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What Is Narrative Point of View?
Point of view is the “eye” or “narrative voice” through which you tell a story. When you write a story, you must decide who is telling the story, and to whom they are telling it. The story could be told by a character who is involved in the story, or from a perspective that sees and knows all of the characters, but is not one of them.
Types of Point of View
There are three primary types of point of view:
1) First Person
In first person point of view, one of the characters is narrating the story. This is generally revealed by the “I” sentence construction. (“I went to work.”) The reader assumes that this character is closely related to the story’s action—either a main character or someone close to the protagonist.
First person narration can provide intimacy, but it is also limited by the perceptive abilities of the character. They are confined to report only what they would realistically know about the story, and they are further confined by their own perspective.
Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ishmael of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) are two of the most well-known first person narrators in literature.
2) Second Person
Second person point of view is structured around the “you” pronoun, and is less common in novel-length work. (“You thought you could do it.”) Second person can allow you to draw your reader into the story and make them feel like they’re part of the action, because the narrator is speaking directly to them. Writing in second person for any great length is a challenge, and will stretch your writing skills.
Lorrie Moore is well-known for her innovative use of second person narration in her short story collection Self-Help (1985).
3) Third Person
The author is narrating a story about the characters and refers to them with the personal pronouns “he/she.” (“He was hungry.”)
This point of view is subdivided:
The omniscient narrator knows everything about the story and its characters. This narrator can enter anyone’s mind, move freely through time, and give the reader their own opinions and observations as well as those of the characters.
This narrator also knows more than the characters—think of the omniscient narrator as having a god’s-eye-view of the characters. (“He had been infected with the virus, but he didn’t know it yet.”)
The third person limited point of view (often called a “close third”) is when an author sticks closely to one character but remains in third person. This style gives you the ability to be inside a character’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations, which can give readers a deeper experience of character and scene. (“As she watched him leave, she was afraid he’d never come back.”)
Ernest Hemingway is known for his use of a very direct style of third person narration.
Switching Between Different Points of View
You don’t have to be tied to one point of view throughout your novel; some novels move from first to third or first to second.
But it’s important to note that when you establish point of view, you are creating another type of contract with the reader: that you will adhere to that point of view for the course of the scene. It’s all right to have different subplots told from different points of view throughout your novel, but you should treat each point of view as an individual section or chapter.
While you’re in a point of view, stick to it. For example, if you’re narrating from your hero character’s perspective and, in the middle of a scene, you suddenly switch to the point of view of a different character, the disruption will jar your reader out of the story.
Ways to Use Point of View
You can use narrative point of view to many different effects in your writing.
When a reader knows more than the character, as in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), and your reader waits for the character to learn what they already know. This tension will keep your reader on the edge of their seat.
When a first person narrator knows more than the reader but withholds information from the reader on purpose, in order to manipulate them. Gone Girl (2012) by Gillian Flynn and Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier are brilliant examples of unreliable narrators.
When a first person narrator knows so much less than both th reader and the other characters that it creates comedy. In this strategy, the reader is laughing at the narrator, rather that with him or her.
Examples include Gulliver in Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift, in which a plain-spoken narrator tells whoppers with a straight face, and A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) by John Kennedy Toole, in which the narrator complains about the ineptitude of other characters, when he is clearly the most inept character of all. An omniscient narrator can also satirize all a story’s characters, as Voltaire does in Candide (1759).
The characters know less than the reader. Narrative irony also involves foreshadowing, when the omniscient narrator leaves hints for the reader about something that will happen in the future. When a tragic event has been foreshadowed, but the characters don’t see it coming, a sense of irony is created.
You can also create tragic irony in first person point of view, but you have to walk the fine line of having your narrator foreshadow while remaining truly ignorant of what’s going to happen.
Examples of Different Point of View, Recommended by Margaret Atwood
The following are stellar examples of the various narrative points of view, as recommended by Margaret Atwood:
- Treasure Island (1882) by Robert Louis Stevenson: “A model of clean, clear narration by Jim Hawkins.”
- Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronté: “Narratives within narratives, but all related by first persons. You can learn a lot from seeing how she does it.”
- Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronté: “The first in-depth first person account of female childhood and youth.”
- Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys. “The mad wife from Jane Eyre has her say.”
- Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov: “A tricky, devious snake of a narrator.”
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) by Agatha Christie: “The first person point of view creates narrative irony.”
- Any of Jane Austen’s works: So loaded and mischievous!
- Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustave Flaubert: “Third person allows you to see the character in ways that she or he cannot see him or herself.”
- Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) by Virginia Woolf: “These show stream-of-consciousness at its most supple.”
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) by John Le Carré: “Excellent third person narration. He learned a lot from the 19th century many-charactered novel.”
- In the Skin of a Lion (1987) by Michael Ondaatje: This is a very complex plot, but the narrative gets you from A to B to Z, and you can follow the dots.
Multiple Points of View
- The Sound and the Fury (1929) by William Faulkner: “A quartet of narrative styles that move us increasingly back from the scene. The first section is right up close. The second is further back, but still first person; stream of consciousness. The third section is narrated by Jason and in a linear story. The fourth section is third person, and at yet one more remove—we move back to see this crumbling white family from the point of view of the black servants.”
Tips for Selecting and Using Point of View
1) Try different points of view.
The only way to decide the best point of view strategy for your novel is to try different ones. Likely, you’ll know the right one for your story because the writing will begin to move more quickly, and you’ll feel momentum.
First person allows you to create intimacy by granting the reader access to your character’s internal monologue. Second person is often made as a stylistic choice; it is a powerful yet potentially overwhelming narrative device that can evoke feelings of confusion or claustrophobia. Third person narration is a more flexible choice than first or second person. It allows you to switch between characters’ points of view. You can even zoom in and out from complete omniscience to limited or “close” third point of view.
2) Once you pick a point of view, establish it right away.
Whichever narration style you use, it’s important to establish your point of view quickly. Always let the reader know which character’s perspective you’re following in any given scene. If you’re using third person, you should use the character’s name early in the section. Even a simple statement like “Robert felt tired” is enough to convey this information.
3) Be aware of limitations.
Point of view is an essential tool in character development. You’re describing the world through their eyes and letting the reader know what they think and feel. You’ll need to be aware at all times what your characters’ limitations are. Review your writing frequently to scan for mistakes you might have made in giving a character information or opinions they wouldn’t normally have.
Point of View Writing Exercises
Now that you have a solid understanding of various points of view and their applications, try putting your knowledge into writing with the following exercises.
Experiment With a Single Scene
Think of an event that involves at least three characters. Then, on three different pages or documents, write about this event from these three different points of view, trying both first person and third person (or second person, if you’re feeling bold!).
After you have written your scene, read over it and ask yourself the following questions: How did the point of view change the story? Which felt most natural? Most compelling?
Apply POV to Your Novel
If you’re at work on a novel or longer project, apply this exercise to your work in progress. Choose a major event in the book that you’re working on. From whose point of view did you write it originally? On a blank page or document, try writing about that same event from a different character’s point of view; push yourself to write the entire event from this different vantage.
What differences did you discover in how this character experienced or recounted the event? Did retelling the event through their eyes change the way you understood it? Don’t worry if this point of view doesn’t find its way into a final draft. But try to stay open to the way handing the narration to a different character deepens and complicates your understanding of the events of your story.