There's a big difference between point of view and perspective, even though the two are often mistaken for one another.
As a writer myself, I did not originally understand the difference between point of view and perspective. My goal is to clearly explain these concepts and provide helpful examples so you can apply them in your own writing.
- What is point of view
- What is perspective
- The main types of point of view
- Examples of the different points of view
- Examples of perspective
Table of contents
- Point of View vs Perspective
- What Are the Different Types of Point of View?
- Examples of Point of View
- What Can Influence Perspective?
- How to Use Perspective to Write Better
- Examples of Perspective
Point of View vs Perspective
Let's start by defining these two terms.
What is Point of View?
Point of view refers to the narration and how the story is told. Specifically, it refers to the pronouns used for the narrator.
As the writer, you choose the point of view based on the effect you want to create. The point of view sets the relationship between the narrator, the reader, and the events of the story.
The main types of point of view are:
- First person: The narrator uses “I” or “we”. The narrator is a character in the story.
- Second person: The narrator uses “you”. This addresses the reader directly.
- Third person limited: The narrator uses “he”, “she” or “they”. The narrator knows the thoughts/feelings of one character.
- Third person omniscient: The narrator uses “he”, “she” or “they”. The narrator knows the thoughts/feelings of multiple characters.
I'll provide more details on each of these types later in the article.
What is Perspective?
Perspective refers to the narrator's worldview – how they perceive the events, places, and people in the story. Their perspective is shaped by their experiences, beliefs, and background.
While point of view focuses on who is telling the story, perspective focuses on how they are telling it. Two characters can experience the same event but have very different perspectives on it based on their personal histories.
As the writer, you need to convey each character's unique perspective to create a realistic, multidimensional story. The perspective affects how the narrator describes and interprets events in the story.
What is the Difference?
To summarize the main difference:
- Point of view is about who is narrating – the pronouns used and relationship to the reader.
- Perspective is about how the narrator sees the world – their worldview and personal experiences.
Point of view is a technical choice by the author. Perspective emerges from the characters and their backgrounds.
So point of view and perspective are related, but distinct concepts. Both are important for good storytelling.
What Are the Different Types of Point of View?
Now let's dive deeper into the main types of point of view and how they affect the storytelling.
First Person Point of View
In first person point of view, the narrator uses “I” or “we”. This narrator is a character in the story relating their experiences directly.
Some examples of first person point of view include:
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – The story is told from the perspective of Scout.
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Nick Carraway narrates the story and interacts with other characters.
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – The story unfolds through Katniss Everdeen's eyes.
First person creates a close relationship between the reader and narrator. We are immersed in the narrator's inner thoughts and emotions. This allows the reader to deeply empathize with the narrator.
However, the narrator in first person is limited in their knowledge. We only know what they directly experience. This can create tension and surprise for the reader.
First person point of view lends itself well to personal subject matter. The intimacy allows the narrator to share secrets, regrets, dreams that might feel awkward in third person.
Second Person Point of View
Second person point of view is relatively rare in fiction, but a lot more common in nonfiction. It uses “you” to directly address the reader as the main character.
Some examples of second person point of view include:
- Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney – The story immerses the reader in the mind of the main character.
- If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino – The reader becomes “you”, on a metafictional journey.
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – The reader inhabits the perspective of a circus performer.
Second person creates a distinctive experience, pulling the reader into the story. It collapses the distance between reader and character. The reader vicariously experiences the events.
However, second person also carries some risks. It can come across as contrived in the wrong hands. The reader may resent being told how “you” think and feel. It requires skill to pull off effectively.
In general, second person works best in short bursts rather than a full-length novel. It can be used strategically to accentuate certain scenes or generate immediacy during dramatic moments. But proceed with caution.
Third Person Limited Point of View
In third person limited, the narrator uses “he”, “she” or “they”. The narrator has access to a single character's thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
Examples of third person limited point of view include:
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – The narrator knows Elizabeth Bennet's inner world but not other characters'.
- The Shining by Stephen King – We experience the story through Danny Torrance's perspective.
- The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini – The story unfolds through Amir's eyes.
Third person limited creates intimacy with the chosen character while maintaining some distance compared to first person. We get glimpses into their inner world but still view them from the outside.
This point of view limits the narrator's knowledge. Tension can build as the narrator and reader slowly uncover secrets and motivations.
Third person limited is popular because it balances internal access with the freedom to pull back and comment on situations. I find myself using it often in my own writing.
Third Person Omniscient Point of View
In third person omniscient, the narrator uses he/she/they pronouns but has access to any character's thoughts and experiences. The narrator has a godlike knowledge and perspective on situations.
Some examples include:
- Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – The narrator floats between characters to construct a sweeping portrait.
- Middlemarch by George Eliot – An all-knowing narrator dissects relationships and small town life.
- Dune by Frank Herbert – The narrator reveals the thoughts of each character, even giving away the character who will eventually betray the heroes.
Third person omniscient provides flexibility to explore multiple characters and situations. This lends itself well to social commentary and critiques.
However, the lack of limitations can also create distance between the reader and characters. Without the intimacy of first or close third, the reader may feel detached.
Some writers use a limited third person perspective for the main arc, with occasional dips into omniscience to provide context. This provides the best of both worlds.
Examples of Point of View
Let's look at some excerpts from famous books to see the point of view in action:
First person – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh.”
Here Scout narrates in first person, describing her memories and perspective on her brother.
