There are three possibilities:
- First-person – ‘I’ or ‘we’.
- Second-person – ‘you’.
- Third-person – ‘he’, ‘she’, or ‘it’.
Second-person isn’t that realistic, except for short passages, so we can disregard it for now. That leaves your two main choices as first-person vs third-person.
Before we dive into the differences between the points of view (POV) we need to clarify what is meant by the term ‘narrator’ and ‘point-of-view character’.
- Narrator: The actual or implied character or entity who tells the story. This can be an actual character in the story, in which case it is called a participant narrator, or it can be an abstract non-participant voice.
- Point-of-view character: A character who narrates sections of a story or whose experiences, thoughts and impressions we follow. In first-person narration there is only one viewpoint character – the ‘I’ who narrates. In third-person, there can be any number of viewpoint characters.
First-person point of view
In first-person, the story is told by a participant narrator speaking as ‘I’ or ‘we’. The viewpoint is from within the narrator’s head, giving us access to everything they see, hear, think and experience. The thoughts and experiences of other characters are not accessible to the reader, unless related through the observations of the narrator.
First-person narration is the closest to how we actually experience the world. We know what we’re thinking or feeling, but we can never be sure of what others are thinking and feeling.
Advantages of first-person
Because the narrator refers to themselves as ‘I’ and everything is experienced through their eyes, the reader in a sense becomes the narrator. Not only does the reader identify as the ‘I’ of the narrator, but they are totally dependent on this one character for all their information. This creates an emotional bond between the protagonist and the reader that is perhaps stronger than what is the case with third-person narration.
Limitations of first-person
The intimacy of first-person is also its great limitation. If you are telling a story through the eyes of a single character your reader can only know what the character knows. Events that take place out of sight of the narrator are strictly off-limits. So too are the thoughts and feelings of other people. You can show their reactions, as seen through the eyes of the narrator, but their inner lives are inaccessible.
This can be a challenge if there’s something you want the reader to know that the narrator doesn’t know. You can try to get around this limitation by using more than one ‘I’ narrator in a novel, but then each ‘I’ narrator needs to have his or her own chapters so as not to confuse the reader about who they are following.
Third-person point of view
Third-person POV uses the pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’, ‘their’, etc. There are two main types of third-person narration — unlimited (omniscient) and limited.
The third-person omniscient narrator is not a participant in the story but is an abstract observer, often associated with the voice of the author. This is probably the narrative voice you’re instinctively most familiar with as it is perhaps the most widely used viewpoint in classic literature.
There’s a reason why it’s been so popular – it enables the author to see into every character’s thoughts, to tell the reader everything they need to know to understand a situation, and to pass judgment on characters as well as on the politics and morality of the society in which the story is set. The author is all-seeing and all-knowing.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is written in omniscient narration. Here is the start of the first scene, containing what is surely one of the most famous opening lines in literature.
It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some or other of their daughters.
Who is it who states that delightful truth about wealthy men and marriage? It is not Mr or Mrs Bennett, who are introduced in the paragraphs after this, but rather a non-participant, abstract narrator who speaks from the vantage point of the author.
Advantages of omniscient narration:
- No restriction on the information you can give.
- Can portray the inner and outer lives of many characters.
- Creates a sense of order and trust – the narrator can be trusted to tell the truth (unlike first-person where the narrator may be unreliable).
- Readers don’t have to work too hard to figure out plot or character motives.
- Readers might be less emotionally involved because a) everything is mediated through the narrator who is one step removed from the action, and b) readers don’t have to invest any effort in interpreting characters’ moral qualities
Third-person limited POV is written in the grammatical third person, but only shows the viewpoint of one character at a time – so it’s essentially first person expressed as third person. The author reveals all the characteristics and motivations of one character and stays out of the heads of all the others. The only way the author can let the reader know what other characters are thinking or feeling is to convey a sense of this in dialogue or in the actions and expressions of the other characters.
The narrator in third-person limited is not the abstract narrator of omniscient narration but is an actual character – a participant narrator. The narrator is the same as in first-person narration, so the ‘I’ of a first-person narration would become the ‘he’ or ‘she’ of third-person limited.
The golden rule with third-person limited is that you can only show what the viewpoint character knows, perceives, remembers and experiences. You can’t tell the reader anything directly, as you can with an omniscient narrator.
So why would an author choose limited point of view if it has so many limitations?
The answer is that limited POV combines some of the advantages of first-person and omniscient in creative ways:
- It focuses attention on one character (as in first-person) and can create more of an emotional bond than is common with omniscient.
- But it also enables you to have more than one point-of-view character (as in omniscient).
While you can have more than one viewpoint character using first person (with separate chapters for each character), this can get confusing and unwieldy if you have more than two or three viewpoint characters. A solution is to switch to limited third-person, which can accommodate many more characters fairly easily. For a great example of how this is done, see George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones.
Comparing third-person omniscient and limited
Telling the difference between omniscient and third-person limited is not always easy. The main thing to ask is: Does the narrator have more information than the POV character? If so, it’s omniscient.
Limited: A round, black stone caught her eye and she picked it up.
Omniscient: A round, black stone caught her eye and she picked it up, little knowing it was the sorcerer’s stone that would summon darkness back into the world.
In the example above, the passage in italics is a comment by the abstract narrator giving information that the character doesn’t know.
Point of view and genres
When choosing a point of view for your story, one thing that you should consider is whether the genre you are writing in has an expected or trending point of view and tense. While an author should write in the viewpoint and tense that suits their story best, it’s also a good idea to see if one can meet the expectations of one’s audience, at least if one wants to sell a good many books.
Final thoughts on POV
Don’t feel you have to make a decision on the POV before you do any writing. Authors will often experiment with different points of view as they get into their stories and then see what works best. Sometimes this can involve a fair amount of editing once they’ve reached a decision and have to go back and change everything that doesn’t fit this POV. But, as they say, writing is rewriting, so it’s all just part of the writing life.
For a more in-depth discussion of point of view, with added examples and exercises, see my book and course Write Masterful Fiction, described below.
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