Writing Tips: Breaking Down the Basics of Point-of-View

The Basics of Point-of-ViewA few weeks ago, I did a post on choosing the right point-of-view for your novel. Why I choose to write that post first instead of doing a POV basics post, I really couldn’t tell you, but I did. So, now I’m going to tackle the basics of point-of-view that I probably should have written a while ago. (But better late than never, right?🙃)

Anyway, like I mentioned in the previous post, point-of-view dictates who your narrator is, how close your reader is to your story, and how much information your reader has access to. There are three basic points-of-view: first person, second person, and third person. This post is going to break them all down and hopefully give you a good basic understanding each.

First Person

First person is when you have your character narrating the story. It puts your reader closest to the story and right inside your character’s head. It’s characterized by using “I” in the narrative.

Here’s an example from my book, Crossing the Line:

He wouldn’t be the first enemy agent I’d killed, and the fact that he had started backing away told me he knew that. I didn’t want to kill him, but I pulled the trigger anyway–I had to.

Personally, first person is my favorite point of view. As a writer, I love to get inside my characters’ heads and experience their stories with them. And I love it just as much as a reader. The major advantage of first person is that it puts you right in the story with your characters. It’s basically as close as you can possibly get to your story. The downside is, it can really limit your access to information. Your readers can’t know anything your character doesn’t know, which is why it might not be best for every writer and story.

Second Person

You’re really only going to see second person in choose-your-own-adventure type books. This is when you narrator is essentially including the reader as a character. It’s characterized by using “you” in the narrative where the reader is expected to be an active participant in the story.

Here’s an example from Love of the Lifts by Jill Santopolo:

You shake your head. “Not going,” you tell her. “I’m not skiing until I know you’re completely okay.”

Second person is fairly unconventional, and really only belongs in these types of books. Additionally, this is the only instance I consider to be truly “second person.” I’ve seen books where “you” is used in the narrative labeled as second person, but often times I wouldn’t consider them to be. Typically that “you” is coming from a first person narrator who is either talking to another character (as if the story they’re telling is to that character) or their audience in an attempt to be more informal or conversational.

Here’s an example of one of those from Ivory and Bone by Julie Eshbaugh:

Distracted by my task, I almost forget the question I asked you. I’m not sure how long you’ve been silent. “Mya?”

Hopefully, you can see the difference here. “You” is definitely used in Ivory and Bone, but it’s coming from a first person narrator who is talking to a specific character–Mya. Whereas in the first example, the “you” is referring to you the reader. When you read a choose-your-own-adventure book, “I” is never used by the narrator, which is what makes it a true second person POV.

Third Person

There are two main types of third person: Limited and Omniscient. Each of them is characterized by the use of “she,” “he,” and “they” when referring to any character, including the main character of the story. This point-of-view makes readers feel more like audience members compared to the other two.

Limited

For limited third person, you mostly follow the main character of the story. This makes it similar to first person. However, the biggest difference is that you have a more objective narrator. There’s also a little more distance between the reader and your story. Your reader isn’t going to get quite as many of your characters thoughts and your narrator will most likely have more information about what’s going on around the character. The voice is also very different. In first person, we’re going to get more of the narrating character’s voice and style, compared to the more neutral voice in third person.

A good example of limited third person is in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Here’s an example from The Half-Blood Prince:

Harry did not think much of this idea; he had been intending to visit Madam Pomfrey, the matron, in whom he had a little more confidence when it came to Healing Spells, but it seemed rude to say this, so he stayed stock-still and closed his eyes.

As you can see, this point-of-view doesn’t have quite as much of the character’s voice in the narration, but it does give you a more unbiased perspective of what’s going on in the scene.

Omniscient

Omniscient is the all-knowing narrator. This is the farthest you can get from a story. This narrator knows what’s going on with everyone and shares it as needed. The biggest advantage is your reader can be as informed as possible. The biggest disadvantage is that your audience is taking in the story from a greater distance.

Here’s an example from A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket:

Klaus took Violet’s other hand, and Sunny took Klaus’s other hand, and in that manner the three Baudelaire children–the Baudelaire orphans, now–were led away from the beach and from their previous lives.

As you can see, this narrator seems to know everything about this story, but as readers, we’re kept at arm’s length compared to the earlier points of view. We don’t know too much about what the characters are feeling, but we have the facts of what is going on. This means we have access to information that the characters in the story don’t at the time, however, we also aren’t experiencing the story with them quite like we would be in another point-of-view.

I hope this gives you a good idea about the basics of point-of-view!

Now it’s your turn: What’s your favorite POV and why? Is there one you particularly dislike? Tell me about it in the comments!

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