Character Point of View: Definition and Examples

Point of view is one of the first factors you must decide before writing anything, fiction or nonfiction.

Many writers know instinctively what POV they’ll use, even if they don’t know the specific name for it. However, if you’re not familiar with the characteristics of each point of view, you run the risk of unintentionally changing POV in the middle of the story or book. And while many books make use of multiple POVs, it must be done with intention in order to give the reader the best experience possible. 

Since the different points of view used in writing can be a bit confusing, I've decided to tackle them in this post. Even if you have a couple of books under your belt, a quick reminder about character point of view can only help.

In this article, you will learn:
  1. What is Point of View?
  2. First Person Point of View
  3. Second Person Point of View
  4. Third Person Point of View
  5. Examples of Each
  6. Choosing Which Point of View to Use

What is Point of View?

Point of view is a literary device through which the author unveils the story to the reader. Sometimes called the “eye” or the perspective of the narrator, POV is an important and constant factor all through the story. You can have multiple points of view throughout, or you can stick to one.

Often, the narrator and the main character are the same, but not always. Some points of view don't even utilize a viewpoint character as the narrator, instead using an omniscient narrator to tell the story.

There are three overarching points of view used in writing: First Person, Second Person, and Third Person. These each have their own specific styles that can be used to great or detrimental effect, depending on how you use them. Here are the different points of view we’ll be discussing in this post:

  • First Person
    • Epistolary
    • Flashback
    • Cinematic
    • Plural
  • Second Person
  • Third Person
    • Limited
    • Omniscient
    • Objective

The most common points of view in writing, and the ones new writers should stick to, are First Person Cinematic, Third Person Limited, and Third Person Omniscient.

Sometimes all these different points of view are called by different names, but once you know them, you can spot them by their characteristics, which we’ll cover in detail below. You’ll also see examples of popular books written in each POV, as reading in each is the best way to learn how to write in each!

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Let's dive in.

First Person Point of View

First person POV is used often today, especially in YA, romance, and literary fiction. This style is easy to spot by the use of first-person pronouns such as “I,” “My,” and “Mine.”

Usually the first-person narrator is the main character, but this is not always the case. It can be someone off to the side of the action, observing the story and telling it to the reader.

Since everything is seen through a single character's perspective at any one time, you don't have a chance to see things from a different perspective. This leaves room for trickery in the form of an unreliable narrator. Everything the point of view character tells the reader could be tinged with mistruths or outright lies, which can make for a fun twist when done right.

Let's dive in further and look at the specific styles encompassed by first person POV.

Epistolary

This form of first-person storytelling isn't all that common, although some best-sellers have used it to great effect. The epistolary story is kind of like a “found footage” movie in written form. It's usually told through letters, diary entries, or documents.

Flashback

The first person flashback story is one told to the reader by a character recounting something that happened in the past. Aside from those instances where (and if) the narrator talks directly to the reader in the present tense, like an introduction or an interlude, the story is written in the past tense and has many similarities to certain third person POV styles which we'll cover below.

You can think of the narrator in a flashback story as two characters: who they were then and who they are now. These stories are often character driven, focusing more on the change the narrator went through and less on the outward mission or objective.

Cinematic 

When people say first person point of view, they're often talking about this style, as it's the most popular today. Common in YA novels (among others), this style provides intimacy with the narrator because the reader is essentially in his or her mind for the entire story, experiencing everything through the narrator.

First Person Plural 

Although not very common, first person plural is when the POV is that of a group of people, like a town or a family. This type of story uses “we” and “us” pronouns throughout as the narrators tell the tale.

Examples of First Person POV

Epistolary – Bram Stoker's Dracula – Told through a series of journal/diary entries and letters.

Flashback – the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Told in the context of a “frame story” as Dr. Watson recalling the adventures he had with Sherlock Holmes. Actually, one could make the argument that these stories are both epistolary and flashback stories, since they are written in Dr. Watson's diary as memoirs.

CinematicThe Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – Told in the present tense and only through Katniss Everdeen's eyes, thoughts, and feelings.

Plural The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides – Told through the POV of a group of men as they remember their childhood and a family's tragedy.

Second Person Point of View

Of the three narrative points of view used in fiction, second person is the least used — and for good reason. It's difficult to make second person work in a way that's engaging to the reader. However, this POV is often used in nonfiction writing (like this blog post) and is characterized by the use of “you” to refer to viewpoint character and reader. (I.e. “You walk further down into the dungeon, clutching the orc's sword in your sweaty hand…”)

You'll generally want to stay away from writing fiction in second person point of view if you expect to sell the work. Readers aren't used to it and it takes considerable finesse to pull off well. That said, writing a story in second person can be a great writing exercise, and it can sometimes be used in certain short stories or choose-your-own-adventure tales.

