Point of View Definition
Point of view (POYnt of VYOO) describes the person from whom the events of the story are told. In any written work—including narratives, poems, and songs—the speaker or narrator provides the point of view.
The term is derived from the Latin punctum visus, meaning “point sight,” or where your sight limits what you can see. In literature, the point of view limits the amount of information the reader has about the events in the story. The reader can only experience events as the narrator sees and describes them. Any information the narrator is not privy to, the reader will also not be privy to.
Types of Point of View
There are three main types of point of view: first person, second person, and third person. Each type offers a different vantage point into a story’s events. Writers use them depending on how they want readers to experience the story.
First Person: I/me/mine
In first person, the story is narrated by a single character within the story. It uses the pronouns I, me, and mine. It can also use we and our if the narrator is part of a group. This offers the most limited view of events because only one character’s perspective is shared. It’s also considered the easiest to write and most likely to ensure the audience empathizes with the speaker. Some stories also have different sections narrated by different characters, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. This is a way for authors to provide multiple interpretations of the story’s events.
Consider this example from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, narrated by main character Offred:
I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name; remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me. I want to steal something
Second Person: You/your
Second-person narration is written as if the reader is a character. It uses the pronouns you and your. Atypical of fictional narratives, second person is often used in poetry, songs, nonfiction directional texts like cookbooks, and advertising slogans. Choose-your-own-adventure books also use second person.
Author Junot Diaz uses second person in his collection of short stories This Is How You Lose Her. Here is an example from the story “The Cheater’s Guide to Love”:
You ask everybody you know: How long does it usually take to get over it? There are many formulas. One year for every year you dated. Two years for every year you dated. It’s just a matter of will power: The day you decide it’s over, it’s over. You never get over it.
Third Person: He/she/they/their
Stories in third person are told from an authorial point of view outside the story, not a character within it. Most published books are written in third person, as it offers the most objective view of a story’s characters and events.
There are multiple types of third-person narratives.
Third Person Omniscient
This is where the narrator knows and shares the thoughts, feelings, and actions of all characters. Omniscient narrators can jump in and out of any character’s inner dialogue, depending on how it suits the narrative’s flow. However, not all thoughts, feelings, or actions are revealed chronologically—or even at all.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding is an example of a third-person omniscient narrative. The narrator is not a character, so they can tell the reader what the boys on the island are thinking and feeling at any moment.
The fair boy said this solemnly; but then the delight of a realized ambition overcame him. In the middle of the scar he stood on his head and grinned at the reversed fat boy.
Third Person Cinematic
This is technically a subset of third person omniscient. While omniscient narrators describe how characters feel at any given moment, cinematic third-person narrators refrain from revealing characters’ inner thoughts. Instead, the scene and actions are described solely in objective fact.
Some aspects of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring uses third-person cinematic storytelling. In this example, Tolkien provides a wide-lens view of the wizard Gandalf’s arrival without providing any character’s thoughts:
An old man was driving all alone. He wore a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, and a silver scarf. He had a long white beard and bushy eyebrows that stuck out beyond the brim of his hat. Small hobbit-children ran after the card all through Hobbiton and right up the hill.
Third Person Limited
From this point of view, the narrator only describes the thoughts and feelings of one character at a time. Though, just as in first-person narration, writers may have the limited narrator switch between different characters’ perspectives.
George Orwell’s 1984 is a famous third-person limited book. It follows protagonist Winston Smith, and though there are many characters, the narrator never discloses their thoughts.
What can you do, thought Winston, against the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself, who gives your arguments a fair hearing and then simply persists in his lunacy?
Why Writers Use Each Point of View
Each point of view type has advantages depending on the story a writer is telling. The primary factor is how close a writer wants the audience to feel to the narrator and the characters.
Uses for First-Person Narration
Writers use first person to create an explicit connection between the reader and narrator. With this point of view, the reader inherently roots for and empathizes with the narrator because the narrator is a character. Because the reader can experience the narrator’s thoughts and emotions, the reader is more likely to invest in the story being told.
This narrative structure also lends itself to clarity because the reader doesn’t need to piece together the narrative. However, there are instances where first-person narratives can confuse or complicate the story being told. This can be found in literary works with multiple narrators, as in As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, or an unreliable narrator, as in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground.
