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.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Margaret, is delightfully insightful, wise, human and humble. She gives a lovely combination of very specific and mildly abstract hope and help to young and aspiring writers!

I have a new respect for Margaret Atwood (which is saying something since I respected her before). I found the depth of the class surprising and thoughtful, and found many nuggets of wisdom I plan on keeping close by. Well worth my time. Thanks!

Great insight to how a writer writes, what things to look for, what questions to be asking at each stage, and much more. I feel I've learned a lot! Margaret Atwood is amazing in sharing her knowledge and experience. Highly recommended.

I especially liked the parts about developing characters, about tone in and different types of dialog, and the chart for characters so that you can make sure they're doing/wearing/saying things appropriate for the times in which they live. I also never considered using fairy tales to assist in plotting and I'm definitely going to try that. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Margaret Atwood.



I am enjoying the experimentation with different points of view. First time writer working two different stories.

A fellow student

I wrote my novella using the first person 'I'. The main character is schizophrenic and he narrates about his own delusion.. Margaret says that the author puts his own thoughts in the mouth of his character when he uses the first person narration.. I felt that my character was more real and the story had more impact when I used the first person narration in my own story.. My character was suffering from schizophrenia and he told about his own delusion...Using the third person or omniscient narrator makes of some stories more of a showing rather than telling... well i repeat some of the stories... i'm still working on my novella..do you think I have to continue using the first person narration ..making the mad narrator unreliable like in Edgar Allan Poe's stories?


Wonderful experimenting here. Thank you Margaret. I read some Chekhov to see if his style influenced A Gentleman in Moscow. Free-wheeling omniscient narrator with great insights into each character. Attempting POV where reader knows but character doesn't using childhood memory. It creates a sense of foreboding...creates great suspense.

Katherine R.

Great lesson. This really helped! I worry about writing honestly about hard situations, but I can have the characters do the telling, and a probably should sometimes. This seems to put a distance between me personally and the story I am telling. This comes from always trying to tell the story in the first person--which, in "affect" (no mistaken usage here)--is me! When I tried writing from three different points of view as an exercise, it became obvious to me that I really need to know my characters. And letting them tell the story in their own voice forces me to really get to know them! So I loved the part about writing from different points of view, even if I elect not to leave some of it in the final work. This process helps me understand my story better, and should help me provide a more complete scaffolding on which readers can build their interpretations.


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.