Examples of Second Person POV

N. K. Jemisin's Broken Earth Series – Jemisin doesn't only use the second person narrative technique in this epic sci-fi/fantasy series, but when she does, it's to great effect. If you want to see an example of how this is done well, start with The Fifth Season, the first book in the series.

Choose Your Own Adventure Books – Second person works well for these books aimed at young readers because you get to choose what happens to the protagonist (you), and if you choose wrong, the consequences could be dire!

Third Person Point of View

Third person POV includes several styles that are all used fairly often in fiction. This type of narration is characterized by the use of “he/she,” “they/theirs,” and “his/hers.”

Although the narration may choose a particular viewpoint character through which to tell all or part of the story, the character isn't the narrator. In fact, the narrator isn't present as a character in the story at all.

There are three different types of third person POV that you can use. Let's take a look at them.

Third Person Limited

Third person limited point of view means that the author stays rooted in one character's head at a time. Often, this is throughout the entire book, but it can also be done on a scene-by-scene basis, staying with one character until that scene or chapter is over.

At no point does the character speak directly to the reader, but through the third person limited POV, the reader can often hear some or all of the character's thoughts, whether directly or indirectly.

Directly – “Where are you going?” he said, leveling the gun at her. Don't leave me, he thought as his heart thumped in his chest.

Indirectly – “Where are you going?” he said, leveling the gun at her. A sick desperation filled him. He didn't want her to leave. Not now. Not ever.

Third Person Omniscient

Third person omniscient point of view is characterized by the “godlike” narrator that knows everything about every character. The narrator's point of view is not limited to a particular character in any given scene, and can jump around to multiple characters.

The omniscient POV is one of the more difficult on this list for any beginning writer. Although it seems like it would be easy, it can result in “head hopping” when done wrong, jarring the reader and muddling the story.

When you read a story and see something to the effect of “she had no way of knowing, but…” or “he had no idea that around the corner lurked…” then the narrator's perspective is omniscient.

Third Person Objective

There's also a different form of third person narration that isn't often mentioned: third person objective. This is where the narrator can jump from one character's point of view to a different point of view, but the reader never gets to be inside the character's head. You don't hear the character's thoughts, whether directly or indirectly.

So although you are seeing the scene through a particular character's eyes, you only get glimpses into his or her thoughts through their words and actions. This is sometimes called third person cinematic because the narrative point of view is like that of a camera; it can only show what happens outwardly, never inwardly. This is the very definition of a reliable narrator because the narration is purely objective.

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Examples of Third Person Point of View

Third Person LimitedHarry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone – Although there are moments of omniscience from the narrator, the bulk of this book — and the entire series — is written in third person limited, only seeing things through the eyes of one character at a time.

Third Person OmniscientLord of the Flies by William Golding – This classic uses third person omniscient point of view to shift the perspective character. This allows the reader to see the story through the eyes of multiple POV characters, making the violence in the book more impactful.

Third Person ObjectiveOf Mice and Men by John Steinbeck – This novella unfolds with a third-person narrator who never gives the reader a look inside any of the characters' heads. Instead, the powerful story is told through description and dialogue.

Choosing Which Point of View to Use

Now that we've covered the most common character points of view, you may be wondering how to choose which one is right for your story. If you're a new writer, most editors and writing teachers recommend you stick to the most common POVs:

  • First Person Point of View – Cinematic
  • Third Person Point of View – Limited or Omniscient

These are good starting points, and most stories can be told well in one of the three.

Here are a few tips to help you decide between the three:

1. Determine your POV character(s). If it's just one character, first person perspective may be the best bet, provided the following steps don’t contradict that assumption.

2. Pay attention to genre conventions. Look at what similar books are doing (popular ones, preferably). Sticking to the POV you see used most often in those books is a good idea.

3. Write a chapter or two. If you still don't know which to choose, write a chapter or two in each POV. Pay attention to character voice, flow, style, and what your gut tells you. Once you've written a few thousand words in each, you should have a good feeling for what will work for your book.

4. Experiment, but not too much. Don't be afraid to experiment a little. If something isn't working, try writing a chapter or a scene from a secondary character's perspective. There's nothing wrong with alternating to a minor character throughout the book, so long as it serves the story.

Conclusion

There's a lot of fun to be had with point of view. Some authors get away with using multiple points of view in their books, while others simply stick with one.

Others write their entire book in one POV and then realize that another one would work better. While I don't suggest doing this (if you can help it), I do suggest getting to know each POV well.

Read some of the books and stories mentioned above, taking note of what you like and what you don't. Then experiment on your own. Trust your gut. The POV you feel works best for your story is probably the right one.



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