The Fundamentals of Point of View


What is Point Of View?

Point of view (POV) is the vantage point or perspective from which the narrative events and, in some instances, the feelings and motives of the character(s) are passed from the author via the narrator (most commonly, either an unnamed narrator or one of the characters in the story) to the reader. Thus, the author controls how the reader experiences the story by presenting it from a particular point of view via the narrator. Simply, point of view refers to who tells the story.

Our Scenario

In order to conceptualize the theoretical concepts of POV, I’ve created the following pedestrian scenario to illustrate POV issues throughout this article.

Beth and Janet are having sex in a well-lit room of a third floor apartment at night with the curtains wide open. Mary is walking on the sidewalk across the street and when she looks up she can see into the room. Heather in the apartment directly across and on the same floor can see into the room and see Mary on the sidewalk below her. There is a special invisible helicopter in the air that can see everything and has special equipment that allows for zooming in and examining action close up. There is also a spirit that no one is aware of that can go anywhere it wants and enter a person and know what she is thinking and feeling.

Beth is the main character — it is her story. Mary is her girlfriend. Janet is Mary’s best friend. Heather is the woman who lives across the street from Beth. The focus of the action of this scene is that Beth and Janet are having sex and Mary sees them.
Selecting Point of View and Narrator(s)

First-Person Point of View Narrator

In a first-person narrative, the narrator is a character in the story. The story is told from the point of view I. The I-narrator normally participates in the action, but can be an observer. The narrator can be the protagonist (Beth), someone very close to her (Mary or Janet), who has access to her actions (and some of her thoughts), or an ancillary character (Heather) who has little to do with the action of the story.

Because the narrator is a character in the work, she must follow all of the rules of being a character, even when she is narrating. For her to know anything, she must experience it or be told about it. She can interject her own thoughts and opinions, but not those of any other character (unless, of course, she has been clearly told about those thoughts). Therefore, the reader cannot know or witness anything the narrator does not also know or witness.

The I-narrator doesn’t have to be trustworthy and may not be recounting the objective truth since everything she shares with the reader is being filtered through her character. This character takes actions, makes judgments, and has biases (like any other character in the story) which allows her to give and withhold information based on her own viewing of events. The reader needs to determine as much as possible about the character of the narrator in order to decide what “really” happened and if she is to be trust.

The first-person point of view sacrifices omniscience and omnipresence for a greater intimacy with one character. It allows the reader to see the events from a single character’s perspective. It also allows that character to be further developed through her specific style of telling the story. It has the advantage of a sharp and precise focus. The reader is more apt to place herself into the story because the narrator’s I echoes the I of the self.

First-Person Point of View Narrator Scenario

Beth, Mary, Janet, or Heather could all be first-person narrators for our story.

Beth as the main character seems the obvious choice as a first-person POV narrator. But just because she is the main character, doesn’t mean she is the best narrator for the first-person POV. Consider all of your narrator options:

Both Beth and Janet would be able to give an intimate description of the actual sex as well as including their individual emotions and thoughts. The advantage to using either of them is that you can pepper the guilt (or lack of guilt) about betrayal into the sex scene. But, unless one of them walked over to the window, neither of them would know, and thus neither would be able to tell the readers, about Mary on the sidewalk or Heather in the other building.

While Heather may or may not be important to this scene, or the story as a whole, Mary most certainly is. This doesn’t rule out Beth or Janet as a first-person POV narrator because, as I said, one of them could walk over to the window and see Mary or Mary could come to the door or Mary’s viewing the sex could be revealed in another scene later or Heather could run into Beth and tell her what she saw including the information about Mary. There is always a way to introduce information into a first-person POV narrative. Both Janet and Beth would offer different view points of Beth’s story.

Mary as the narrator could relate what she can see from the sidewalk of the sex between her lover and best friend, but her view is very limited. She can share with the reader what she is thinking and how she feels; but it would be unlikely, both because of her physical location and emotional state, that she would launch into a detailed description of the sex. As Beth’s lover, she would be a great first-person POV narrator of Beth’s story. Her tale would be very different then say Beth’s or Janet’s.

Heather as a narrator would be more likely to give a more detailed account of the sex she is watching and of Mary’s reaction to watching the sex, but her connection to the event is restricted. She has no personal stake in it. She may or may not know the actors and their relationship to each other and it would be difficult for her to be privy to the confrontation that is sure to happen. The confrontation could take place at a local coffee shop that Heather is at and in that way she could over hear it and thus the reader could know what is happening. Heather could have a crush on Beth which would add another dimension to Beth’s story as told by Heather. She may have some knowledge of the actors’ relationships to each other. Any or all of this would need to be established by the author to make Heather a good first-person POV narrator of Beth’s story.

The questions to ask yourself when selecting a First-person POV narrator is:

1. Who has the most at stake in this story?
2. Whose story is it?
3. Who is the best person to tell this story?

The answers to questions 1, 2, and/or 3 are not always the same. What you need to do if you are using a first-person POV narrator is determine which answer has the most baring on the story you want to tell or, in our scenario’s case, how you want to tell Beth’s story.

