Among the most important decisions a fiction writer can make is what point of view to use in a story. Point of view determines what aspects of a story will be left out and deeply affects how the reader relates to the main character and interprets the tale’s message.
The various points of view available to novelists and short story writers generally are grouped into three categories: first person; second person; and third person.
When the story’s narrator also is a character in the story, first person point of view is being used. First person usually is easy to spot because the narrator uses “I.”
In first-person major, only the main character’s experiences and thoughts are relayed to the reader (as in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). This allows readers to have a very intimate experience with the main character, as they see the events through his eyes. On the downside, a narrator can be unreliable, meaning not being entirely truthful, often requiring the reader to think a little more about what is occurring.
In first-person minor, the narrator is a character in the story but not the protagonist. This creates a sense of intimacy with the narrator and his views while making the protagonist more of an object to be examined. A major limitation is that the narrator can’t experience what the protagonist sees, feels or thinks, only what is observed of him. This point of view is used in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in which the narrator Nick tells what occurs to main character, Jay Gatsby. This subtype sometimes is referred to as first-person peripheral.
Second person occurs when the story is told from the reader’s point of view. Very rarely used in fiction, it is common in nonfiction, especially instructional works. “You” often appears in such works. A good example of second person in fiction is the children’s tale The Monster at the End of This Book. In second person, the reader is the story’s protagonist.
For third-person, the protagonist is part of the story, but the narrator is not. It can be identified by the narrator’s use of he, she and it. The advantage is it offers a more objective portrayal of the main character while still presenting his perceptions, emotions and thoughts. This still generates much less intimacy with the main character than first-person major, however, making it a poor choice when the author wants to challenge the reader’s viewpoints through the protagonist’s questionable behavior. Two major subtypes of this point of view exist.
In a limited point of view, the narrator only tells what the protagonist sees, feels and thinks. Other characters only can be shown through their actions or the words they speak, as the protagonist would observe them. An excellent example of this in literature is Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. This approach allows the reader to have a more objective view of the protagonist but still get into his head.
The omniscient subtype allows the narrator to be god-like, in that he knows and can present what every character sees, feels and thinks. The narrator knows what characters don’t even know and can offer commentary. This point of view is particularly useful in novels with multiple character storylines, such as Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
One modern technique involving third-person is combining the two subtypes so that different scenes in a story are told in third-person limited but focus on a different protagonist. For example, if a novel has four protagonists, the first chapter might be told in third-person limited with Character A as the main character, while the next chapter is told in third-person limited with Character B as the main character, and so on. Chapters told in third-person omniscient that focus on these many protagonists also might be included. This style sometimes is referred to as third-person multiple.
My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.