Choose the Right Point of View for Your Story: Beyond the Basics

First, third, omniscient, limited—point of view (POV) is a global decision we make in every writing project. Like our choice of present or past tense, selecting the right point of view for a story has a powerful impact on the final effect, and it’s worth considering different options before jumping to one choice.

Many of us have our go-to preferences for the third or first, and so be it. But let us stretch our writing muscles today, consider an in-depth look at POV choice. You might end up seeing things from… a new perspective.

The Narrator: First and Third Person

When we talk about point of view, we’re talking about a narrator. All prose fiction (unless we’re getting very experimental) has a narrator whose words function as the reader’s door into the story. Point of view refers to that narrator’s position relative to the story’s events.

A first-person narrative means that your narrator is a direct participant in the events of the story. The narrator is a character inside the story, interacting with other characters, and so refers to themselves as “I.”

A third-person narrator, in contrast, is not a participant in the story, and so all characters are referred to by personal pronouns (she, he, they).

It’s useful to think of telling a story to a group of friends. When you are relaying a story about yourself, you use the first person. When you are telling a story in which you were not involved (okay, that is, when you are gossiping), you use the third.

Convention through much of Western Literature in the last 150+ years says to always use the third person. In the current literary world, first person is growing more and more common, and first person narratives need not be considered less professional or less literary as might have been the case in the past. These days, there is no strong trend towards either first or third person, and I like this. It means that we as writers can concern ourselves more with the effects of our POV choice on readers rather than the demands of the norm.

Indeed, when we select which point(s) of view to use in any story, we should consider how this global decision will open up particular narrative possibilities for us, just as it will block off others. What effects do the first and third persons lend to their texts?

First Person: Closeness to Character

The gold standard of first person is closeness to character. First person narration fully immerses readers in subjective, personal experiences, and this encourages identification with the character, sympathy, and a feeling of reality sometimes difficult to achieve in a third-person narrative. Introspective characters can shine here. A character with a unique manner of thinking or self-expression can lend powerful voice to the story.

It is because of this supplanting of the narrator’s voice with the character’s that first-person literature can also run into challenges. Depending on the identity of your narrator, huge swaths of language may be made unavailable. Most people do not speak in lyric prose. Most do not craft insightful metaphors in the middle of a conflict. And to successfully pull off first person narration, we must confine ourselves to what is believable for the character and the situation from which they tell the story.

My favorite example of this idea is Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Its narrator, Celie, is uneducated, poor, and terrorized by her father and husband. When Walker chose to use Celie’s words to narrate the story, she committed to fully inhabiting that voice. She did it brilliantly. Take a read from one of the early scenes between Celie and Shug Avery:

I don't argue. I git the coffee and light her cigarette. She wearing a long white gown and her thin black hand stretching  out of it to hold the white cigarette looks just right. Something bout it, maybe the little tender veins I see and the big ones I try not to, make me scared. I feel like something pushing me forward. If I don't watch out I'll have hold of her hand,  tasting her fingers in my mouth.  

Can I sit in here and eat with you? I ast.

She shrug. She busy looking at a magazine. White women in it laughing, holding they beads out on one finger, dancing on top of motocars. Jumping into fountains. She flip the pages. Look dissatisfied. Remind me of a child trying to git something out a toy it can't work yet.

She drink her coffee, puff on her cigarette. I bite into a big juicy piece of home cured ham. You can smell this ham for a mile when you cooking it, it perfume up her little room with no trouble at all.

I lavish butter on a hot biscuit, sort of wave it about. I sop up ham gravey and splosh my eggs in with my grits.

She blow more and more smoke. Look down in her coffee like maybe its something solid at the bottom.

Finally she say, Celie, I believe I could drink a glass of water. And this here by the bed ain't fresh.

She hold out her glass.

I put my plate down on the card table by the bed. I go dip her up some water. I come back, pick up my plate. Look like a little mouse been nibbling the biscuit, a rat run off with the ham.

She act like nothing happen. Begin to complain bout being tired. Doze on off to sleep.

Mr. ast me how I git her to eat.

I say. Nobody living can stand to smell home cured ham without tasting it. If they dead they got a chance. Maybe.

