Point of view (POV) refers to the angle from which a story is told. To follow are some useful tips and resources for choosing which POV would be best for your novel or short story.
I - first person
You - second person
He/she/it - third person
The First Person Narrator
The ‘I’ storyteller.
First person narrators are vivid and immediate. We see the story unfold through the eyes of a single focal character, who seems incredibly real to the reader, as though we’re listening to this person speak to us directly. As writers, first-person accounts rarely suffer from POV confusion, because we stick with one person only, and write as though we are that individual. This contrasts with third person, in which it’s easy to lose your character thread and to start head-hopping, TV style (see later).
First person narration is incredibly effective in conveying the internal landscape of a character. Using first-person means that the writer can get away with slightly more ‘telling’ than third person narration can (which is why memoir works so well - much of it is telling, but it focusses on crisis, trauma and drama, which comes straight from the mouth of the very person it happened to). Scroll down to the last section of this article for some fabulous (and varied) examples of first-person narrators.
While it’s fair to say that any genre of fiction is appropriate for a first person narrator, it’s become more fashionable to write first person present tense narratives in recent years, particularly (but not exclusively) in YA.
The Second Person Narrator
The ‘you’ storyteller.
This angle is more unusual. Using second person is a cunning way to plunge immediately into a story by suggesting that you are experiencing it yourself as the reader, rather than simply seeing things through the eyes of a character. A terrific example of second person narration follows, in an article for the 'Book Riot' website (Anna Gooding-Call, 2019):
‘You thought the article about books written in the second person sounded interesting when it appeared on the Book Riot homepage. You vaguely remember hearing this odd term in high school English class, but your teacher assured you that you would never need to use it. Nobody writes in the second person, he said, tapping the whiteboard, except pompous artistes who don’t care about selling their books. He was a strange little man whom you quickly learned to ignore by tucking a novel into your textbook.
'But the second person now haunts you. What does it mean? You wrack your brain, then proceed to the gold-embossed black leather notebook where you list all of the books you’ve ever completed. You have attached notes to each title: Slow until midway; ends abruptly; strong secondary characters. You consider yourself a connoisseur of literary structure and style. But nowhere has your past self described a book as written in the second person.
'It is time to remedy this situation. A wave of resolution washes over you and you exchange your dignified notebook of completed titles for the industrial-sized plastic trapper keeper that houses your TBR list. It bulges with newspaper clippings, magazine covers, printed New York Times articles from your mother, and a napkin that you used at a table in a restaurant at an event center where Roxane Gay once did a book signing.’
See Anna’s recommendations for a variety of second-person narrated books, here.
The Third Person Narrator
The ‘he/she’ storyteller.
If you type ‘ what is third person narration?’ into a search engine, you’ll pull up a plethora of articles which use all sorts of terms, including ‘distant limited third person’, ‘third person close’, and ‘omniscient’, for example. If you’re at the beginning of planning/writing your project, it’s easy to feel blinded by the science behind POV, so here, I’m going to simplify things by only looking at two ways to use POV in third person: limited third, and omniscient.
A limited third person narrative is when we writers use the POV of only one ‘he’ or ‘she’, who is styled as our main narrator. Readers get to observe the world through this character’s experience, often with internal thoughts and knowledge peculiar to the character’s world view. The 'limited' part of the description means that our reader can only see through that particular character's eyes, and only knows the things he or she knows. If you want to use a wider viewpoint than that, then it takes omniscient to reveal what all the characters know, do, or think. Scroll down to the last section of the article for some vibrant extracts from third-person narrated novels.