Second person – Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.”
The reader becomes “you” here, immersed in the character's world.
Third person limited – The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
“He walked down the street, swaying dizzily, squinting at the brightness of the day. Cars and buses roared by him; a bicycle whirred to a halt near him and the rider cursed him under his breath. Still, Amir walked on. He felt strangely oblivious to everything around him.”
We experience Amir's disoriented state and perspective in close third person.
Third person omniscient – Middlemarch by George Eliot
“A man of her husband's age, if he is vigorous, is rather a partner than a parent in most things. Mr Vincy never furnished much aid in graver matters, and was impatient that Lydgate's visit just now was taking so long when he himself had not been kept waiting, since he had important business everywhere and could only call for a quarter of an hour.”
The narrator knows the inner workings of both Mr. Vincy and Rosamund's minds here.
What Can Influence Perspective?
Now that we've covered point of view, let's discuss what shapes a character's perspective. Their perspective is influenced by, but not limited to, the following:
- Personal experiences – The events they've lived through and learned from. This shapes how they interpret new events.
- Cultural heritage – The values, norms, and customs of their cultural background. Their culture's worldview imprints itself.
- Race and ethnicity – Their experiences can be heavily shaped by their racial identity and relationship to dominant cultural norms.
- Gender – Their understanding of themselves and others is influenced by gender roles and expectations.
- Sexual orientation – Their orientation shapes their experience of sexuality and relationships.
- Age – Younger characters may lack wisdom and elder characters be more set in their ways.
- Religion – Religious beliefs shape moral values and how one makes sense of the world.
- Education – Access to education and training influences knowledge and analytical skills.
- Profession – One's job influences priorities, daily experiences, and professional culture.
- Wealth and class – Access to resources and class-based identities impact perspectives.
- Physical/mental ability – Disabilities or impairments affect how one navigates the world.
- Family – Parents, siblings, and ancestors shape opinions and emotional landscape.
- Location – Rural, urban, or regional identities shape outlooks.
This list just scratches the surface of what makes up perspective. You get to decide which factors shape your characters most strongly. Deeply understanding their influences allows you to convey consistent, realistic perspectives.
How to Use Perspective to Write Better
Here are some tips for using perspective effectively in your writing:
1. Have unique perspectives for each main character
Give them different worldviews shaped by their background. Avoid having them all sound like they came from the same mold.
For example, in a romance, the two lovers likely have very different family backgrounds that shape their worldviews. Use this to generate both connection and misunderstanding between them realistically.
2. Research experiences outside your own
Don't just rely on your own perspective. Research and listen to people from different backgrounds to portray perspectives beyond your direct experience.
Read works by authors of different eras, cultures, orientations, abilities, etc. Follow a wide range of stories in the news. The more viewpoints you explore, the more convincingly you can render varied perspectives.
3. Use perspective to add complexity
Layer events with multiple, conflicting interpretations. The way I saw a situation growing up might differ from how my sister saw it based on our different ages and personalities.
Varying perspectives add realism and depth to your work. It avoids a simplistic, black-and-white depiction of people and events.
4. Make perspectives clash
Use perspective differences to generate conflict between characters. Show how their differing worldviews lead them to misunderstand each other's words and actions.
Reveal their contrasting interpretations of the same events based on their unique vantage points. Just like in real life, perspective differences can drive wedges between people.
5. Avoid preachy moralizing
While exploring many perspectives, avoid inserting your own judgments. Don't portray a character's viewpoint as simply right or wrong.
Let readers evaluate situations without the narrator imposing a definitive interpretation. Your role is to illuminate, not preach.
6. Consider historical context
Remember that perspectives differ across culture and eras. Do research to add authentic details that capture a historical period's dominant worldviews.
You can chart how new events challenge or change traditional perspectives. Just make sure to avoid projecting modern views onto historical figures.
7. Use an unreliable narrator
An unreliable narrator has a distorted or limited perspective that shapes how they tell the story. The details they focus on reveal their quirks and blind spots.
Unreliable narrators create dramatic irony as readers perceive more than the narrator. The limited perspective intrigues and disturbs.
Examples of Perspective
Let's look at how perspectives shape characters and events in well-known stories:
To Kill a Mockingbird
Scout narrates from the innocent perspective of a child, unable to grasp the racial prejudices that shape her society. When she finally sees a lynch mob through an adult lens, she says:
“The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box.”
Her dawning recognition of injustice shapes her perspective, and also comments on the perspective of others.
The Great Gatsby
Nick's midwestern background shapes his ambivalent perspective on the lavish, reckless lifestyle of the wealthy elites he encounters in New York. His complex feelings about Gatsby reflect his conflicting values.
Gatsby in turn romanticizes his own story through rose-colored memories of his love for Daisy. His nostalgic perspective blinds him to her flaws and complicity in the social milieu he claims to disdain.
Point of view and perspective are two central pillars for bringing fiction to life. Point of view governs the narrator's relationship to the reader through pronoun choice. Perspective emerges from the characters' unique backgrounds to shape how events are described.
Keep studying the master storytellers in your genre to see point of view and perspective handled skillfully. And don’t rely only on your own viewpoint – research widely to portray diverse characters convincingly. With a firm handle on perspective and point of view, your own creative vision will come through more powerfully on the page.
And just like any part of writing, mastering the fundamentals like this one will eventually result in a book that readers will love.
So go out and start practicing!