The Points of View in Writing
Learn the difference between the three perspectives and decide which is best for your work-in-progress.
The Short Story
Point of view is the viewpoint that the narrator tells the story from. There are three main points of view:
First-Person: (I, We) The narrator tells the story from his or her own experience. This can be in first-person central or first-person peripheral view.
Second-Person: (You) The narrator directly addresses the reader, making the reader the main character by telling the reader’s story or inviting the reader to act.
Third-Person: (She, He, They) The narrator tells the story through one or more characters’ perspectives. This can be done through third-person limited or third-person omniscient points of view.
What is point of view in your writing? It’s the viewpoint from which the story is told by the narrator. The narrator could explain something that is happening to himself or herself, to the reader, or to someone else. The format and genre you’re writing in, paired with your personal writing style, will determine which point of view you choose.
So what are the options? There are three main points of view: first, second, and third. Let’s break those down.
In the first-person point of view, the narrator tells the story from his or her own perspective. Pronouns such as “I,” “me,” and “we,” would be used in this viewpoint. When writing in first-person point of view, the narrator shares only what the character realistically can know.
The first-person point of view is common in romance and YA fiction. This point of view allows readers to really get to know and understand the character telling his or her own story—which readers love! However, too much introspection can be a turnoff, so make sure to find a balance between writing your character’s inner thoughts and writing action and dialogue.
Example: “I went to the park with my trusted dog, Bruno.”
Example: “He spoke to me so quickly that I couldn’t catch a word he was saying.”
Example: “‘We could go tomorrow,’ I told them, ‘but we’d have to sneak out.’ I glanced at Ginny and Laurel. They didn’t seem convinced. We had a lot more work cut out for us than I thought.”
The first-person point of view can be broken down into two different categories: first-person central and first-person peripheral.
First-person central is the most popular. In this point of view, the narrator is also the main character in the story.
In The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave, the main character, Hannah Hall, narrates her own story as she pieces together the disappearance of her husband and the danger she and her step-daughter are in.
“This is what gnaws at me, over and over, when I think of my husband—that something is coming for him, for all of us, that he couldn't stop. That he has left me to try and stop it for him.
“I take out my notepad and go back over what Grady said during our phone call—trying to recall every detail, trying to home in on what may be important to glean from it. I keep coming back to how he said that Owen might have erased his own online history. And, as wrong as that feels, I try to move myself there, to that assumption, to what it shows me.
“Which is when I land on it. That there are certain things we can’t erase, certain things that we reveal to the people closest to us despite what we may or may not know we are telling them.
(Dave, Laura. The Last Thing He Told Me. United States: S&S/Marysue Rucci Books, 2021, 163–4.)
In first-person peripheral, the narrator is not the main character but a secondary character that is close to the main character. This secondary character narrates the protagonist’s story through his or her own viewpoint.
One of the most famous examples of this viewpoint is in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nick Carraway, a secondary character, tells the story of Jay Gatsby trying to make a name for himself and win over Daisy Buchanan, a married woman Gatsby has long loved. Nick is very involved in the unfoldings of Gatsby’s life and able to tell the protagonist’s story from Nick’s own point of view.
“Finally we came to Gatsby’s own apartment, a bedroom and a bath, and an Adam study, where we sat down and drank a glass of some Chartreuse he took from a cupboard in the wall.
“He hadn’t once ceased looking at Daisy, and I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes. Sometimes, too, he stared around at his possessions in a dazed way, as though in her actual and astounding presence none of it was any longer real. Once he nearly toppled down a flight of stairs.
“His bedroom was the simplest room of all—except where the dresser was garnished with a toilet set of pure dull gold. Daisy took the brush with delight, and smoothed her hair, whereupon Gatsby sat down and shaded his eyes and began to laugh.
(Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. United States: Scribner, 1953, 92–3.)
In the second-person point of view, the narrator communicates with the reader directly. The pronoun “you” would be used in this viewpoint. The narrator is not a character in the story. Instead he or she calls the reader to act or describes something the reader does. This immerses the reader in the story, making the reader the main character. This perspective is rarely used in fiction, but is sometimes found in children’s books when the narrator is speaking to the child reader. Second-person point of view is commonly found in advertising, self-help books, and other nonfiction.
Example: “You walk through the door and are hit with a whiff of your favorite cookies.”
Example: “You deserve better. Your hair deserves to be in its tip-top shape. Call now to get a free order of Lulamozna and start looking your best.”
In an academic course on storytelling, the narrator asks the reader to engage and then describes what the reader may be thinking.
“Think about your favorite movie. What comes to mind? It might be an action film, a character study, or a romance. You might be imagining Luke Skywalker battling Darth Vader in Star Wars, Vito Corleone plotting against his rivals in The Godfather, or Joe Fox promising to send Kathleen Kelly a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils in You’ve Got Mail.”
(Gessell, Bryce. Storytelling. United States: MyEducator, 2020, 6.)
A fun example of making the reader the main character comes from Warning: Do Not Open This Book! in which the narrator repeatedly warns children against reading the next page. This approach invites the child readers to choose their own story (and turn the page anyway).
“Maybe you should put this book back. You don’t want to let the monkeys out.
“Why did you turn the page? Didn’t you see the warning? Stay on this page. You are safe here.”
(Lehrhaupt, Adam. Warning: Do Not Open This Book! New York: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2013.)
In the third-person point of view, the narrator is not in the story, but tells the story of a character who is. The pronouns “she,” “her,” “he,” “him,” “they,” and “them” would be used from this viewpoint. This point of view is the most common and is often used in mystery, thriller, and fantasy.
Example: “Gavin opened his mouth, but he couldn’t get the words out.”