Omniscient third person narration is when we as writers almost play god, being able to describe what all or any of the characters do, say, feel, and think. The omniscient narrator knows and sees all, showing the reader what’s inside every character’s head and heart in turn. When omniscient was originally developed, writers couldn’t really go wrong, because it was the most popular form of storytelling, and films hadn’t yet been invented. Today, getting omniscient spot-on is a minefield, because modern writers have arguably seen more TV and film than they’ve read omniscient narrators. This can lead aspiring debut novelists to write camera-angle style fiction, rather than true omniscient viewpoint. Here’s a checklist to help:
If you want to write using omniscient viewpoint, it’s vital to search out and read some mainstream published omniscient narrator novels, and to read as a writer so that you understand what’s going on at a technical level;
Camera-angle style fiction head-hops quickly within a scene, sometimes with no sense of which narrator is foregrounded, or why - the story is often patchworked together in short snapshots, whereas written fiction rarely does this successfully;
Omniscient doesn’t mean giving bit parts to random characters who may only appear once in the story, or who may die quickly - this is a visual fiction convention which won’t work so well in a novel;
Visual fiction often tells the same scene from different POVs, or uses short jigsaw scenes to put together a whole. This approach won’t work so well in novels, because we needed stretches of sustained narrative to get to know, and care for, our narrator/s;
Cameral-angle style fiction often uses an oblique viewpoint, which describes a distant visual rather than connecting with a character. One example might be describing a huge panorama over a cityscape, or a desert sunset depicted as an aerial view. Because in written fiction we generally need to connect with things through the eyes of our lead character, it's difficult to have a scene described from miles above when our storyteller is sat on a balcony drinking coffee. S/he would only see what's in front of them, not what's happening several kilometres away. Some novels do use external viewpoints like wide-angle camera shots within omniscient, but there's a knack to getting it just right so that it doesn't jar, which is one reason coaches mostly recommend that aspiring debut novelists don't use omniscient.
For recommended reading which uses the omniscient narrator POV, try this list from Goodreads.
Composite narrative is another ‘take’ on using more than one POV in a novel, but structured in a different way to omniscient. Composite novels are told by more than one narrator, with the story clearly divided into sections or chapters devoted to one narrator at a time. So, within these separate sections, you might choose to use limited third, or first person, or second person - or all of these separately, if you have enough narrators. But, you wouldn't combine a composite novel with omniscient unless you were incredibly savvy and experienced in what you're doing and why, because giving sections to different narrators negates the need for omniscient viewpoint/head-hopping between characters within a scene.
In composite narratives, it’s vital that we have time to build a good connection with each narrator before swapping to another. Below, is a list of composite narratives which are great examples of telling a story from more than one viewpoint:
Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last. This is told in two stories which alternate. Jeanette Winterson's Frankissstein also uses two storytellers.
Maya Lunde, A History of Bees. This novel features three stories in composite (past, present, and future), in strictly alternating sections. Catriona Ward's The Last House on Needless Street is another three-part composite, in which each storyteller keeps secrets which power the plot.
David Mitchell is incredibly sophisticated, telling multiple stories in one novel:
Ghost Written, The Bone Clocks, Cloud Atlas, Slade House, David Mitchell
Just to give an idea of how carefully novelists plan composites, Cloud Atlas is written in sections which can be grouped, by narrator, as follows: ABCDEDCBA. You can see the mirror image either side of the single central episode, E. If Mitchell had head-hopped randomly without such a solidly devised structure, the novel probably wouldn’t have worked.
Us readers might not ever break down how these more complex composites work, but because they’re already in the public arena, we’ve become savvy at spotting a good composite - which explains why as writers, we shouldn’t use roving TV-style viewpoint or an unstructured narrative. Many aspiring debut novelists misconstrue omniscient by head-hopping randomly, or misconstrue composite by assuming that the different narrators can swap over at any point. Reading any of the composite novels listed (or all of them, if you’re serious about understanding POV or you intend to write a composite yourself) will help.
Here’s a useful article which explains why visual convention and written convention work differently with regards to POV.
Here’s a useful article which explains why ‘reading as a writer’ can help you to identify trends and tropes, whilst harnessing what you learn to improve your own creative writing.
First person narrator - examples from mainstream published fiction:
Dark Places, Gillian Flynn, 2009
‘I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It's the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders. Little Orphan Libby grew up all sullen and boneless, shuffled around a group of lesser relatives - second cousins and great-aunts and friends of friends - stuck in a series of mobile homes or rotting ranch houses all over Kansas. Me going to school in my dead sisters’ hand me downs shirt with mustardy armpits pants with baggy bottoms, comically loose, held on with a raggedy belt cinched to the farthest hole. In class photos my hair was always crooked - barrettes hanging loosely from strands, as if they were airborne objects caught in the tangles - and I always had bulging pockets under my eyes, drunk-landlady eyes. Maybe a grudging curve of the lips where a smile should be. Maybe. I was not a lovable child and I've grown into a deeply unlovable adult. Draw a picture of my soul, and it’d be a scribble with fangs.’
