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Writing

Understanding Point of View: How to Choose a POV for Your Story

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 15, 2020 • 6 min read

In creative writing, point of view is the eye through which you tell a story. There are three main types of POV, but there’s no one best POV that every single bestseller uses. Take a look at the strengths of each POV and decide which one will work best for your own story.

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What Are the 3 Points of View?

There are three overarching types of point of view that you can use for your story:

  1. First-person POV: The first-person point of view uses the personal pronouns “I,” “me,” “we,” and “us,” in order to tell a story from the narrator’s perspective. The storyteller in a first-person narrative is either the protagonist relaying their experiences or a peripheral character telling the protagonist’s story. First-person narrators can either be central (the narrator is the protagonist at the heart of the plot) or peripheral (the narrator is a witness to the story but she or he is not the main character).
  2. Second-person POV: Second-person point of view uses the pronoun “you” to address the reader. This narrative voice implies that the reader is either the protagonist or a character in the story and the events are happening to them.
  3. Third-person POV: In third-person point of view, the author is narrating a story about the characters, referring to them by name, or using the third-person pronouns “he,” “she,” and “they.” In literature, third-person point of view follows multiple characters and narrative arcs, zooming in and out of a story the way a camera does in a movie. These stories can either be narrated in third-person omniscient (head-hopping, and aware of every character’s thoughts and feelings) or third-person limited (focused on a single character’s perspective, or aware only of what certain characters say and do).

3 Advantages of Using First-Person POV

First-person perspective is a very popular choice in fiction writing. It’s the perfect choice to achieve specific effects in a short story or novel, like:

  • Heightened intimacy: If the reader is experiencing your story entirely through the eyes of one character using words like “I” and “me” and “my,” they’re going to feel a heightened sense of closeness with that character—it’s the reason that “Call me Ishmael” (from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick) is such a memorable first line—the narrator is introducing themselves to the reader. Offering heightened intimacy means that all of your carefully crafted tension and payoff will feel that much more emotionally satisfying to your readers.
  • Distinctive voice: Being in a character’s head opens you up to telling the story in their voice rather than your own—so a sentence like “He leaned into kiss her” can very easily become something like “He’s leaning in—is he about to kiss me?” First-person POV is a great way to explore interesting and unique voices.
  • Unreliability: Having the entire story filtered through one POV character can help you avoid giving away all the information—and you may even decide to let the character tell outright lies. This is called an “unreliable narrator,” and it’s a great way to add humor, tension, or mystery to your story.
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3 Examples of First-Person Novels

Among the many iconic and popular works of fiction written in first-person POV are:

  1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)
  2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
  3. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

2 Advantages of Using Second-Person POV

Second-person perspective is tricky because it is hard to make the readers believe they are a part of the story. As such, it’s usually best used sparingly, rather than during an entire story or novel. The advantages of second person narratives are:

  1. Uniqueness: Second-person is a unique and daring choice, and if you can pull it off, it will make your writing sound eccentric and interesting. It is rare for a writer to be able to bring the reader into the story and address them as “you.”
  2. Immersiveness: In short bursts, second-person POV pulls the reader immediately into the story, making them complicit as if they were one of the characters. It can be a great way to grab their attention.

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3 Examples of Second-Person Novels or Stories

These stories expertly deploy the second-person POV:

  1. Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
  2. “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid
  3. If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

3 Advantages of Using Third-Person POV

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Third-person perspective can either be third-person omniscient point of view (aware of every character’s thoughts and feelings) or third-person limited point of view (aware only of what certain characters say and do). If you take special care to write clearly and give each character a unique voice, an omniscient narrator can help your story with:

  1. Contrast: By hopping into the head of every character, omniscience allows writers to highlight the contrast between different perspectives, offering every character’s mind side-by-side for the reader to form opinions on. Like third-person omniscient, a limited POV can still offer contrast in its structure—either contrast between different characters’ perspectives, or contrast between the way the character thinks and the way the author writes about it.
  2. A wider scope: Whereas in first-person the writer can’t give any information that isn’t filtered through the narrator, with an omniscient perspective they’re allowed to make observations that the characters don’t notice. This gives them a “voice of god” tone, in which they can definitively offer answers to mysteries the characters may never solve. Just like an omniscient narrator, third-person limited allows a writer to widen the scope from just one character to the world around that character. Whereas in first-person the writer can’t give any information that isn’t filtered through the narrator, in third-person they’re allowed to make observations that the character doesn’t notice.
  3. Focus: As opposed to third-person omniscient, where readers are in the heads of every character, third-person limited allows writers to focus the readers on a select few perspectives. Third-person limited POV focuses on certain characters—usually one per story or one per chapter or scene. This gives a story more focus, since it points readers toward what’s most important.

4 Examples of Third-Person Novels

These novels use either third-person omniscient or third-person limited:

  1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (third-person omniscient)
  2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (third-person omniscient)
  3. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (third-person limited)
  4. 1984 by George Orwell (third-person limited)

How to Choose the POV for Your Story

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There’s no one best point of view that is the perfect choice for everything, because different points of view are better for different stories. To choose which POV is right for your next writing project, think about what effects you want to achieve, and ask yourself these questions:

  • How many characters do I need to tell this story? Decide what information is most important for your readers to understand in your story, and which character would have that information. For example, if you’re telling a love story and you want readers to understand both characters equally, then consider third-person limited from just those two character’s points of view, or alternate first-person between the couple.
  • How close do I want my readers to feel to the character? If you’re writing a high-stakes bank heist and you want readers to be on the edge of their seats, then first-person (or even second-person) would throw them right into the action.
  • Who would have the most interesting narrative voice? Think about the voice of each of your characters and ask yourself: who would give the story the most flavor and tension? Is it a certain character? Is it a group of characters? Or is it you, the author?

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