Thursday, January 2

Point Of View: First, Second And Third

The point of view of a story (whether first, second or third) determines the perspective the story is viewed through.

Narrative voice has to do with the way a story is told.

And, yes, that was cribbed from Wikipedia! But, honestly, Wikipedia has an excellent article on point of view and the closely related topic of narrative voice. Definitely worth the read.

What follows is my summary of the subject. 

First Person Perspective

- Story is told by a narrator who is also a character in the story.
- Narrator uses the pronouns "I," "we," "me," "us," "my/mine," "our/ours".
- The narrator is often the protagonist.

Advantages to using the first person perspective:

Since the reader has intimate access to the thoughts and feelings of the viewpoint character some feel it's easier for readers to identify with--to care about--them. This is especially welcome if you wish your readers to identify with and care about a character whose actions seem unmotivated, antisocial or destructive.

Beginning writers often find it easier to keep from 'head-hopping,' and stick to a single, consistent, point of view, when they use the a first person perspective.

Disadvantages to using the first person perspective:

Story events can only be shared if the viewpoint character is nearby (or if they have the ability to project their consciousness.)

Orson Scott Card has an excellent discussion--the best I've read--about the pros and cons of using the first person perspective in his book "Character And Viewpoint." He includes easy to understand, and fabulously written, examples. (By the way, OSC argues that writing in the third person is easier for beginning writers.)

Second Person Point of View

- Story is told by a narrator who is often a character in the story.
- Narrator uses the pronouns "you," "your," "yours".
- The narrator is often the protagonist.

Advantages to using the second person perspective:

Makes the reader feel as though they are a character within the story, putting them into the action of the story.

Disadvantages of using the second person perspective:

Can have a jarring effect on the reader by reminding them they are reading a story.

The second person point of view isn't used much, though it is interesting (to me at least) that it is often used in blog posts! Every time I talk to "you," dear reader, I'm using the second person. It's also often used by journalists.

Third Person Point of View

- Story is told by a narrator who often is not a character in the story.
- Narrator uses the pronouns: "he," "she," "it," "they".
- The narrator is often not the protagonist.

Advantages of the third person perspective:

The third person point of view gives a writer the greatest flexibility, allowing them to pick any character in the story as the POV character.

Disadvantages of the third person perspective:

Every point of view character should have a distinct voice. G.R.R. Martin does this exceptionally well but many writers try to minimize this disadvantage by sticking to only one or two point of view characters (depending on the length of the story).

Character Voice

Often--usually--a character within the story (as opposed to a disembodied voice) takes the role of the narrator. Such an entity is known is the viewpoint character, the character through which the story is told, the character through which the reader "sees" the world.

Viewpoint Character vs Focal Character

The viewpoint character is often the focal character--the person the story is about--but not always. For instance, in Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories the focal character is Sherlock Holmes but they are told from the point of view of his trusted friend and helper, John Watson.

Narrative Points of View: Limited, Objective, Omniscient

The voice of the third person narrator can be limited, objective or omniscient.

Third Person Limited

The narrator is limited to the thoughts and feelings of one character. Throughout the course of the story the thoughts, feelings and perceptions of many different characters may be explored but, traditionally, only one head may be explored at a time. To do otherwise can often be confusing and, as a result, irritating.

Violation of this rule provokes accusations of "head hopping."

In my experience, a number of writers do violate this rule occasionally, but the trick is to do it in a way that doesn't confuse the reader. Clarity is king.

Third person limited, is much like the first person point of view except for the use of third person pronouns.

Third Person Objective

In third person objective the narrator does not have access to any of the character's thoughts or feelings. This point of view is often called "fly-on-the-wall" and is often adopted when the storyteller wishes to be dispassionate and objective--or perceived as such. For instance, most news stories are written in third person objective.

Third Person Omniscient

An omniscient narrator knows everything that happens in the world of the story including the thoughts and feeling of each of the characters.

Pros and cons of using the third person omniscient

The omniscient perspective is good for telling complex stories involving many characters and/or great spans of time.

An undesirable side effect of using third person omniscient is that it can seem impersonal and make it more difficult for readers to identify with the characters. As a result readers might not care as much about what happens to them.

Which would be bad since, arguably, the goal of storytelling is to elicit deep emotions in readers.

That's it! I hope you all had a marvellous Christmas and a very merry New Year's Eve!

Photo credit: "2014-001 like it's the first time" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. The writers' group I attended included two editors who were members of SFWA. They pounded every submission I made for head-hopping. So I wrote a story in first-person POV to learn to stick with one character. The editors loved it.

    I learned enough from that exercise to overcome my head-hopping tendencies.

    One comment about first-person narrative, everybody lies. Especially to themselves. Figure out what lies your character tells himself and write those into the narrative. Commonly, a character sees problems with others and fails to see his own faults. When he gets an honest reflection of himself in some metaphorical mirror, only then can he act contrary to his nature and better himself.

  2. I really enjoy your blog. Whenever your latest email comes through I stop what I'm doing to read it. Thanks for writing such informative posts!

  3. This is a helpful summary. I've read the Orson Scott Card book but a long time ago - maybe time for a refresher. I usually write in the third person, alternatively from the male and female protagonist's perspective. My early drafts are always littered with head-hopping, so I colour-code my manuscript pink and blue so I always know whose head I'm in!

    1. Thanks!

      "... I colour-code my manuscript pink and blue so I always know whose head I'm in!"

      Brilliant! Thanks for the tip, I'm going to use that. :-)


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