Notes on a Scandal, Zoe Heller, 2003
‘The irony of my having agonised over Sheba’s friendship with Fatty Hodge, when all the time she was preparing to fornicate with a minor, does not escape me. It is sad and rather galling to reflect that I wasted all that time on the mystery of Sue’s allure, while the much more lethal liaison was brewing away beneath my nose. I am not prepared, however, to say that my concerns were altogether misdirected. It seems to me that if Sheba had made a wiser choice of a girl friend - if she had chosen me over Sue form the start - it is quite possible that she might have avoided the Connolly imbroglio.’
Summer Secrets, Jane Green, 2020
‘Lord knows, most of the time when I'm facing an evening on my own I am absolutely fine. If anything, I relish that alone time when my daughter is with her father. The luxury of eating whatever I want to eat; the relief that not having to provide a nutritious meal for a 13 year old picky eater. I can curl up on the sofa and watch things my daughter would groan at - documentaries, news, a great three parter on the BBC; or putter around the kitchen listening to Radio 4 with no one complaining or demanding I put on a radio station that plays nothing but pop music. Tonight I seem to have itchy feet. Tonight, I am restless, and restlessness is always dangerous for me. Restlessness has a nasty habit of leading me to places I’m apt to regret. I have learned from bitter experience that when I feel like this, I need to keep busy. I phone the Chinese restaurant at the top of Elgin Avenue and order some noodles and spare ribs, then get up and open the kitchen cabinets. I've been putting this job off for months. My former husband is fanatical about order. He was the one who kept everything neat and tidy, all the pots and pans organised. Since he's gone, the place is a disaster.’
The Black Witch, Laurie Forest, 2017
‘The woods are beautiful.
They’re my friends, the trees, and I can feel them smiling down at me.
I skip along, kicking at dry pine needles, singing to myself, following close at the heels of my beloved Uncle Edwin, who turns every so often, smiles and encourages me to follow.
I am three years old.
We have never walked so far into the woods and the thrill of adventure lights up my insides. In fact, we hardly ever walk into the woods. And Uncle Edwin has brought only me. He’s left my brothers at home, far away.
I scramble to keep up with him, leaping over curved roots, dodging low-hanging branches.
We finally stop in a sunny clearing deep in the forest.
‘Here, Elloren,’ my Uncle says. ‘I have something for you.’ He bends down on one knee, pulls a stick from his cloak pocket and presses it into my tiny fist.
It’s a special stick - light and airy. I close my eyes, and an image of the tree the stick came from enters my mind - a big, branchy tree, soaked in sunlight and anchored in sand. I open my eyes and bounce the stick up and down in my hand. It’s as light as a feather.
My Uncle fishes a candle out of his pants pocket, gets up and sets the candle on a nearby stump before returning to me. ‘Hold the stick like this, Elloren,’ he says gently as he holds his hands around mine.’
I look at him with slight worry.
Why is his hand trembling?’
The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott, 2020
‘When the men in black suits came, my daughter offered them tea. The men accepted, polite as invited guests. But when they began emptying my desk drawers onto the floor, pulling books off the shelf by the armful, flipping mattress, rifling through closets, Ira took the whistling kettle off the stove and put the tea cups and saucers back in the cupboard. When one man carried carrying a large crate ordered the other men to box of anything useful, my youngest, Mitya, went onto the balcony, where he kept his hedgehog. He swaddled her inside his sweater as if the men would box up his pet too. One of the men - the one who would later let his hands slide down my backside while putting me into their black car - put his hand atop Mitya’s head and called him a good boy, Mitya, gentle Mitya, pushed the man's hand off in one violent movement and retreated into the bedroom he shared with his sister.
