What is point of view?

Take a look at the power of perspective

Chal Emery

January 19, 2024

What is point of view?

Take a look at the power of perspective

Chal Emery

Jan 19, 2024

What is point of view?

Take a look at the power of perspective

Chal Emery

Jan 19, 2024

Key takeaways

  • We’re looking at a matter of style – POV in a grammatical-sense regards the way a story is told, whether from within a character’s mind or without.
  • You have a few options – POV usually comes down to first, second or third person with a few varieties tossed in.
  • Each option has its strengths – POV isn’t an arbitrary choice since each type can provide entirely different reading experiences.

As a term, point of view (or POV, for short) gets tossed around a lot. While some use the term to identify the specific opinions a piece of writing might have, POV in a technical and literary sense is more complex. POV entails exactly who is telling the story, how they are telling it, and to whom the story is being told.    

What is point of view?

Point of view covers both who is telling the story and their exact position and feelings on the matter of the story. You’ll see POV expressed as first, second or third person with a few variations thrown in as well. POV affects both the kinds of pronouns you see the narrator use, and the POV may also influence what information the reader is privy to and the amount of bias present in the storytelling. Swapping points of view can fundamentally change a narrative. 

What is the difference between point of view and main idea?

The terminology can get a little fuzzy in English, so some may find the difference between POV and main idea confusing. While POV often includes identifying the narrator’s perspective on a topic, that view is not necessarily the same as the main idea. 

Think of main idea as what a story is about in a broad, non-biased sense. POV is the person, character or narrator in charge of telling the reader about that concept, with all the opinions and limitations that go with any given POV.

The three primary points of view

Aside from conveying the opinions and experiences of the narrator, POV also affects the style of the writing itself. 

First person

First person POV is when the narrator of a story is an actual character in that story. We see events through their eyes, and our knowledge and feelings as readers are filtered through that character’s perspective. When describing the character’s actions and feelings, you’ll see pronouns like “I” and “me” to indicate that the narrator is the one acting within the confines of the story. 

Second person

Second person is much rarer than the other two POVs. This style makes you, the reader, an active part of the story telling. You might see this in “choose-your-own-adventure” books or instruction manuals where the writing speaks about what you do. 

Third person

Perhaps the most common POV, third person is where the narrator is something like a disembodied voice reporting on the events of a story. Instead of inhabiting the head of a character, third person sort of floats about the action, using pronouns like “she”, “he” and “they” to discuss the actions and thoughts of all the characters.

There are two main varieties of third person to consider, limited and omniscient. Limited is where the narrator follows just one or two characters and limits the information the reader gets to just what those characters know. Omniscient, on the other hand, grants the narrator all-seeing power, and they can report on what all relevant characters in a story are doing and thinking.

Why use the different points of view?

Picking the right POV for a story is paramount since that choice affects nearly every aspect of the narrative. Each POV has its strengths, and effective writers know how to leverage those strengths to make the story as compelling as possible. 

First person present

First person, in general, grants an immediate connection between the reader and the character narrator. It’s an intimate POV since you, the reader, are right in that character’s mind. You know everything they know, you understand how they feel immediately and they filter the entire story through their unique understanding of the world. 

This POV can be limiting, though, since the reader is at the mercy of the narrating character’s understanding of the world. If the character is unaware of something, then so is the reader. First person narrators can also be unreliable thanks to their biases and any potential mental issues. 

The “present” part of first person present regards the tense of the story. The verbs feel more immediate and build more suspense because the events feel like they are happening right now. You’ll see this POV for more character-focused stories aiming for a more fast-paced feel. 

First person past

The past tense variation of first person allows for more reflective stories, where a character muses about something that happened to them once. This tense generally makes the events of the story feel a little less suspenseful, but writers who play around with the reliability of the narrator can still surprise the reader. 

You may also see this POV in frame narratives, or stories within stories. A narrator might begin the book in present tense and then dip into the past for a while to provide some context or backstory. Afterward, you might see a return to present tense to finish the book up. The hybrid model allows writers to benefit from the strengths of both types of first person POV.

Second person

This uncommon POV can create a sense of immediacy for the reader since they are the character in the story. Even though the reader still doesn’t have much control over the story, they might still feel more engaged because the writer asks them to envision themselves right in the action. 

This can be done for stylistic or literary reasons in an attempt to unsettle or surprise readers, too, since second person POV is so rare. The “you” in the story might not actually be the reader, but, instead, the writer wants you to empathise immediately with the character. 

Third person present

The verb tense in third person present still creates the suspense you’ll see in first person present, but third person allows for more flexibility with which characters the reader gets to follow around. If the writer wants to keep the mystery and suspense up, they might choose a limited third person. If they want to tell more of a sprawling, complex tale, omniscient might be the better choice to keep readers in the know so they can better follow the sequence of events. The reader’s knowledge might also set up dramatic irony, where the reader knows important information that some characters do not. 

Limited and omniscient both can still present glimpses into the thoughts and feelings of characters, but the narration is not limited to that character’s understanding of the world. This gives the writer more freedom to write in a way that a person telling a story might not normally would. The language can be more literary and colourful in third person in ways that would feel odd coming from someone telling a story of what is happening to them.

Third person past

Lastly, we have what you may consider to be the most relaxed POV. Third person limited has the distance of third person present, but the past tense makes the story a little less immediate and a little more accessible. Third person past can make a story feel like a historical account, which is why you’ll often find stories on a grander scale written in this manner. 

The past tense can make writing feel more reflective, too, even if the narrator is not a participant in the story. That means that third person past can also tell intimate, personal stories with just a few characters while maintaining a certain distance that lessens the intensity.

Examples of the different points of view

Writers across the ages have experimented with and mastered the different POV, granting us a treasure trove of samples to enjoy. Below, you’ll find a few excerpts that demonstrate the impact of each point of view.

First person present

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”

-Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

First person past

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, ” just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Second person

“You’re still trying to decide who to be. The self you’ve been lately doesn’t make sense anymore; that woman died with Uche. She’s not useful, unobtrusive as she is, quiet as she is, ordinary as she is. Not when such extraordinary things have happened.

But you still don’t know where Nassun is buried, if Jija bothered to bury her. Until you’ve said farewell to your daughter, you have to remain the mother that she loved.

So you decide not to wait for death to come.”

-N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season

Third person present

“The circus arrives without warning.

No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.”

-Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

Third person past

“Before Mazer invented himself as Mazer, he was Samson Mazer, and before he was Samson Mazer, he was Samson Masur—a change of two letters that transformed him from a nice, ostensibly Jewish boy to a Professional Builder of Worlds—and for most of his youth, he was Sam, S.A.M. on the hall of fame of his grandfather’s Donkey Kong machine, but mainly Sam.” 

-Gabrielle Zevin, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

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FAQs about point of view

Tense regards the conjugation of the verbs and determines the time the actions took or take place, whether that be in the past or present. Point of view determines who the narrator of the story is, but tense can factor into the exact POV a story uses.

Point of view identifies the narrator of a story and the sorts of pronouns you’ll see from the narration. Main idea is simply what a story is about. POV is the lens through which readers see the main idea of a text.

Personal taste can factor into preference since some people simply like the sound of one POV over the other. However, each POV offers its own advantages, so writers looking to employ those may pick one POV over another. For instance, first person makes the narrator character and the reader bond more quickly since they experience the story at the same time. 

Third person omniscient point of view is when the narrator relates the events of the story from a distance as in they are not a character in the story. The “omniscient” part means that the narrator is all-knowing and all-seeing, which allows readers to know all relevant details even if the main characters are in the dark. 

Screenshot 2023-10-13 at 16.29.14

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