The process of crafting a novel demands a long list of writing skills; viewing it from multiple angles is just one of them. With five styles of point of view, authors have a bevy of options to choose from, but this can also be a bit overwhelming. How can you tell which is the right point of view for the story you want to tell? Your choice of perspective can make or break your next draft – by understanding how each one works, authors can save themselves from the agony of total rewrites.
In 1st person, we follow the story from within a single character’s mind, through the use of I/We. This could be done with either the Main Character, classified as first-person central, or a Side Character that is observing the MC in a first-person peripheral view. 1st person is also commonly used when writing memoirs, as the author is speaking of their personal experiences.
The purpose of writing in 1st is to narrow the scope of what the audience experiences down to the opinions, feelings, and thoughts of the speaker – creating the opportunity for an unreliable narrator. However, there are limitations to consider. With 1st person, one person has to be able to build the story as well as relay the other character interactions around them. The speaker won’t know the full details that you the author are aware of in the world.
This can make them an easy target for the machinations of an antagonist, or headstrong to a fault, creating space for wonderful conflict and devastating reveals. Some well known representative examples of 1st person novels are The Hunger Games and Catcher In The Rye. Both offer a first-person peripheral perspective, where the reader embodies the unreliable perspective of Katniss or Holden. Katniss’ views are reactionary to the events unfolding around her, only showing part of the story as a whole. In contrast, Holden has his opinions set in stone against what he is told and experiences, thus his interaction with the story is eschewed because of it.
2nd person point of view is characterized by the use of “you”, and guides the reader along as if they were the character of the story. Certain genres such as self-help, horror, and erotica, work beautifully in 2nd person. In each case, the power and choices are placed into the reader’s hands by putting them directly into the line of fire. Your story may benefit from offering your reader the chance to decide, like a Choose Your Own Adventure. Or for a more modern twist, you could treat your 2nd person story like a VR adventure. 2nd person is all about the lush sensory details that your MC encounters and processes, so the readers can experience them too. A whimsically entertaining example using 2nd person is The Series of Unfortunate Events. Throughout the book, Lemony Snicket poses much of his narration directly towards the reader, imploring them to listen to the plight of the Baudelaire Orphans.
If neither of these options sound appealing to you, there are multiple options to choose from in the 3rd person point of view. Each one narrates the story through one or more characters with the use of third person pronouns (he, she, they) or the character’s name.
3rd person omniscient creates a narrator who knows everything about the story and the characters. While the narrator gives the readers close knowledge of the MC(s), they can also allow the reader to see the thoughts of other characters. 3rd omniscient, also known as 3rd open, can lend to very detailed story telling, allowing for greater depth into the characters and how they interact with the world around them. It’s particularly useful in stories that focus on a broader scope, especially ones that require worldbuilding to showcase the setting you’ve built. This includes the fantasy genre, but also to fiction of varying kinds, anywhere from late 19th-century to modern.
You can create richer character relationships in 3rd open by jumping into any character’s thoughts and emotions to better establish their motivations. If you want to make a heist story reminiscent of Ocean’s Eleven, then 3rd person omniscient would be perfect to follow each thief’s motivation. This can then heighten the reader’s investment into how things will play out as the reader knows more than the characters do (“You fool, they love you!”). One such example of jumping between characters is Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, which follows Elizabeth exclusively, but occasionally jumps into other characters that might prove a foil or bookend to Lizzie’s wit and growth, as well as the narrator’s observations of the occurrences around the estates.
In contrast, 3rd person limited focuses on a singular character. This style is similar to the intimate look of 1st person, but here the narrator is actually reliable. Instead of the wider lens of 3rd open, 3rd limited provides a sharp focus on only your main character: following their thoughts and feelings, and seeing their sights. This enables the author to focus on a singular character, or set of characters, so the reader can see only as far as the narrator allows. This point of view can encompass many genres, from suspense to fantasy, and is often found in contemporary fiction. Mystery novels benefit from 3rd limited immensely; as your slick Bogie detective works through the small details, the reader gets up close and personal with their frustration, failings, and ultimately their successes. If you do need extra angles to better build your story, you can bounce between characters in other sections or chapters, so long as you maintain a necessary distance between other character’s thoughts for clarity. In this way, 3rd limited can be viewed as a mid-way point between the up-close perspective of 1st person, and the sprawling narrative of 3rd open.
The lesser-known 3rd person point of view is one that offers no insight into a character’s motivations, but merely observes their actions – 3rd person objective. Likened to the “the-fly-on-the-wall”, this angle places the reader into the lens of a voyeur. Someone merely leaning around a corner to see the main character crying, but not knowing the cause. Genres that work best from this viewing angle are thriller and mystery, where suspense and feeling on the cusp of knowing is tantamount. Short stories such as novellas and flash fiction also thrive here. In this point of view, it is imperative to show all things rather than to tell. A good example of this would be the short story Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway, where the narrator simply relays dialogue between a couple.
Understanding the unique purpose of each of these five points of view empowers writers to utilize the one best suited to their story. Playing with perspective early on can help to avoid a total redraft later, so don’t be afraid to test a few out and see how they feel. By choosing one point of view over another, you can highlight how you want to convey your story, whether through close character perspective or the broad observances of an ancillary narrator. How you tell your story, as well as who you tell it from, can shift the tone, scope, and even genres. There is no bad point of view – there is only the point of view that will work best for your story.