especially difficult in creative writing, so here we’ll just be looking at first person and third person.
What is “Point of View (POV)?”
Point of view is the perspective from which the story is told. It’s what the narrator sees, knows, thinks and relates to the reader. Think of it as the lens through which the narrator sees the world. One of the most important aspects of point of view is that the narrator can only describe events that he is aware of, which is restrictive to the author (with one exception, described below).
First Person Point of View
When you use first person POV, you write using the first person pronouns “I,” “me,” “myself,” “mine,” etc. With this POV, the author is the narrator and forms a close connection with the reader because the writing is very personal.
The main disadvantage is that you can only describe what the narrator knows, perceives, experiences, etc. Thus, the narrator cannot tell the reader what another character is thinking, feeling, or has done, unless it’s been revealed to him.
The actual character whose point of view you use is most commonly the protagonist but could be the antagonist, or even a secondary character who happens to be present throughout the story. You can also use more than one POV character but you should never use more than one within the same scene.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.
(Dickens, David Copperfield, Ch. 1)
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. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.
(Melville, Moby Dick, Ch. 1)
Did you notice the first person pronouns “I,” “my,” & “me?”
Third Person Point of View
When writing in third person POV you use third person pronouns such as “he,” “she,” “they,” “his,” etc. When using this POV, the narrator isn’t a character in the story but is an outside observer. Third person is probably the most commonly used POV in creative writing as it allows for greater flexibility and doesn’t have the restrictions that first person has.
There are three main sub-types of third person POV:
1. Third Person Limited
Third person limited restricts the perspective to that of a single character. Thus, the narrator only knows what that character knows, so, in this case, is very similar to first person.
As he put his hand to the door-knob Winston saw that he had left the diary open on the table. DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER was written all over it, in letters almost big enough to be legible across the room. It was an inconceivably stupid thing to have done. But, he realized, even in his panic he had not wanted to smudge the creamy paper by shutting the book while the ink was wet.
(Orwell, 1984, Ch. 2)
2. Third Person Multiple
This is basically the same as third person limited except that you can switch between characters in different scenes. The main advantage of this POV is the ability to get inside the head of more than one character, allowing for more connection with the reader. Just make sure you only have one POV character in each scene.
3. Third Person Omniscient
This is probably the most natural and, maybe, easiest POV to use because the narrator views the action from a God-like perspective and knows everything about the characters in the story, including their innermost thoughts and feelings, past history, motivations, etc. The narrator even knows things that none of the characters in the story are aware of.
This POV is especially useful for novels with very complex plots and many characters as the writer isn’t limited by any single character’s perspective or experience. But the freedom it offers can result in a lack of focus and emotional connection with the main characters.
Here is one of countless examples of third person omniscient:
‘Those must be splendid clothes,’ thought the Emperor. ‘By wearing them I should be able to discover which men in my kingdom are unfitted for their posts. I shall distinguish the wise men from the fools.’
. . .
They pointed to the empty loom, and the poor old minister stared as hard as he could, but he could not see anything, for of course there was nothing to see.
‘Heaven preserve us!’ thought the old minister, opening his eyes very wide. ‘Why, I can’t see a thing!’ But he took care not to say so.
. . .
‘I know I am not a fool!’ thought the man, ‘so it must be that I am unfit for my good post! It is very strange, though! However, one must not let it appear!’
(Andersen, The Emperor’s New Clothes)
Did you notice how the inner thoughts of the emperor, the minister, and “the man” were revealed in these excerpts?
Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after. Up Jack got, and home did trot, as fast as he could caper. He went to bed and mended his head, with vinegar and brown paper.
Rewrite this nursery rhyme in first person POV, using Jack as your POV character, then Jill, then Jack’s mother, who was watching this all unfold through her kitchen window. Add some internal thoughts and feelings.
I had a little nut tree, nothing would it bear but a silver nutmeg, and a golden pear. The King of Spain’s daughter came to visit me, and all for the sake of my little nut tree. Her dress was made of crimson, jet black was her hair. She asked me for my nut tree and my golden pear. I said, “So fair a princess never did I see, I’ll give you all the fruit from my little nut tree.”
Rewrite this nursery rhyme using third person limited (from the nut tree owner’s perspective and that of the daughter of the King of Spain) and third person omniscient. You can also try rewriting it using first person POV with the King of Spain’s daughter as your POV character.
If you are a member of Inspire Christian Writers and would like to upload your POV exercises, or discuss the topics covered in this post, you can join our Writing 101 group and reply to this post with your thoughts and exercise work: https://www.inspirewriters.com/groups/writing-101/forum/topic/point-of-view-basics/ (you will need to be logged in to access the group/forum).