‘My mother, who’d been in the bath when the men arrived, emerged wearing just a robe - her hair still wet, her face flushed. “I told you this would happen. I told you they would come.” The men ransacked my letters from Boris, my notes, food lists, newspaper clippings, magazines, books. “I told you he would bring us nothing but pain Olga.”
‘Before I could respond, one of the men took hold of my arm - more like a lover than someone sent to arrest me - and, with his breath hot against my neck, said it was time to go. I froze. It took the howls of my children to snap me back into the moment. The door shut behind us, but their house grew louder still.’
Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn, 2006
‘It was that summer I began the cutting, and was almost as devoted to it as to my newfound loveliness. I adored tending to myself, wiping a shallow red pool of my blood away with a damp washcloth to magically reveal, just above my naval: queasy. Applying alcohol with dabs of a cottonball, wispy shreds sticking to the bloody lines of: perky. I had a dirty streak my senior year, which I later rectified. A few quick cuts and cunt becomes can’t, cock turns into back, clit transforms to a very unlikely cat, the l and i turned into a teetering capital A. ‘The last word I ever carved into myself, sixteen years after I started: vanish. Sometimes I can hear the words squabbling at each other across my body. Up on my shoulder, panty calling down to cherry on the inside of my right ankle. On the underside of a big toe, sew uttering muffled threats to baby, just under my left breast. I can quiet them down by thinking of vanish, always hushed and regal, lording over the other words from the safety of the nape of my neck.’
The Third Person narrator - examples from mainstream published fiction:
Kingdom of the Wicked, Kerri Maniscalco, 2020
‘Outside, wind rattled the wooden chimes in warning. In the distance, waves crashed against the shore; the frantic whispers of the water growing louder as if the sea was a mage summoning violence. Next, thunder would roll in quicker than the tide with lightening cracking electric whips across an unforgiving sky. The devil demanded retribution. A blood sacrifice for power stolen.
It wasn’t the first time he’d be cursed by witches, nor would it be the last.
From her rocking chair near the fire, Nonna Maria monitored the while they chanted protection charms she’d taught them, a cornicello clutched tightly in each of their little fists. Pushing the howling gusts from her mind, she listened closely to the words Vittoria and Emilia whispered over the horn-shaped amulets, their matching dark heads bent in concentration.
‘By earth, moon and stone, bless this hearth, bless this home.’
It was the start of their eighth year and Nonna tried not to worry over how quickly they were growing. She pulled her shawl closer, unable to ward off chills in the small kitchen. It had little to do with the temperature outside. As much as she tried to ignore it, sulfur snuck in through the cracks along with the familiar orange-and-plumeria scented breeze, raising the greying hair she’d swept up from her neck. Had she been alive, her own human grandmother would’ve called it an omen and spent the evening on her knees in the cathedral, rosary clutched close, praying to saints.
The devil was on the prowl.’
Grown Ups, Marian Keyes, 2020
‘John Casey launched into a fit of energetic coughing. A bit of bread down the wrong way, but the chat around the long dinner table carried on. Lovely, he could die here, literally die, on his 49th birthday - and would his brothers their spouses, his own wife Jessie, any of the children even notice? Jesse was his best hope but she was off in the kitchen readying the next elaborate course he could only hope he survived to eat. A sip of water didn't help. Tears were streaming down his face, and finally Ed, his younger brother, asked ‘You OK there?’
Manfully, Johnny waved away his concern.
‘Bread. Down the wrong way.’
‘Thought for a minute you were choking,’ Ferdia said.
Well, why didn't you say something you useless tool? Twenty-two years of age and more concerned with Syrian refugees than your own stepfather expiring.
‘That'd be a shame,’ Johnny croaked, ‘to die on my birthday.’
‘You wouldn't have died,’ Ferdia said. ‘One of us would have tried the Heimlich manoeuvre.’
Someone would have needed to notice I was dying first.
‘You know what happened recently?’ Ed asked. ‘Mr Heimlich? The man who invented the Heimlich manoeuvre? Finally, at the age of eighty-seven, he got to do it on someone for real.’
‘And it worked? He saved the person?’ This was from Liam the youngest of the Casey brothers, right down at the end of the table. ‘Be a bit mortifying if he did it then the person snuffed it.’
