As an editor, point of view problems are among the top mistakes I see new writers make, and they instantly erode credibility and reader trust. Point of view isn’t easy though, since there are so many to choose from: first person, second person, third person limited, and third person omniscient.
What do those even mean? And how do you choose the right one for your story?
Point of view, or POV, refers to two things in writing:
A point of view in a discussion, an argument, or nonfiction writing is an opinion, or the way you think about a subject.
In a story, the point of view is the narrator’s position in the description of events.
In this post, we’re going to focus on the second point of view definition, but a later post will focus on POV in non-fiction.
Why does point of view matter so much? Because point of view filters everything in your story. Everything in your story must come from a point of view. Which means if you get it wrong, your entire story is damaged.
Here are the four primary POV types in fiction:
First person point of view. First person is when “I” am telling the story. The character is in the story, relating his or her experiences directly. First person POV is very common, but can be limiting - first person narrators cannot be everywhere at once and thus cannot get all sides of the story.
Example: "I first heard about this coastal island two years ago, when the newspapers reported the worst oil spill in recent history. To me, the story had the impact of a footnote - evidence of my urban snobbishness. Luckily, the mess of that has since been cleaned up; its last ugly ripple has ebbed."
Second person point of view. The story is told to “you.” This POV is not common in fiction, but it’s still good to know (it is common in nonfiction). Second person can be useful in fiction however, as it pulls the reader in and makes the story personal.
Example: “You’re late. Heart pounding, you race up the stairs as the train enters the station. You weave around the slow-moving people milling on the platform and dash towards the train, throwing your body through the doorway with only a moment to spare.”
Third person point of view, limited. The story is about “he” or “she.” This is the most common point of view in commercial fiction. The narrator is outside of the story and relating the experiences of a character.
Example: "Harry had taken up his place at wizard school, where he and his scar were famous … but now the school year was over, and he was back with the Dursleys for the summer, back to being treated like a dog that had rolled in something smelly. The Dursleys hadn't even remembered that today happened to be Harry's twelfth birthday. Of course, his hopes hadn't been high…''
Third person point of view, omniscient. The story is still about “he” or “she,” but the narrator has full access to the thoughts and experiences of all characters in the story.
Example: “Hansel walked ahead of Gretel; after all, he knew he belonged in the front because Gretel was just a girl. Gretel dropped breadcrumbs behind her as she went, knowing that her bumbling brother couldn’t be counted on to find his way home from the outhouse, let alone from the middle of the woods.”
There is no best point of view. However – and especially as a new writer - once you choose a particular point of view for a piece of writing, be sure to stick with it throughout the story. It can be very frustrating and confusing to a reader if POV changes throughout.
If you’re just getting started, I would suggest you use either first person or third person limited point of view because they’re two of the easiest to understand and remain consistent with throughout a story.
But be sure to experiment with different POVs in different stories you write!