We get so many wonderful tidbits of character in this narration. Beyond the salient dialect, we first get subjective opinions (Shug’s hand looks “just right.”), then emotions (Celie feels scared, then aroused, then proud). We get figurative language that comes from Celie’s lived experience–they are believable comparisons for her (the biscuit looks like a mouse has bitten it; Shug reads the magazine like a child plays with a toy). I love the sarcasm here too: “Look like a little mouse been nibbling the biscuit, a rat run off with the ham”–of course Celie knows what has happened. And the reader knows. And Celie knows that the reader knows. It makes for a great little joke.

These above are all the kinds of things third person narrators struggle to handle. And I want to emphasize here that word: struggle. It’s absolutely not that a skillful third person narrator could not express them. But all would be clunkier. Less precise. The sarcasm would have to be recast somehow. Maybe in a spoken conversation.

Third Person: a Variety of Styles

Where third person might lag in character intimacy, it has at its disposal a correspondingly richer set of narrative possibilities. In most discussions, the third person is subdivided into a couple of alternatives, and we’ll begin with these. But ultimately, what I love about the third person is its ability to shift near-seamlessly in terms of focus and distance, thus enabling a more complex, nuanced narrative style than first person can offer.

Close Third Person

Close third person narration (also called third person limited) is the most common and is similar to first person. The narrator confines discussion to the experiences of one focus character and describes everything from that character’s vantage point. If the main character did not see who was walking along the roof, then the narrator did not either. A close third person narrator also has access to the character’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions and can share these with the reader.

What separates close third person from the first is language. The third person narrator mediates the character’s perspective through 1) the grammatical language of the third person [“she” rather than “I”] and 2) the language of the author’s chosen writing style.

Third Person Omniscient

At the other end of the third person spectrum is the third person omniscient narrator. Where we might think of a third person limited narrator as looking over the main character’s shoulder, a third person omniscient narrator has a bird’s-eye view. This narrator can report on anything and everything, including what the characters do not know.

Omniscient narrators can choose to report the thoughts and feelings of any and all characters. They can digress into long, philosophical considerations that nobody present in the story cares about.

Works of literature that firmly inhabit the third person omniscient can be difficult to find, but perhaps my favorite example, and one where I think this narrative style is used with great effect, is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse:

"James will have to write HIS dissertation one of these days," he added ironically, flicking his sprig. 

Hating his father, James brushed away the tickling spray with which in a manner peculiar to him, compound of severity and humour, he teased his youngest son's bare leg.

She was trying to get these tiresome stockings finished to send to Sorley's little boy tomorrow, said Mrs. Ramsay.

There wasn't the slightest possible chance that they could go to the Lighthouse tomorrow, Mr. Ramsay snapped out irascibly.

How did he know? she asked. The wind often changed.

The extraordinary irrationality of her remark, the folly of women's minds enraged him. He had ridden through the valley of death, been shattered and shivered; and now, she flew in the face of facts, made his children hope what was utterly out of the question, in effect, told lies. He stamped his foot on the stone step. "Damn you," he said. But what had she said? Simply that it might be fine tomorrow. So it might.

In the space of just a few paragraphs, we receive the inner, unexpressed thoughts of two, and depending on how some of the language is interpreted, perhaps three characters. The dance can be a challenge for readers to follow, but the effect is a brilliant and complex look at an otherwise very simple interaction.

It’s worth noting that most of To the Lighthouse is less compressed than this–typically a full paragraph will narrate one character’s perspective; subsequent paragraphs will switch to another’s. In a way, this is a kind of ever-shifted third person limited. I’ve chosen the above passage as it exemplifies in a short space some of the effects the broader novel achieves as a whole.

Thousands of birds fly over the forest at the edge of Todi. We have heard that they are busy eating mosquitoes. Enjoy!

Objective Third Person

Both close and omniscient third person narrators maintain a sense of interiority with their characters, reporting on their thoughts and feelings. It’s important to remember that writers don’t have to do this. Some third person narrators fall into what we might call (or at least it so attempts to be) objective third person. In these narratives, the writer purposely avoids the characters’ interiority. There may still be a primary focus character, as in third person limited, or the narrator may describe more broadly.

Here is the opening paragraph of Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants”:

The hills across the valley of the Ebro' were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.

Not much fiction is written fully in objective narration (although it is [and thankfully so] the preferred point of view of journalism and expository texts). Yet in opening, orienting paragraphs, in basic exposition, it can be extremely useful.

Free Indirect Style

We have one more. Something of a bizarre child of first and third person limited, free indirect style (or free indirect discourse) blends the grammatical third person with the speaking style and opinions of the main character.