Unreliable First-Person Narration
When a story has an unreliable narrator, the narrator’s thoughts or opinions cannot be trusted often because of a certain bias or character flaw. Writers typically use this type of character to force readers to question their preconceived notions or assumptions about the story and its characters. They also use this technique to make a distinction between objective truth, which is undeniably factual, and narrative truth, which covers events that may not have actually happened but still have meaning and importance.
While primarily an aspect of first-person narration, unreliable narrators can also be found in second-person and third-person omniscient stories. This technique is used in film, where audiences are shown events that are later revealed to be inaccurate.
Examples of unreliable narrators in literature include J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, where narrator and protagonist Holden Caulfield is a self-proclaimed liar, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, where narrator Nick Carraway is biased both by his reverence for the titular Jay Gatsby as well as his distaste for other characters in the novel.
Movies with unreliable narrators include the 2000 film Memento, where events are muddled by the protagonist’s inability to make new memories, and the 1995 The Usual Suspects, where Roger Kint is masking his true identity from the police.
Uses for Second-Person Narration
Writers use second-person narration to lend a sense of immediacy and urgency to the story and the action. It puts the reader directly into the action, causing them to feel invested because it’s as if the story is happening to them. Second person can also be read as a command or explicit direction, which is why it is the point of view writers use for instructional texts.
Uses for Third-Person Narration
Because there are different types of third-person narration, each one serves a distinct function in stories.
Uses for Third Person Omniscient
Third person omniscient allows writers to convey many perspectives without losing trustworthiness or authority. The reader understands that the story’s events are being fully contextualized because the narrator has access to all the characters’ thoughts and emotions.
Third person omniscient was the preferred point of view for most classic literature, epics, and fairy tales—genres that often detail how societies became organized and the role natural phenomena played in those societies’ survival. Speaking from a godlike distance lends authority to these tales and allows the narrator to share many aspects of the characters’ history. Writers of mystery novels or action thrillers also prefer this point of view because the narrative focus is on dramatic action and relationships.
Uses for Third Person Cinematic
Writers use the third-person cinematic point of view to position the reader as a voyeur or witness. This point of view allows readers to experience a story’s actions without accessing characters’ inner thoughts or feeling like they are the story’s protagonist. This means the writer must show what happens with visual descriptions and dialogue rather than through an editorialized perspective.
A drawback to third person cinematic is that it lacks intimacy and does not invite an immediate connection between the reader and the characters. The reader must do the emotional work to determine characters’ motivations and the meaning behind actions and events. As such, this narrative style can be alienating.
Uses for Third Person Limited
With third-person limited narration, writers depict one character as the protagonist, giving the reader intimate access to only that character’s interiority. The reader, as a result, roots for and empathizes with the protagonist because they understand that character so well. Unlike certain first-person narrators, the reader can trust that a third-person narrator is an objective outsider describing the protagonist’s experiences. This viewpoint lends itself well to mysteries and suspense novels because the reader can discover aspects of the plot along with the protagonist.
This limited point of view can leave readers wanting more thorough comprehension of the story’s events. Without multiple inner dialogues, the reader can’t know how events affect all characters. They can only rely on the protagonist’s interior speculation.
Point of View and Other Literary Devices
There are several literary devices that relate to the way people—whether characters, narrators, or writers—relay a story.
Point of View vs. Perspective
While point of view is the specific format of narration—literally who is telling the story—perspective is the socioeconomic, religious, and cultural background that shapes the characters’ attitudes and judgments. Therefore, point of view is the clinical rhetorical device, whereas perspective is the result of that choice of rhetorical device.
Point of View vs. Bias
Like perspective, bias can result from point of view but is not synonymous with it. Bias refers to a speaker’s goal to denigrate or laud one side or aspect of an argument or story. Biases are created by people’s life experiences and are often founded in misconceptions. Point of view, on the other hand, is simply a writer choosing speak through a character or narrate from beyond the story. While the narrator may hold a bias, especially if they are a character in the story, point of view is not inherently biased.
Point of View vs. Ethos
Ethos refers to a speaker’s merits or credibility and is usually applied to nonfiction persuasion. While it’s desirable for the reader’s trust in the narrator to create buy-in for the story, the narrator’s ethos is not always discernible. This is especially true outside of first-person narration, when the narrator exists outside of the story and doesn’t divulge how they interpret events. However, readers can consider the writer’s ethos in a third-person work. For example, the cultural importance of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers, a story about the 18th century development of New York State, must be considered in conjunction with Cooper’s ethos. As a white man writing from a time not far removed from the novel’s setting, readers question whether he is overly romanticizing the conquest of the frontier and, by extension, Native Americans.
