Point of view, or perspective, is the lens through which you tell your story. For example, you might tell an entire story through the eyes of the central character. In that case, you’ll read a lot of, “I thought I was going to die. I ran down to the store in such a flurry, I didn’t even notice him in my wake. Was he coming after me?”
Or, you might take on an all-knowing lens and tell the story through several characters’ eyes. In that case, you’ll read things like, “Jake took his seat beside her in the massive hall. It was so cold, he wondered if she could hear his teeth chatter. Elizabeth glanced at him out of her periphery. She wondered what that scent was emanating off him.”
Exciting, right? Point of view is to writers what clay is to sculptors. Let’s talk a little bit more about first, second, and third-person perspective. Then we’ll figure out how to use point of view in a way that will allow your writing to take flight.
First person perspective allows us to intimately connect with the main character of a story. We’re deeply embedded in their thoughts and actions. We know what they’re thinking and understand their judgments and fears. The entire setting unfolds from their vantage point. You can spot first-person point of view with pronouns like "I," "we," and "me."
For example, you might read in the opening lines of a novel:
I stood at the tip of the windswept cliff and hoped we would spot him in the churning waters. What if it had been me instead?
Second person point of view is rather personal, too. However, we’re not learning more about the mind of someone else. Rather, someone else is trying to get into our minds. This point of view is often reserved for instructional writing, rather than fictional writing. You can spot second-person when you see the personal pronoun "you."
In this vein, the writer is speaking directly to the audience. An example might be:
If you turn the faucet too hard, you will break one of the rubber washers. That's not something you will want to deal with.
Third person perspective tells the story of several characters. This allows authors to take on an omniscient tone as readers enter the minds (and points of view) of several characters. You can spot third-person point of view when writers use pronouns such as "he," "she" and "they."
Of course, they can also use the characters’ specific names, like Jude or Grayson. In a novel, we might see the third person point of view in terms such as:
Jude walked through the door and bumped squarely into Grayson. She immediately took two steps back while he reached out his hand to touch her. It was an awkward moment for them and neither knew what to do.
Here’s where third person gets exciting. There are three different ways to explore writing in this tone.
With third-person limited, we’re only limited to the mental ramblings of one character. We’ll still see terms like “he,” “she,” “it,” and “they,” but they’re all coming from one source. We might see lines like:
She was timid as a fox but I could tell he liked her. They went on to become one of the strongest comedic duos the city has ever known.
With third-person multiple, we’re able to get into the minds of multiple characters in the story. We’ll still see this in terms of “he,” “she,” and “it,” but now we’re following multiple minds. Things get a little tricky here because you have to make sure the reader knows whose mind we’re entering next.
Sometimes, it’s best to make these shifts obvious with chapter or section breaks. Still, you’ll write lines along the lines of:
I was sure he was crazy. He got up and left in such a huff, he didn’t even pay the bill!
With third-person omniscient, it’s finally safe to say you know it all. That is, you know the inner workings of several characters’ minds. With this point of view, we’re not engaged in a third-person limited setting where someone’s propelling their thoughts and ideas onto the audience. Rather, we actually know what every character is thinking.
It sounds a bit like third-person multiple, but the difference is we’re not shifting between characters. From the first page, it was clear we know the inner workings of each character’s minds, all the time. In these times, it’s fine to say:
Jude entered the room, scanning it with nervous eyes, and then she took her seat by the fire.
Then, perhaps we’ll learn a little more about the setting. In the next few lines, we might read something like:
Grayson searched for an excuse to walk up to her. Surely, no one had ever intrigued him with a mere glance more than she did.
This is one of those moments in life where there’s no clear right or wrong answer. But don’t let that bring you down. Rather, let it enlighten you. You can use whatever point of view flows most naturally for the story you want to tell.
- Choose first person if it's personal, or you have a particular affinity for one of your characters. This point of view tells the story through your - or his or her - eyes. This point of view is great for character development in a novel. There’s no end to what you can divulge when the focus is primarily on one character. It's also good for purposely "hiding" information from the reader, because they might know what "Grayson" is thinking, but they don't know what "Jude" is thinking. It builds wonderful suspense. Just keep in mind that, with first person, the main character is always "on screen." Be sure to turn that into a strength, instead of a limitation by introducing the audience to a character they can really relate to and fall in love with.
- Choose second person if you're giving instruction. It's the most inflexible point of view, requiring you to use “you” a lot. If your purpose is to guide the audience in a particular direction, then this might be the one. Again, you won’t find many novels that take this tone, though it does crop up in children's books. It’s mainly reserved for instructional writing. Perhaps you’re writing a travel article, instructing readers where to eat and stay in their next adventure. Then, “you” would be appropriate because you’re guiding your audience through the ins and outs of some bit of instruction.
- Chhose third person if you want to act as an observer. Third person is the most popular point of view for fiction and creative nonfiction. Think back to some of your favorite novels. Were many of them written in a way that allowed you to glance into more than one character’s mind? Consider third-person limited or third-person omniscient. Third-person limited will still allow readers full passage into one particular character’s mind, but they’ll also pick up on the intricacies of other characters.
With all this in mind, it’s wise to select one point of view and stick with it. Remember, the trickiest point of view is third-person multiple. There, you have a lot of balls in the air and you have to juggle with such precision that the audience is never wondering whose mind we’re entering next. Similarly, second person is rather limiting. It takes on a bit of a lecturing tone.
If you still can’t say for sure which point of view you should choose, try this. Write the first page of your short story or novel in each point of view.
- Try the first person point of view. “I walked out of the store and stumbled neatly into a horse-drawn buggy.”
- Try the second person point of view. “You walked out of the store and made the wrong turn. It’s no wonder you wound up the next town over.”
- Then, of course, give the third person a try. “She walked out of the store and stumbled neatly into a horse-drawn buggy.”
Which one came most naturally to you? Which one will give you the greatest amount of creative expression? It’s kind of like meeting Mr. Right. When you find the right point of view, you just know.
Truth be told, all you have to do is pick up that pen or flip up that laptop and write. Just let the words pour out of your mind. Don’t edit as you write. Just write. Don’t stop until you come to a natural pause.
When you do, see which point of view naturally flowed out of you. And there you have it. If you’re not ready to dive into an 800-page novel just yet, consider a short story. These examples of short stories might be just the inspiration you need. Happy writing!