Free indirect style can be tricky to recognize, and it’s really meant to be subtle, as a way of maintaining the variegated styles available in third person while grafting in the intimacy of the first. Often what marks a narrator as free-indirect is nothing more pronounced than a single word, a word that the character would use, while most narrators would not.

A fairly explicit example of free indirect style comes from Richard Adams’s Watership Down. Although usually narrated in a close or sometimes omniscient third person, sometimes the narrator speaks about things as only one of Adams’s rabbits would:

When he was half-way across the field, Hazel became aware of a hrududu approaching very fast on the other side of the further hedge. It was small and less noisy than the farm tractor which he had sometimes watched from the edge of the primrose wood at home. It passed in a flash of man-made, unnatural colour, glittering here and there and brighter than a winter holly tree. A few moments later came  the smell of petrol and exhaust. Hazel stared, twitching his nose. He could not understand how the hrududu could move so quickly and smoothly through the fields. Would it return? Would it come through the fields faster than they could run, and hunt them down? 

The word “hrududu” (Lapine for automobile) is the most obvious use of free indirect style. But the two questions at the end of the paragraph are also Hazel’s. In close third person, these might be tagged with a “Hazel thought.” Instead, they appear just as Hazel thought them, though changed into grammatical third person and past tense.

Free indirect style can be a great way of bridging that gap to bring readers closer to your characters. Still, I personally think first person keeps the edge on this score.

Subtle Shifts in Narration

One of the biggest mistakes we can make with third person point of view is to confine ourselves to only one form of it. Indeed, third person’s greatest asset is its ability to move at will, without great disruption to the narrative, between these close and broad perspectives. This lets the reader see it all: the thoughts of the characters, the big picture, the subjective understandings, the objective truths. Many third person narrators strike a kind of balanced undulation, holding for much of the time to a third person limited (and thereby more character-focused, more relatable) point of view, then soaring up at intervals for a kind of chess-board-view omniscience. These shifts affect pacing, tone, and theme in the narrative, allowing the author to fine-tune the reader’s experience in ways that from a first-person narrator might feel odd.

As we saw in To the Lighthouse, danger does exist of disorienting and losing the reader, and so these perspective shifts will most often occur at the start or end of scenes; sometimes they are even sectioned off as whole chapters or prologues. But such a formal division need not exist. Often a paragraph break is more than enough.

To illustrate, here is a passage from Beloved by Toni Morrison, whose shifts in point of view propel the feeling in this passage to great heights:

And the strong hands went to work a fourth time, none too soon, for river water, seeping through any hole it chose, was spreading over Sethe’s hips. She reached one arm back and grabbed the rope while Amy fairly clawed at the head. When a foot rose from the river bed and kicked the bottom of the boat and Sethe’s behind, she knew it was done and permitted herself a short faint. Coming to, she heard no cries, just Amy’s encouraging coos. Nothing happened for so long they both believed they had lost it. Sethe arched suddenly and the afterbirth shot out. Then the baby whimpered and Sethe looked. Twenty inches of cord hung from its belly and it trembled in the cooling evening air. Amy wrapped her skirt around it and the wet sticky women clambered ashore to see what, indeed, God had in mind.

Spores of bluefern growing in the hollows along the riverbank float toward the water in silver-blue lines hard to see unless you are in or near them, lying right at the river’s edge when the sunshots are low and drained. Often they are mistook for insects—but they are seeds in which the whole generation sleeps confident of a future. And for a moment it is easy to believe each one has one—will become all of what is contained in the spore: will live out its days as planned. This moment of certainty lasts no longer than that; longer, perhaps, than the spore itself.

On a riverbank in the cool of a summer evening two women struggled under a shower of silvery blue. They never expected to see each other again in this world and at the moment couldn’t care less. But there on a summer night surrounded by bluefern they did something together appropriately and well. A pateroller passing would have sniggered to see two throw-away people, two lawless outlaws—a slave and a barefoot whitewoman with unpinned hair—wrapping a ten-minute-old baby in the rags they wore. But no pateroller came and no preacher. The water sucked and swallowed itself beneath them. There was nothing to disturb them at their work. So they did it appropriately and well.

The first paragraph uses a close third person. We hear Sethe’s thoughts, and we are there with Sethe and Amy in the boat. Asking “what, indeed, God had in mind,” this is Sethe’s thought.

