Fiction Writing Fundamentals: Point of View
Point of view (POV) is the viewpoint or angle from which the story is told. The writer’s choice of viewpoint will affect the reader’s understanding of all aspects of the story. POV should be clear, purposeful, and consistent throughout the story.
This post contains information about:
Identifying POV, First person POV (including: reliable and unreliable narrators, first person plural, and epistolary storytelling), Second person POV, and Third person POV.
Point of View
a. Identifying POV
Readers can identify point of view through the pronouns—that is, words that refer to someone or something mentioned—employed by the narrator.
• In first person POV, the narrator employs first person pronouns (e.g. “I” and “my”).
“On my way to the store, I encounter a dog.”
• In second person POV, the narrator employs second person pronouns (e.g. “you”).
“On your way to the store, you encounter a dog.”
• In third person POV, the narrator employs third person pronouns (e.g. “he,” “she,” and “they”).
“On her way to the store, she encounters a dog.”
Regardless of POV, other pronouns may still be used in dialogue. For instance, a story told in third person may use first person pronouns in dialogue, like this:
On his way to the store, he encountered a dog. “I love dogs,” he said.
b. First person
First person POV is common in fiction. In this POV, the narrator of the story is a character in the story. Since the story is told from the narrator’s perspective, the reader only has access to information the narrator can access and chooses to share. This means that in a first-person narrative, the narrator can only guess at what another character might be thinking but cannot know what another character is thinking. (Unless the story takes place in a universe where mind reading is possible, of course.)
Drafting tip: It’s not uncommon for first drafts to dip accidentally into the consciousness of characters other than the first person POV character, so keep an eye out for this during revision!
Some first person narratives provide a frame for the story that may establish how, when, and why the narrator is relaying the story to an implicit or explicit audience. Many first person narrators, however, are not aware of the aforementioned factors; instead, the story is told as if the reader shares headspace with the narrator, experiencing the story as the narrator experiences it or reflects on it.
Sometimes there are multiple first-person narrators, in which case the information the reader receives is limited to the character who narrates at a specific point in time; in short stories (as opposed to long-form works) the presence of more than two narrators is uncommon due to the brevity of the form.
Interestingly, the narrator of a story is not necessarily the protagonist—that is, the character whose decisions propel the story—such as in The Great Gatsby wherein the narrator is an onlooker relaying the tale of the protagonist.
First person POV can provide various levels of intimacy depending on what the narrator chooses to share; some first person narrators share their most intimate thoughts and feelings, while others might withhold or manipulate what information a reader has access to.
i. Reliable and unreliable narrators
A reliable narrator presents the details of the story as accurately and credibly as possible, while an unreliable narrator is one whose credibility has been compromised, sometimes due to strategic and intentional manipulation of the story and other times due to an unintentional misunderstanding, misinterpretation of the events, or a lack of objective grasp on reality.
Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games series provides an example of a reliable narrator in Katniss Everdeen, who does not intentionally mislead the reader; Katniss’s account of events is influenced by her perceptions and feelings, but the reader trusts they will not be tricked into believing or thinking something that Katniss herself does not. While some unreliable narrators intentionally mislead readers through outright deceptions, others, like the narrator of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Telltale Heart,” lack credibility due to their undependable interpretation of reality—that is, a narrator whose experience of the world is not rooted in consensus reality cannot accurately relay consensus reality to the reader. There are multiple reason to choose an unreliable narrator: they can be inherently intriguing; their deception or misinterpretation of events can function as a mystery for the reader to solve; when their deception or misinterpretation is revealed, it can serve as a plot twist.
Drafting tip: While it’s normal for early drafts to still be in the process of figuring out the narrator’s level of reliability, it’s important that writers be aware of the reliability of their narrators during the revision process to ensure consistent telling throughout the story.
ii. First person plural
While first person POV often employs first person plural pronouns (“we”/”our”) when the narrator relays their participation in collective activities or experiences, stories told exclusively in the first person plural are rare. Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides is told from the first person plural perspective, narrated collectively by a group of neighborhood boys: “No one ever understood what got into us that year,” Eugenides’ narrators intone, “or why we hated so intensely the crust of dead bugs over our lives. Suddenly, however, we couldn't bear the fish flies carpeting our swimming pools, filling our mailboxes, blotting out stars on our flags” (pp. 53, soft cover).