Consider what Beth (who is cheating on her girlfriend) or Janet (who is betraying her best friend) would tell you about the event and about Beth verses what say Mary or Heather would tell you. Mary who has a vested interest in the action, since it is her girlfriend and her best friend having sex, has unabashedly gawked at the show and will focus on different elements then say Heather who is extremely shy about sex and has spent most of the last three minutes looking away instead of into the window. Heather also has no direct connection to the actors in the scene except that she lives across the street. Each of these four potential first-person POV narrators provides a different perspective and contains a different set of advantages and disadvantages.

Second-Person Narrator

Second-person narrator speaks directly to the reader. The you pronoun is used in this form.

Second person is frequently paired with the present tense. Many stories written in second person are probably closer to first-person with “you” replacing “I” for artistic reasons. It can also be used with third-person or first-person. It is almost universally agreed that second-person narration is hard to manage, especially in a serious work, because it is artificial and self-conscious — a reader narrating to her self would never call herself you. Though theoretically possible, it does not work very well. Second person is most often used successful in How-To writing. When done well, the reader imagines herself within the action.

I will not be discussing second-person narrators in this article. If you are interested in exploring the use of second-person in your writing, I suggest you pick up one or two of the POV reference books mentioned at the end of this article.

Third-Person Point of View Narrator

In third-person, the narrator does not participate in the action of the story as one of the characters, but instead, in the classic storytelling mode, recounts a series of events to an audience and may or may not let them know exactly how the characters feel or what they are thinking. We learn about the characters and their action through this outside voice. The he/she/it pronouns are used. A viewpoint character or POV character in third-person is the character whose POV is currently being presented. Third-person is the most common narrative perspective used in contemporary literature.

Third-person includes:

Objective Point of View

With the objective point of view or third-person limited, the narrator is unnamed/unidentified, does not assume character’s perspective, and is not a character in the story. The narrator tells what happens without stating more than can be inferred from the story’s action and dialogue. Also called the fly-on-the-wall or over-the-shoulder POV because the narrator never discloses anything about what the characters think or feel, remaining a detached observer. Written in grammatical third person (he, she, it, they), it can be used very objectively, showing what is actually happening without the filter of the protagonist’s personality. Author’s can shift perspective from one viewpoint character to another.

Omniscient Point of View

Third-person unlimited, also known as the omniscient point of view, is the tale told from the point of view of the storyteller who knows all the facts. Since the narrator is considered godlike, knowing everything about all the characters, multiple perspectives are used. The narrator can take the reader into the character and evaluate a character’s motivation, feelings, and thoughts.

It is written in grammatical third person (he, she, it, they). The primary advantage is that it injected the narrator’s own perspective and reputation into the story, creating a greater sense of objectivity for the story. The disadvantage of this mode is that it creates more distance between the reader and the story.

Limited-Omniscient Point of View

Third-person limited-omniscient or third-person close, the narrator is all-knowing about one or two characters, but not all of them. A narrator whose knowledge is limited to one character, either major or minor, has a limited-omniscient point of view, and this is very common in short stories. It is a great place for emerging writers to start working in third-person POV.


Objective Point of View

There is a special invisible helicopter in the air that can see everything and has special equipment that allows for zooming in and examining action close up. The helicopter represents an objective third-person point of view. In this case the unnamed narrator is the helicopter pilot. She can see the action in the bedroom, on the sidewalk, and even Heather watching the action. She can zoom in or pull out her focus on these events as she chooses, but she cannot tell the reader what characters are thinking or feeling or the significance of the actions she is describing. If you used an objective POV to tell Beth’s story, you could depict the sex acts, Mary, and Heather viewing them.

Omniscient Point of View

There is also a spirit that no one is aware of that can go anywhere it wants and enter a person and know what she is thinking and feeling. This complete access spirit represents the omniscient POV or the godlike narrator. In addition to describing the action from any perspective listed above, it can “jump” into the minds of any of the characters in the scenario and tell the reader what they are thinking and feeling and why the action is significant to them. This POV would allow you to not only depict all view points but also to share each character’s feeling and thoughts. Beware, however, as switching POV from one character to the next can destroy a good story. More on this later.

Limited-Omniscient Point of View

There is also a spirit that no one is aware of that can go anywhere it wants and enter only Beth and Mary and know what she is thinking and feeling. This spirit is the limited-omniscient or close POV because it can only tell the reader what Beth and Mary are thinking and feeling. It can describe what Janet and Heather are doing, but unlike the all access spirit it cannot tell you what Janet and Heather are thinking or feeling. You could choose to enter only one character’say Beth or Mary.