But in the second paragraph, the point of view shifts radically. In fact, it becomes objective (and I use the term here in the sense of not reporting characters’ inner thoughts, rather than in the sense of being without emotion itself; this emotion in the narrator is another key aspect of Morrison’s narration, which I will discuss in a future post). The narrator fully leaves the characters behind, discussing philosophical musings about the symbolism of the bluefern spores.

Finally, the third paragraph uses third person omniscient narration. It reports the general opinions of people in that society, while the “appropriately and well” could be a later-on reflection by Sethe, or the narrator’s own judgment, or someone else’s.

The overall effect of this zoomed-out point of view is to give closure and feeling to what has been the harrowing tale of Sethe’s escape from slavery and giving birth to her baby daughter while on the run. The POV shift is a bulwark against the energy of the scene, slowing us down, preparing us for what is to come.

An alternative approach to shifting points of view holds closer to the middle: a partial focus on what the focus character knows; a hint at what he does not. The shifts are subtle enough that they often go unnoticed, and while this can result in a somewhat muddled feeling, in can also prove effective.

To see what I mean, take a look at this excerpt from Witi Ihimaera’s short story “Big Brother, Little Sister”:

The night cracked open. Through the gap came helmeted bikies on silver-chromed wings. Their bodies were carapaced with leather and studded silver. As they roared through the dark they trailed scarves from their necks like clotted blood.

'My feet are sore, Hema,' Janey said. She sat on a ledge beneath some huge billboards on Taranaki Street. Taggers had been at work. Across the smiling paternal face of the local Member of Parliament, someone had sprayed the words: THE TREATY IS A FRAUD. On another, a picture postcard scene of New Zealand: AOTEAROA, LAND OF THE LONG WHITE SHROUD.

Ihimaera’s narration here is quite interesting. The first paragraph is somewhere between limited and omniscient–Hema and Janey do actually see the bikers, and the dialect word “bikies” belongs to them (this is a moment of free indirect style). Yet the specific elements described (the silver and leather are details I’m not convinced the two frightened children [Hema and Janey] would have noticed), and so it feels like they have come from the omniscient narrator.

In the second paragraph, we zoom in very briefly to a focus on Janey (third person limited), but almost immediately we see the graffiti on the billboards. Again, the specific details mentioned feel more like what an adult would notice than a child, and so the omniscient narrator seems to be reasserting themself. The overall effect is a kind of oscillation, allowing Ihimaera both to tell the story of these two children while simultaneously making near-explicit comment on indigenous issues in New Zealand.

A Continuum of Points of View

It’s easy to define close third person and omniscience. In action, they blend and shift and recombine. As with many complex systems, third person point of view is better thought of as a continuum than a discreet list.

We can consider two axes: along one, the emotional/cognitive distance from the characters; along the other, the close focus on a single character to a broad overview. A thoughtful writer will consider her or his position along these axes throughout the story, where a shift might be useful, when the narrative is in need of a steadier course.

Infographic of 3rd person points of view and their effect on the reader.

Making the Choice: Third or First Person?

The right point of view for any story is the one that allows us to most successfully tell the story in our minds. First and third person are different, and they do propel us and limit us in different ways. That said, a skilled craftsperson can leverage many other aspects of language, from tense to structure to stylistic elements, to achieve the sought effect.

Converting a text between different points of view after it’s written is a huge undertaking, and it likely means rewriting significant portions. Therefore, the more you can be sure of your choice before beginning, the better that will be. Try writing a scene using first person–this can help you discover the character’s voice. Then, write the same scene in third. Perhaps some of the voice elements come through as free indirect style. Perhaps you experiment with a passage zoomed out into third person omniscient.

Consult your favorite books. Find stories that use each POV well, and identify some of their techniques. How do third person narratives establish great character identification? How do first person narrators shift pacing and avoid the stagnation of a fixed perspective?

Write short stories in both first and third person. Hone your skills. Experiment and play. Use these as springboards for larger projects.

I’ll close by sharing the perspectives of a few others. Perhaps you’ll find something useful here:

What other differences do you see between first and third person narration? What are your favorite examples of each? Which do you prefer to write in? I look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes for the week,

Jimmy

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5 thoughts on “Choose the Right Point of View for Your Story: Beyond the Basics

Add yours

    1. That’s great! I think trying out different POVs is definitely the way to go. And you’re right that the experience in different points of view is different not just for the reader, but the writer too. When you start new projects, is POV choice something you think about consciously, or does the right one just kind of emerge when you start writing?

      Liked by 1 person

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