Example: “She twisted in her seat. The last place she wanted to be was here.”
Example: “Stella handed Drew the encyclopedia. ‘You’re going to need this,’ she told him, pointing to the dog-eared page. Drew didn’t know what to think. How had she managed to find the answers so quickly?”
Third-person point of view can also be separated into two categories: third-person limited and third-person omniscient.
In third-person limited, the narrator has a limited point of view, meaning the narrator knows only one character’s perspective and tells the story through that perspective. The narrator does not reveal anything that character would not know. This point of view is great for building suspense.
In The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons, the narrator is not Eudora or any other character, but details Eudora’s story of being torn between controlling her own death and embracing her twilight years.
“Eudora reaches the leisure center and is grateful for the anonymity that her swim membership brings. She has a card that enables her to sweep past reception. The only issue is with the card-activated barrier. Eudora loathes and detests all technology and very nearly rescinded her membership when they installed these monstrosities. However, she has become well-practiced at the skill of swiping and manages to sail through to the changing rooms with little effort now. She goes to the same changing cubicle, puts her belongings in the same locker, and makes her way to the pool, nodding to the swimmers she sees every week while blessedly avoiding verbal communication.”
(Lyons, Annie. The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett. United States: HarperCollins, 2020.)
In third-person omniscient, the narrator’s perspective is infinite, meaning she or he knows the perspective of all characters and tells the story through many characters’ emotions and inner thoughts. The narrator also knows information that the characters may not know themselves. The narrator is also able to jump in and out of the story by giving side commentary, such as philosophical discussions. This point of view is more commonly linked with older classic novels and is not used as often today.
In Beartown by Fredrik Backman, the narrator shares the story of a town desperate to win a junior ice hockey championship and one event that changes it all. Backman shares this story through the perspective of several characters.
“[Robbie Holts] asks if he can use the bathroom in the little hardware store. Downs the beers. Goes out and chats to the sales assistant and buys a few very specific screws that he makes very clear he needs for an item of furniture that doesn’t exist. He goes back out onto the street, sees the roof of the rink again. Once upon a time he, Robbie Holts, was king there. Once upon a time he showed more promise than Kevin Erdahl does now. Once upon a time he was better than Peter Andersson.
“Peter turns the car around in the parking lot, pulls out onto the road, drums his fingers on the wheel. Now that the children have gone he becomes aware of his pulse again. It’s only a junior team game. Only a game. A game. He keeps repeating the mantra but his nerves are eating him up. His lungs seem to be drawing in oxygen through his eye sockets.”
(Backman, Fredrik. Beartown. United States: Washington Square Press, 2021, 55–6.)
Now that you have an understanding of the points of view, you can start to recognize which point of view is used in the books you read. You may also start to notice that specific genres tend to use specific perspectives. Of course, there are many texts that stray from the norms mentioned above. But now that you have the skills to recognize the points of view, you can pick up on the perspectives used within each genre—and even more writing trends!
When adding to your work-in-progress, think about which point of view resonates with you as a writer and what the genre you’re writing in generally uses. With these two factors in mind, you’ll be sure to find a point of view that works for you.
The Published Examples
“This goose means business. Serious business. No one can make this goose smile! What’s that you say? You think you can do it? Ha! You think you can make this goose smile? There’s no way you can make this goose smile. No one can! This is a no-smiling goose! But go right ahead. Look in the mirror and give it a shot. Make funny faces. Let’s see what you’ve got!”
(Kimmel, Jimmy. The Serious Goose. New York: Random House, 2019, 11–6)
This children’s book is written in the second-person point of view, which works great to rope in readers and get the audience’s (children’s) attention.
“‘I know what the law says!’ King Henry yelled and slammed his hands on the table, which caused him to start coughing. Barrett quickly handed the king a napkin, and he wiped his mouth. He paused before continuing his thought. ‘I’m glad you’re so concerned with the law though. Because there is a critical one you seem to be overlooking.’ “Barrett’s head snapped up in shock. ‘That can’t be. Which one? I mean, I’m a little rusty on Article 4, Section 1 surrounding abdication but that hasn’t happened for centuries.’ “‘Article 2, Section 17.’ “Barrett’s face drained of color and his mouth felt like sandpaper. He took a sip of water to quench his parched throat before he whispered, ‘I remember.’ “‘Delightful.' A forced smile cracked the king’s aged face. ‘I trust you’ll keep that law in the forefront of your mind.’ “‘I still have plenty of time to take a wife.’”
(Schimmoeller, Amanda. A Royal Obligation. United States: Amanda Schimmoeller, 2022, 3.)
A Royal Obligation is third-person limited—even though the novel switches between Barrett’s and Jules’s perspectives every other chapter. It is still considered third-person limited because the narrator tells the story through one character at a time. Notice that in this passage, readers are only told the feelings of Barrett, not of the king.
“The trouble with me is, I can’t let things go. They bug me. I see problems and I want to fix them, right here, right now. My nickname isn’t Fixie for nothing. “I mean, this can be a good thing. For example, at my best friend Hannah’s wedding, I got to the reception and instantly saw that only half the tables had flowers. I ran around sorting it before the rest of the guests arrived, and in her speech, Hannah thanked me for dealing with ‘Flowergate.’ So that was OK. “On the other hand, there was the time I brushed a piece of fluff off the leg of a woman sitting next to me by the pool at a spa day. I was just trying to be helpful. Only it turned out it wasn't a piece of fluff.”
(Kinsella, Sophie. I Owe You One. United States: Dial Press, 2019, 3.)
In this novel, you jump straight into the mind of Fixie Farr. It's first-person central point of view through and through.