Point of View: The Ultimate POV Guide — with Examples
Point of view is often the first big choice a writer has to make before they start drafting any piece of fiction. It's a decision that affects almost every aspect of their storytelling process: whether to choose first person, second person, third person limited, or third person omniscient. You can use any of these viewpoints to tell an effective story — but not all of them are right for the story you want to tell.
In this post, we’ll go through each of the four major POVs and provide examples that will help you better understand each viewpoint.
What is point of view?
Point of view is the perspective from which a narrative is told. It indicates who is telling the story and how the information is being filtered to the audience:
- First person employs the I or we pronouns
- Second person is told through the pronoun, you
- Third Person uses he, she, and they
Why is point of view important?
When certain POVs are common in a genre, it tends to be for a good reason. Modern detective novels rarely have omniscient narrators, as the fun of the book often involves trying to solve a mystery alongside the protagonist. Young Adult novels are often in the first person: it allows the main characters’ voices to come to the fore — and perhaps emulates the confessional nature of teenage diaries. Popular POVs in literary genres include:
- Young Adult: A lot of first person, but third person limited is also popular
- Epic Fantasy: Third person omniscient and limited
- Mystery and Thriller: Third person limited
- Romance: First person and third person limited
Once you’ve identified the prevailing trend within your genre, ask yourself: ‘Will you write to the trend, or subvert it?’ Bear in mind that subverting expectations for the sake of it is rarely a good idea. Your decision should ideally be backed by one of the following factors.
Point of view types
In this section, we'll breeze through all major points of view and explain their strengths and potential pitfalls.
A first person narrative is an extension of the way that we tell stories every day. Often, the first-person narrator will be the protagonist — for example, the titular character in Life of Pi. But they might also be a secondary character, like Ishmael in Moby Dick (to continue the nautical theme). Examples of first-person writing include:
- I poured my mother a glass of ice-cold milk.
- “Bring me the prisoner,” I told my chief of police.
- That turkey sandwich was mine!
To date, this is one of the most widely used POVs in literature. From Robinson Crusoe (seen by some as the very first 'novel') to Hunger Games (one of the latest books to top the charts), first person narrative has dominated the history of the story. And it’s easy to see why.
The second person point of view endows the reader with the narrative view point, asking them to place themselves directly in the headspace of a particular character: either the protagonist or a secondary personality. The pronouns associated with second person include you, your, and yours, as in:
- You instruct the chief of police to bring the prisoner to your office.
- That turkey sandwich was yours!
Out of all the POVs, this one is the least popular — in part because it requires such a large suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House, once said: "I have a pet peeve against the second person that I call the second–person accusatory: 'You are walking down the street.' I go, 'No, I am not walking down the street!'" But it can become something else entirely in a skilled writer’s hands. Author Jay McInerney, one of its most famous practitioners, once described the second-person as an unspoken invitation: “Come on in.”
The third person point of view uses third-person pronouns such as “he” and “she” to relate the story. Examples:
- “Bring me the prisoner,” she told her chief of police.
- He knew that that turkey sandwich was his.
- Little did the twins realize, they were both being watched.
Once we zoom into it further, we see that the third person point of view can be split into two categories:
Third Person Limited
Third person limited is where the narrator can only reveal the thoughts, feelings, and understanding of a single character at any given time — hence, the reader is “limited” to that perspective character’s mind. For instance:
- Karen couldn't tell if her boss was lying.
- Aziz started to panic. How am I going to get out of this mess?
Third Person Omniscient
The key difference with this POV is that omniscient narrators are all-knowing — meaning that they’re able to reveal anything that is happening, has happened, or will happen in the world of the story. What’s more, readers have access to all of the details that this God-like narrator is willing to share. For instance:
- He thought that Sarah was fantastic, but she didn't think the same of him.
- As Leslie and Andi kissed under the Eiffel Tower, a burglary was taking place four miles east, in the 11th Arrondissement.
Now that we've covered the basics, let's look at some of these points of view in the wild.
Point of view examples (and what they teach us)
In this section, we're going to pull examples of each major point of view. We'll use them to demonstrate why you may want to choose them for your own story.
The benefits of first person POV (with examples)
So, you're thinking of writing a story from the first person viewpoint. Here are some of the reasons you might want to do that.
1. Build an immersive reading experience
First-person narrative is commonly seen as the most intimate point of view: the character is speaking directly to the reader, acting as their guide through the story. This, in turn, brings readers right up close to the action and allows readers to easily understand the character’s motivations. Because readers spend so much time in the protagonist’s brain, it's not unusual for them to quickly build a rapport with the narrator in question.
2. Create an unreliable narrator
First person narrators all come with a subjective viewpoint and are inherently biased. They will only tell readers what they want them to know, which is why it’s ripe territory for an outright unreliable narrator: a narrator who cannot be trusted to tell a story truthfully, whether it’s because he or she is biased, forgetful, or outright deceitful. A skilled writer (such as Charles Dickens) can use this to create situations of profound narrative irony. Have a taste of some famous first-person unreliable narrators in literature:
3. Establish a distinctive tone and style
Every character is unique, and there’s no perspective that illustrates this better than the first person. When readers tap into a character’s mind, it’s not just the character’s emotions and thoughts that the reader will experience: it’s also the character’s style of talking and thinking. What’s the range of their vocabulary, for instance? What do they ponder the most? Are they accustomed to thinking in long spiels or short sentences? First person lets you figure all of this out and nail down a voice that’s truly individualistic. Below are some examples of strong narrator voices.
