Who Tells the Story: Narrative Point of View

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 09:26 min

Choosing the right point of view to tell your story from involves a lot of trial and error. Margaret explains the impact this decision has on your story, and offers an exercise to help you explore the effects of various points of view.

Margaret Atwood
Teaches Creative Writing
Learn how the author of The Handmaid’s Tale crafts vivid prose and hooks readers with her timeless approach to storytelling.
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Who are you writing this for? And what do you want to tell them? I think there might be a bit too much theory kicking around in the world, that it has to be this. It has to be that. But the first thing is writing is a voice. And so it's a way of recording the human voice. Whose voice is it that is doing the talking? And to whom are they speaking? Because there's always someone. So once upon a time, it was either an omniscient third person narrator who would tell you about the characters and tell you what they were doing, and in some instances, what they were thinking. The he is she, you can either be a narrator taking a long shot. And the omniscient narrator knows everything. So the omniscient narrator can say, little did Red Riding Hood know, but behind the tree, there was lurking a wolf. And there was nothing that would please him more than eating not only Little Red Riding Hood, but also her grandmother. And that's what he was scheming to do. As the know-it-all narrator, you can say those things. But if you're not going to be that know-it-all narrator, you can go to Little Red Riding Hood. She was happily picking flowers when out from behind a tree stepped a gentlemen clad in a rather hairy tweed suit. Oh, my goodness, said Little Red Riding Hood, et cetera. So you're not necessarily telling all, but you're seeing that encounter through the eyes of one person. You can move it around in whatever way you wish in order to tell your story. We also have stream of consciousness that entered. It's not exactly a first person narrative, but sort of the flow of ideas that goes through the character's head. So who is talking? To whom are they talking? Are they talking to the reader? Are they talking to somebody else in the book? [MUSIC PLAYING] There's no rule that says you have to have one point of view. I think I've mentioned "The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner before, in which there are four different narrators and four different points of view. And some of them are first person. And some of them are third person. And the perspective keeps getting further and further away. So the first person is-- you're smashed right up against that character. You're right in their mind. And then we move back a bit. And by the end, we're seeing an overview. We're seeing a long view. The films and cameras really influence the novel quite a bit. So this would be a novel in which the shot moves back. you're looking at the same thing but from further away. How do you decide who's going to tell your story? Learn by doing. You pick a likely candidate and start off. And if that is not going well, maybe you need to reconsider. So if it's not going well and you started it in the third person, try switching to the first. If you started in the first person and that's not going well, try switching to the third. If that character isn't working out for you at all, maybe you need to come at it from the point of vie...

The art of powerful storytelling

Called the “Prophet of Dystopia,” Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In her first-ever online writing class, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale teaches how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction, that remain timeless and relevant. Explore Margaret’s creative process for developing ideas into novels with strong structures and nuanced characters.


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This was a great lesson. I'm working on a novel in the 3rd person and I suddenly thought that for some of the key characters it would be good to jump to first person, as a way of getting different perspectives on the central character. So I tried rewriting one section and it worked. Now reconsidering the POV for the whole thing. I was also reminded as a result of the lesson of the Captain Alatriste novels by Perez-Reverte, where the novel is both largely a first person 'witness' account by the boy Inigo Balboa, who serves and is a quasi-son to the main character Captain Alatriste and also sometimes a 3rd person account of Captain Alatriste in situations where Inigo Balboa is not present. Formally, this is odd (how could Inigo Balboa know?) as is the practice of Inigo sometimes jumping forward to comment on what will happen many years later, but somehow Perez-Reverte gets away with it, as evidenced by his millions of sales. So is it a choice as Margaret seems to say or can you really get away with murder?


Does anyone have any tips for choosing the best POV for a novel? I almost always write in first person, but in the novel I'm currently working on it's not totally working. However, I always find it difficult to fully connect with characters through 3rd person. Despite the fact that my book is quite action-packed the main character does grow mentally/emotionally and I've always found that difficult to convey through 3rd person. Any advice?

A fellow student

In most of my stories it is either first or third person and the character and reader know the almost the same amount. But in the the story I am currently working on the main character knows as much as the reader maybe only a little more but a different character who is almost in and out of the story so far knows more then the main character.

Debbie J.

I love the way Dracula was written...., in the form of letters or entries in a journal. Have considered writing the story I'm currently working on from this perspective.

Jenny H.

I am currently working on a story told from multiple points of view (4) and it is really something to keep it all straight sometimes :)

A fellow student

I think this helped me solve a problem with one of my longest writing projects :O This lesson was bordering on magical for me.


The exercise of writing in different POVs for the same event has opened up a whole new page of opportunity for me. This is very helpful!

Amadeus M.

Finishing this chapter, I already have heaps of new ideas and avenues to go from here. This was extremely helpful!

Gareth S.

This has been a real eye-opener of a lesson for me. This is such a helpful chapter.

Angela K.

This is such a helpful chapter, I can't even tell! I've never asked myself what the narrator knows and whether she or he knows more than the reader or the other way round. That's an interesting fact I've never cared about. Unfortunately. From now on I will. :)