Understanding How POV Works

Point of view is about perspective. In order to understand how POV works, you need to understand perspective. Consider these definitions of perspective from Wikipedia:

  • Perspective the way in which objects appear to the eye
  • Perspective one’s “point of view”, the choice of a context for opinions, beliefs and experiences

Perspective is how X (an individual, a narrator, a character, etc.) perceives/views/interprets/relates Y (an event, an action, an emotion, a reaction, etc.) to Z (a reader, another individual, character, etc.). Perspective and POV are not interchangeable, but too often writers over look perspective when accessing and working with POV.

Perspective and POV are affected by physical distance from the event, whether or not the person is a spectator or participant in the event(s), and the stake each viewer has in the event(s). If your narrator is a character, personality traits can also affect the telling of the story.

Who tells the story is a critical issue to deal with as an author. It not only affects how the story is told but also the tone and feel of the story, as well as the events that can be related, and even the story’s meaning.

The questions to ask about POV are:
Who is telling this story?
Who is the best narrator(s) for this story?

As you read your story, think about these things:
How does the point of view affect your responses to the characters?
How is your response influenced by how much the narrator knows?
By how objective she is?

Some Rules of Thumb for Point of View

Some POV rules are (or should be) unbreakable while others can be bent. Here is a list of some POV rules of thumb to keep in mind as you navigate through your story. These are basic rules for you to apply to your writing and they may also help you decide on which POV to select for a given story.

In short stories it is best to have only one POV. Multiple points of view can be used, but with each POV it becomes harder to manage correctly. If you are a new or emerging writer, focus on using a single point of view (first person or third-limited) correctly before attempting a multiple view point story.

Which POV Should I Use?

Deciding from whose eyes the action and emotional reaction will be viewed and in what person it will be presented, will set the emotional tone of the story. If you are using multiple view point characters, the same is true of each scene depending on which character you selected to use as the view point character for that scene.

You may already know that you want to write this story in first person or third person. If writing in first, you may already know who the narrator is. In either case, consider these rules of thumb:

Dramatic effect is heightened when events are experienced from the viewpoint of the character with the most at stake. This is true both on a scene and story level. Consider your characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts to determine who has more to win or lose.

Scenario for Selecting POV

First-Person POV: Despite the fact that this is Beth’s story, an argument can be made that Mary has the most at stake given that she could lose both her lover and best friend. However, Mary’s telling of Beth’s story will be very different from Beth’s telling of her own story.

Third-Person POV: How would using Beth and Mary as POV characters work?

POV Characters Are Not Mind Readers

A POV character can only form an opinion based on what she can sense (see, hear, taste, touch, or smell) and on information that she has witnessed or been told by other characters. This is true of first-person narrators also. It is not true of omniscient POV narrators.

While in one character’s POV (Beth), you can’t know what another character (Janet or Mary) is thinking. Your POV character can see the expressions and body language that will give hints and allows for guesses about what the other is thinking. This is one area where many emerging writers run wild with POV and make a big mess.

Each POV character should have a function in the overall story. Some authors give POV’s to every inconsequential, walk-on character. When using more then one POV character, be sure there is a concrete reason to turn a character into a POV character.

Scenes and POV

You should only have one POV per scene.

That said, sometimes who has the most at stake will shifts in a scene, and a POV switch might enhance the scene. Consider these rules of thumbs:

Scene Breaks

Scene breaks denote the passage of time,and/or a change of location. A change of POV does not justify a scene break. Authors frequently break this unbreakable rule in the interest of not deviating from the third person single character POV rule, by using an artificial scene break to denote a switch to another character’s POV.

POV Changes Within a Scene

The single POV per scene rule isn’t unbreakable. Just be extremely careful if you break this rule to make sure you don’t head-jump or confuse a reader. In other words, break this rule sparingly and with great care. If you are going to break it, be sure it is for a good reason, between no more than two characters, and not very often.

Always make the POV change clear and seamless. This is an unbreakable, unbendable rule. You do not want to pull the reader out of the story or make her have to re-read to figure out whose head she is in. To shift POV smoothly within a scene, characters can figuratively pass the POV to each other physically (a handshake, a longing gaze, etc.).

The Real Unbreakable Rule

The hard-and-fast rule is that you can only be in one point of view at a time.


Consider these questions after each exercise is completed:

Who is telling this story? Who is the best narrator(s) for this story? How does the point of view affect your responses to the characters? How is your response influenced by how much the narrator knows and how objective he or she is? What else has to change when I switch the POV of the piece? How does switching the POV affect the tone and feel of the story? Does it change which events you can depict or how you depict them? The story’s meaning?

1. Take four pages of a current story and switch it to (1) First-Person POV; (2) Omniscient Point of View; (3) Limited-Omniscient Point of View.

2. Write a two character sex scene in (1) First-Person POV character A; (2) First-Person POV character B; (3) Omniscient Point of View; and (4) Objective Point of View.


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NEXT TIME: You Should Attend a Writing Conference

Amie M. Evans
April 2007

“Two Girls Kissing: Writing Lesbian Literary Erotica” © 2007 Amie M. Evans. All rights reserved.

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