Point of View vs. Tone
Tone is another term that is related to but not synonymous with point of view. Tone refers to the writer’s attitude towards their work’s subject. Though it may come through the narrator’s description of events, it is communicated by the writing itself. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example, is written in third person and its tone is one of overt disgust and horror for slavery. Similarly, abolitionist Olaudah Equiano’s first-person account of slavery uses a subtler tone to criticize the practice.
Examples of Point of View in Literature
1. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance
This novel showcases how first-person point of view can lead to a somewhat skewed description of events. Here, the narrator, Mr. Coverdale, passes judgment on Zenobia’s character:
Her unconstrained and inevitable manifestation, I said often to myself, was that of a woman to whom wedlock had thrown wide the gates of mystery. Yet sometimes I strove to be ashamed of these conjectures. […] Stilll it was of no avail to reason with myself, nor to upbraid myself.
Even as Mr. Coverdale admits to judging Zenobia, he feels no need to stop. Thus, the reader will have no other way to perceive her other than through his biased eyes.
2. Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Chief Bromden is a good example of an unreliable narrator. He is a paranoid schizophrenic whose thoughts are further complicated by medications he takes and his resultant hallucinations. As a result, his perception is skewed, meaning the reader cannot fully trust his narration.
The novel opens with Bromden wandering the halls of the asylum, wary of everything and everyone:
They’re out there.
Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them.
[…] I creep along the wall quiet as dust in my canvas shoes, but they got special sensitive equipment detects my fear and they all look up […]
Even though the reader is not yet aware that Bromden was institutionalized for schizophrenia, it is clear from the beginning that his testimony might not be entirely truthful.
3. Richard Siken, “A Primer for the Small Weird Loves”
Poet Richard Siken uses second person to make the action in “A Primer for the Small Weird Loves” immediate and visceral:
The blond boy in the red trunks is holding your head underwater
because he is trying to kill you,
and you deserve it, you do, and you know this
This poem addresses the reader directly, causing them to imagine being in this extreme scenario. Though the reader may understand that Siken is recounting something that is happening to an unnamed third party, his use of second person makes the reader feel deeply connected to the events.
4. Nathanial Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
Hawthorne uses third person omniscient to great effect in this critique of Puritanical society and its hypocrisy. While the novel’s protagonist is the shamed Hester Prynne, Hawthorne shares other characters’ thoughts and feelings with the reader as well:
But there was a more real life for Hester Prynne here, in New England, than in that unknown region where Pearl had found a home. Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence. She had returned, therefore, and resumed,—of her own free will, for not the sternest magistrate of that iron period would have imposed it,—resumed the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale. Never afterwards did it quit her bosom. But… the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, and yet with reverence, too. [bolded for emphasis]
With this excerpt, the reader knows what happened to Pearl, what Hester chose to do and why, and the townspeople’s changed opinion about the titular scarlet letter, which one stood for adultery but now carries a more nuanced meaning.
5. Ernest Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants”
Hemingway is well known for using third person cinematic in his writing. He employs this method in one of his most famous short stories, “Hills Like White Elephants.” In this example, he describes the scene as visually as possible without passing judgment:
The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
Because Hemingway depicts the narrative from an observer’s distance, the reader is left to piece together the story themselves—namely, that the protagonists are discussing whether the girl will get an abortion. The frank portrayal does not invite the reader to pass judgment or take sides, which leads to ambiguity regarding Hemingway’s intent and overall message.
6. Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game
Card’s use of third person limited causes the reader to sympathize with protagonist Ender Wiggins by only providing his inner thoughts:
But Ender knew, even as he thought it, that Peter wouldn’t leave him alone. There was something in Peter’s eyes, when he was in his mad mood, and whenever Ender saw that look, that glint, he knew that the one thing Peter would not do was leave him alone. [bolded for emphasis]
Here, the reader sees Ender’s interpretation of Peter but not Peter’s own perception or emotions. While this scene is clear—Peter is someone who often antagonizes Ender, so much so that Ender can predict it—it does not offer up the whole picture. Instead, Card only divulges his protagonist’s thoughts, feelings, and intent.
Further Resources on Point of View
In this Masterclass video, author Margaret Atwood describes how choosing the right point of view impacts a story.
This blog post on novelist and illustrator Ingrid Sundberg’s blog discusses the three main types of point of view and why each one matters.
Writer support website Now Novel offers tips on how writers can perfect their work’s point of view.