4. Highlight another character
In a plot twist, the first-person narrator is sometimes not the main character. Instead, he or she cleverly serves as the reader’s mirror to the real protagonist of the book. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, wherein John Watson documents Sherlock Holmes’ triumphs, is perhaps the most famous example of this technique. In the examples below, you can see how the narrator sheds light on the protagonist.
More first person point of view examples: Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes; Life of Pi, by Yann Martel; The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway; On the Road, by Jack Kerouac; The Martian, by Andy Weir; Insurgent, by Veronica Roth; The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky; Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding; Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë; The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
The benefits of second person POV (with examples)
While tricky to execute, a second person POV can accomplish a number of goals.
1. Bring the reader closer to the story
Call it an assault of the senses. When readers are addressed as a “you,” they’re thrust into the role of the active participant and told what they ought to be feeling, thinking, smelling, touching, and seeing. As you might expect, this creates the ultimate intimacy with the story. Instead of being told the story, readers experience it first-hand. Here are some second person point of view examples:
2. Reinforce ideas and themes
What better way to drive an idea than to make readers live through it themselves? In this following example, for instance, Mohsin Hamid uses the second-person point of view to put the reader in Pakistan and bring home the realities of poverty.
More second person point of view examples: The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida; Stolen: A Letter to My Captor by Lucy Christopher; Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins; Booked by Kwame Alexander; Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
The benefits of third person limited POV (with examples)
When used correctly, the third person limited point of view can…
1. Gain the reader’s trust
Since the third person limited point of view puts readers close to (but not exactly in) a character’s brain, it enjoys much of the same trust-building advantages that the first person point of view does. In fact, this point of view goes one step further: it’s much rarer to find an unreliable narrator in a third person limited story — simply because that would make the entire narrative come across as authorial deceit. The excerpts below are examples of how authors establish that trust.
2. Zoom in and out of a character’s inner thoughts
Third person limited has the advantage of controlling “camera angles.” For instance: do you want the narration hover right next to your character’s brain? Or do you want to back away a bit from your character and let a certain section of the story unfold from a more wide-angle perspective? Unlike the first person point of view, third person limited isn’t obligated to perpetually remain directly inside the character’s head. There’s more room to adjust, depending on what the story demands at a given moment. See how examples below dive into the thoughts of a character.
3. Switch between multiple third-person limited points of view, if necessary
If the prospect of sticking with one character for the length of a whole story makes you uncomfortable, consider writing third person limited from multiple POVs. This technique, which works best for large casts of characters, grants the flexibility to branch out character-wise and mix things up every chapter. Authors such as George R.R. Martin, Ken Scholes, and Justin Cronin made this practice famous in fantasy. (You might have already come across it in a little series called A Song of Ice and Fire.) We’ve plucked out a couple of passages in third-person multiple books for you.
A special note on Third Person Limited Objective
Though this technique is more rarely seen, limited POV can allow for a narrator who is entirely objective. In practice, this unbiased narrator would simply report the events as they occur and allow the readers to interpret what they mean. Ernest Hemingway is the most famous example of this technique. His short story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” and his novel, For Whom The Bell Tolls, are as close to neutral narrators as you can get. To see this objective in action, you can refer to this example:
More limited point of view examples: How to be a Normal Person by TJ Klune; The Ambassadors by Henry James; The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan; The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley; The Foxhole Court by Nora Sakavic; A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness; Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell; Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
The benefits of third person omniscient POV (with examples)
When deployed with skill, the omniscient point of view can…
1. Conduct multiple character studies
Impressed already by the way first- and third-person limited points of view conduct thorough inquisitions of one character? Now expand it and you’ve got a sense of the reach of the omniscient narrator. The power of the omniscient is such that the narrator can slip into the minds of several characters — at any given moment. This not only gives the author plenty of room to experiment with the pacing of the story but also presents a unique opportunity to delve into the psychology of multiple characters.
2. Deepen the worldbuilding
Because readers subconsciously accept that omniscient narrators are all-knowing, this kind of narrator has an easier time explaining backstory and exposition. Fantasy authors, in particular, use this technique to their advantage when explaining the history of an invented world to readers, as you’ll see in the point of view examples below. Here are a few examples of worldbuilding by omniscient narrators.
3. Create a distinctive authorial voice
Omniscient narrators are unique in that they often have a personality and voice distinct from that of the actual cast of characters. As you might expect, authors have stretched this concept in all sorts of creative directions in the past. Sometimes the omniscient narrator takes on a snarky, observational tone in books. Other times the omniscient narrator sounds suspiciously like Death himself, as in Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Ready to meet some memorable omniscient narrators? Here are a few examples:
More omniscient point of view examples: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman; Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf; Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy; Middlemarch by George Eliot; A Room with a View by E.M. Forster; Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein; The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne; Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
[updated: 08/26/2020 UTC]
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