Liam tended to bring the snark to any situation, Johnny reflected. Look at him there, lounging back in his seat with a careless grace that made Johnny's teeth itch. At forty-one years of age, Liam was still propelling himself through life only using good looks and swagger. The cut of him, with his surf-y hair and half the buttons open on his crumpled shirt.
‘Like Mr Segway,’ Ferdia said. ‘Invented the Segway said they were totally safe and then died on one.’
‘In fairness,’ Ed said, ‘his only claim was that you'd never fall over on one.’
The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood, 2009
‘In the early morning Toby climbs up to the rooftop to watch the sunrise. She uses a mop handle for balance: the elevator stopped working some time ago and the back stairs are slick with damp, and if she slips and topples there won’t be anyone to pick her up.
'As the first heat hits, mist rises from among the swath of trees between her and the derelict city. The air smells faintly of burning, a smell of caramel and tar and rancid barbecues, and the ashy but greasy smell of a garbage-dump fire after it’s been raining. The abandoned towers in the distance are like the coral of an ancient reef - bleached and colourless, devoid of live.
'There still is life, however. Birds chirp; sparrows, they must be. Their small oices are clear and sharp, nails on glass: there’s no longer any sound of traffic to drown them out. Do they notice that quietness, the absence of motors? If so, are they happier? Toby has no idea. Unlike some of the other Gardeners -the more wild-eyed or possibly overdosed ones - she has never been under the illusion that she can converse with birds.’
Me Before You, Jojo Moyes, 2012
'When he emerges from the bathroom, she is awake, propped up against the pillows and flicking through the travel brochures that were beside his bed. She is wearing one of his T-shirts, and her long hair is tussled in a way that prompts reflexive thoughts of the previous night. He stands there enjoying the brief flashback, rubbing the water from his hair with a towel. She looks up from a brochure and pouts. She's probably slightly too old to pout, but they've been going out a short enough time for it still to be cute.
‘Do we really have to do something that involves trekking up mountains or hanging over ravines? It's our first proper holiday together, and there is literally not one single trip in these that doesn't involve either throwing yourself off something or wearing a fleece,’ she pretends to shudder, throws the brochures down on the bed, stretches her caramel-coloured arms above her head. Her voice is husky testament to their missed hours of sleep.’
The Giver, Lois Lowry, 1993
‘It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. No. Wrong word, Jonas thought. Frightened mean that deep, sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen. Frightened was the way he had felt a year ago when an unidentified aircraft had overflown the community twice. He had seen it both times. Squinting towards the sky, he had seen the sleek jet, almost a blur at its high speed, go past, and a second later heard the blast of sound that followed. The one more time, a moment later, from the opposite direction, the same plane.
‘At first, he had been only fascinated. He had never seen aircraft so close, for it was against the rules for Pilots to fly over the community. Occasionally, when supplies were delivered by cargo planes to the landing field across the river, the children rode their bicycles to the riverbank and watched, intrigued, the unloading and then the take-off directed to the west, always away from the community.
‘But the aircraft a year ago had been different.’
The Believers, Zoe Heller, 2008
‘At dawn, on the top floor of a creaking house in Greenwich Village, Joel and Audrey lay in bed. Through a gap in the curtains, a finger of light extended slowly across their quilt. Audrey was still far out to sea in sleep. Joel was approaching short - splashing about in the turbulent shallows of a doze. He flailed and crooned and slapped irritably at his sheets. Presently, when the rattling couplets of his snored reached on of their periodic crescendos, he awoke and grimaced in pain.
‘For two days now, he had been haunted by a headache: an icy clanking deep in his skull as if some sharp-edged metal object had come loose and were rolling about in there. Audrey had been dosing him with Tylenol and urging him to drink more water. But it wasn’t liquids or pills he needed, he thought: it was a mechanic. He lay for a few moments, holding the back of his hand to his brown like a Victorian heroine with the vapours. Then he sat up bravely and fumbled for his spectacles on the crowded bedside table. In a matter of hours, he would be giving the defence’s opening argument in the cast of The United States of America v. Mohammed Hassani.’
My articles are inspired by my clients, touching on things I see widely in my work as a freelance editor and writing coach.
17th February 2022