12 Jan

Point of View: A Cheat Sheet

Posted in Craft, Writing

When starting a new project, one of the big decisions you have to make is which point of view (POV) you’re going to use.  Here’s a cheat sheet to help you choose.

First person is when the narrator is a character in the story.

First Person
This is when the main character is the person telling the story.  In other words, this is the “I” narrator.  Examples: Holden from Catcher in the Rye or Katniss from The Hunger Games.

First Person Peripheral
This is when the narrator is a supporting character in the story, not the main character.  This is still the “I” narrator, but now the narrator is not the protagonist.  Example: Nick from The Great Gatsby (Gatsby is the protagonist).

Third person is when the narrator is NOT a character in the story.

Third Person Limited
Third person is the “he/she/it” narrator.  Limited means that the POV is limited to just one character.  This means that the narrator only knows what that character knows, only sees what that character sees.  Examples: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (where the story follows Scrooge at all times–even scenes that Scrooge would not be privy too we see through his eyes as he travels with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future).  The Book of Three (first book of the Prydain Chronicles) where the narrator follows the protagonist Taran.

Third Person Multiple
Again, we’re in the “he/she/it” category, but now the narrator can follow multiple characters in the story.  The challenge with this POV is making sure your reader knows when you’re switching from one character to another.  A good way to make the switch is to use chapter breaks or section breaks to signal a new POV.  Example: The High King (which is the final book of the Prydain Chronicles) where the narrator follows several characters in the story, including Taran.

Third Person Omniscient
This one still uses a “he/she/it” narration but now the narrator knows EVERYTHING in the story.  The narrator isn’t limited by what the POV character knows.  It’s sort of like the narrator is god, hence the term “omniscient.”  This type of POV was very popular back in the day but has recently become less popular (some people feel like it’s a little old-fashioned).  Still, some excellent books use this narrator.  Examples: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

Third Person Objective
Just like the omniscient narrator can get into any character’s head, the objective narrator gets into NO ONE’s mind.  This means the objective narrator can only relate information that is easily visible (character’s words and actions).  This narrator can’t tell us about the character’s thoughts or feelings because it doesn’t know.  It’s kind of like watching a movie, where the only information you get is what you can see or hear.  This POV is very tough to sustain for long pieces which is why the only example I can find is a short story: Raymond Carver’s Little Things.

Other POV Choices

Second Person
This is the “you” narrator.  “You go to the store and realize you forgot your wallet… etc.”  Like objective POV, the second person is hard to sustain so there are very few novels written in second person.  This POV is more popular for short stories.  In fact, the first story I ever published is in the second person (which is weird because I think it’s the only story I’ve ever done in second person).  Anyway, if you’re curious, it’s here.

Unreliable First Person
This is when you have a first person narrator but you can’t trust him/her for any number of reasons. Maybe the character is a very young child who doesn’t really understand what’s happening in the story.  Or perhaps the character is insane.  Or better yet, the character could be perfectly sane but also a pathological liar so you can’t believe what she says.  Example:  The Tell-tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe.

Epistolary (or other) Form
Epistolary is when the story is told in letters.  There are many forms that work similarly to epistolary forms, like journal form or a story told through emails, etc.  Mostly these forms work like the first person because the main character in the story is often the one writing the letters/journal/etc.  The difference is that the story is limited even further because of the form.  For example, people don’t usually write dialogue in their letters, so if you want to use dialogue in epistolary form, you’ll have to find a way around that.

In the end, POV is all about consistency.  Whatever form you decide on, it’s important to let the reader know what the “rules” are for your story and then stick to them.

Edit: Added and corrected a few examples.


Comments on this post

  1. Kiernan says:

    Great cheat sheet! Thanks!

    1. Wannabe Writer says:

      My favorite to write is first person, because I find it's easier to get into the story when I pretend I'm my main character. And easier to pretend I'm my main character when I write "I grabbed the sword and…", etc.

      I've always wanted to do second person POV story, but I've never really liked anything I've written. They read like Jean Claude Van Damme movies.

      1. Kerryn Angell says:

        It is a great cheat sheet! I've looked several times for a list so I could refresh my memory on the finer points of third person, of the other points of view and now here it is. 🙂

        1. Mac says:

          FYI … I queued up a post for Monday, and am linking to this post, since you provoked my doodling. –Mac

          1. TK Richardson says:

            What a great resource! I'll bookmark this for future reference.

            1. Carol Riggs says:

              I may be boring, but I've written ALL my novels (over a dozen) in 3rd person limited. *grin* Maybe I should branch out, but there are a lot of pluses with it.

              1. Linda S. Prather says:

                Great article. Thank you for sharing.

                1. areteus says:

                  A good example of first person peripheral is Watson in Sherlock Holmes as he is the narrator but Holmes is clearly the protagonist.

                  If you need another example of second person (and there are very few about…) I would suggest Halting State by Charles Stross. The whole thing is told as if you were the character which is consistant with the plot because it is a story about roleplaying games (well, MMOs anyway).

                  Bram Stoker's Dracula is largely written in epistolary form as well…

                  1. ash says:

                    That second-person POV always gets me. I wonder, is there a way to accomplish it without using mostly imperatives? Most of what I've seen and written using it always turns into a list of rules, almost. Like you said, "You go into the store and realize you forgot your wallet," usually followed up by something like, "Next time, try not to forget it."

                    1. gabi says:

                      Thanks all for your great comments!

                      Carol–3rd Person Limited is definitely NOT boring. I think a writer could go her whole life writing just 3rd person limited and never run out of stories.

                      Areteus–Oh, those are great examples! Thanks for adding those.

                      Ash–I know what you mean about 2nd person. It really does seem to end up being a bunch of imperative. I guess that's because the imperative form is basically 2nd person but with the "you" silent. I'm not sure there's a way around it. Anyone have any ideas/examples?

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