While traditional first person POV provides an intimate account of an individual’s unique experience, first person plural provides a look at an experience shaped by collective, rather than singular, interpretation and memory.
My story “Bird,” which won NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge, is an example of a short story that employs first person plural storytelling.
Another type of first person narration is the epistolary tale, which is written as a series of documents such as letters, diary entries, or newspaper articles and may also include other forms of documentation such as the text of enacted laws or receipts for purchases. Prominent examples of epistolary novels include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Though less common, the epistolary form also includes tales told through means such as audio recordings, as is the case in Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People wherein the first person speaker is framed as narrating his story into a tape recording that is (presumably) later transcribed.
Epistolary tales operate within the norms of the form in which they are told; that is, tales told through letters will likely begin each entry with a greeting, end with a salutations, and might include the date the entry was written. Likewise, a tale told through text messages may include contemporary forms of speech relevant to the norms of that mode of communication such as a keyboard smash, abbreviations like “lol,” and emojis.
The level of intimacy of an epistolary tale varies depending on the relationship between the author of the document and the intended recipient(s). The author of the document may expect the recipient to infer certain information that might be redacted or alluded to rather than overtly told—that is, some “reading between the lines” may be expected and can be an interesting layer to epistolary stories. In the case of some epistolary tales, such as diary entries, the frame of the first person narration is woven into the very frame of the story.
c. Second person
Second person POV is much less common in fiction than first or third person POV. In this POV, the narration employs the second person pronoun “you.” While the degree of difficulty in writing second person POV effectively is high, the impact of second person on a story can be profound. One obstacle that second person narration is faced with is the question of whom it is addressing: When the narrator says “you,” who does this address? Is the narrator talking to themself in the present moment, or addressing a past or future version of themself? Does “you” address the reader, or another character in the story?
Drafting tip: To avoid feeling like a gimmick, the use of second person POV should have a clear purpose and/or impact on the story. That is, second person should be feel absolutely necessary to the telling of the story, meaning the implications of the story would be drastically different and the telling would fall short if the narration were not told in second person.
Further reading: Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” published in The New Yorker, is a notable example of a short story that skillfully employs second person POV. For a craft perspective, check out “So You Want to Write in the Second Person” from Electric Lit’s Read Like a Writer series.
d. Third person
Third person POV is common in fiction. Most often in this POV, the narrator is an uninvolved onlooker whose existence need not be explained. Third person POV may convey the story objectively or subjectively or, most often, somewhere in between; an objective third person narrator describes only the facts of the story, while a subjective third person narrator presents the thoughts and feelings of one or more characters. Subjective third person can be broken into further categories: third person limited has access to the experiences, thoughts, emotions, and awareness of one character, while third person omniscient has access to the experiences, thoughts, and emotions of multiple characters as well as knowledge of places or events unbeknownst to the characters—some describe third person omniscient as having “god-like” access to characters and events with the ability to zoom in and out at will. However, these are only broad categories; many third person narratives exist somewhere on the axis between objective and subjective, somewhere between limited and omniscient.
Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere presents the limited point of view of multiple characters alternating by scene, which is called rotating limited; in this POV, the narrator has access to the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters but presents only one character’s POV in each scene. In rotating limited, generally only the POVs of main characters are presented; that is, rotating limited would not provide the perspective of a random bystander who the main characters happen to pass on the street.
Drafting tip: Most often, short stories limit the perspective to one or two characters due to the brevity of the form. While it is not impossible for short stories to be told from the omniscient POV, this is a difficult task, especially for new writers who may still be grappling to gain control of their narratives. It is not uncommon for early drafts to accidentally dip into the consciousness of a periphery character in a narration that otherwise presents as third person limited, something to look out for during the revision process.
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