First, Second, and Third Person: Which Point of View is Right for Your Book?
The point of view that a novelist chooses for their story from has an enormous impact on how they write it, and the way that their readers will receive the book. A thriller narrated by a serial killer will be miles away from one that follows the perspective of the detective on his trail, even if they both have the same plot.
POV is also one of the few things that authors should nail down before their first draft. Other story elements like plot and characterization can change at the editing stage without too much trouble. But if you want to change your point of view, it will likely mean a rewrite from page one.
In this post, we’ll take a quick tour of the most common points of view, and help you figure out which one will be best for your book. And if you're just here for the sweet infographic, jump straight to it right here.
What points of view can you use in a novel?
Before we get started on picking a POV, let's quickly get our definitions straight.
What is First Person Point of View?
In the first person point of view, the narrator is a character in the story. Very often, they are the protagonist, such as in Life of Pi. But first-person narrators might also be a secondary character, like Ishmael in Moby Dick (to continue the nautical theme).
The pronoun most associated with the first person is I, mine, and my, as in:
- “‘Bring me the prisoner,’ I told my chief of police,” or
- “The detective held the blood-stained wallet aloft. Little did he know it was mine.”
What is Second Person Point of View?
The second person endows the reader with the narrative point of view, asking them to place themselves directly in the headspace of a particular character: either the protagonist or a secondary personality.
You could argue that epistolary novels are second person narratives (as the reader might assume the role of letters’ intended recipient) but pure second person POV throws the reader into the mix and casts them as a character.
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,” or
- “You watch the detective hold the blood-stained wallet aloft. There is no doubt in your mind that this is yours.”
Find out more about writing second person POV.
What is Third Person Point of View?
Third person POV uses a distinct narrator who is not a character in the story. This narrator is privy to the thoughts and feelings of characters and can relate as much (or as little) information to the reader as the author desires.
In general, third person POV can be split into two categories:
- Third Person Limited, where the narrator can only reveal the thoughts, feelings, and understanding of a single character at any given time.
- Third Person Omniscient, where an all-knowing narrator can reveal anything that is happening, has happened or will happen in the world of the story.
The pronouns associated with third person include he, his, him, she, hers, her, they, theirs, and them, as in:
- “She called for the chief of police and instructed him to fetch the prisoner,” or
- “They watched the detective hold the blood-stained wallet aloft. They knew it was theirs.”
Find out more about writing in Third Person Limited vs. Third Person Omniscient.
Now that we’re on the same page, let’s look at reasons why you might pick one POV over another.
As with any significant stylistic decision you make, your first consideration should always be how it affects the reader. When choosing your POV, you must at least have an idea of what you’re trying to achieve with it. With that in mind…
Understand what readers expect from the genre
Every genre of book has its tropes — and point of view is by no means an exception. Some might say that literary fiction stands alone, but in many cases, ‘literary’ authors will borrow the styles and tropes of other genres (see: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which emulates a hard-boiled detective novel).
When 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.
How ‘close’ do you want your reader to be to the story?
Here, we’re referring to the idea of intimacy: how close the readers are to (and how easy it is to empathize with) the main character.
- 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.
- Third person limited is also quite a ‘close’ POV, as the action will filter through the perspective character. Here’s one way to think of it: in third person limited, the reader is standing just over the character's shoulder. They see what the character sees and picks up on their moods and mutterings.
- Second person, in theory, can be incredibly intimate. The narrator speaks straight to the reader, who is asked to imagine themselves as a character in the story. If done well, it can bring them very close to the story, but as we’ll see later, it can have the opposite effect.
Intimacy can come in many shapes and forms. A first-person narrator with a distinct voice can make the reader feel like a close confidante of the narrator (think Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries). On the flip-side, a first-person narrator who provides very few personal details can often act as a cipher, allowing the reader to place themselves in their shoes (Dashiell Hammett’s aloof “Continental Op” character, for example).
Also, consider that intimacy isn’t always an author’s aim. If your character is morally flawed (or downright monstrous), a bit of distance may help make the reading experience more palatable.
Do you want to challenge or alienate the reader?
It’s true that most novels aim to have readers ‘lose themselves’ in the story, but many authors will often choose to make the book more challenging to read. They will intentionally pull readers back from fully immersing themselves and remind them that they are just reading a book.
- Third person omniscient often does a great job reminding readers that they’re being told a story. The narrator can have a unique voice and comment directly on the action or heavily foreshadow what’s to come. Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams both employ a sly narration style — and they both use footnotes regularly to tug the readers out of the narrative (while also diving deeper into their characters histories).
- Second person can be incredibly alienating. The reader is asked directly to put themselves in the shoes of a character and react as though the story was happening to them. In reality, this often asks a lot of the reader. Where third person limited is like standing behind the character’s shoulder, second person is often like standing face-to-face with the protagonist in a tight space: very uncomfortable.
- First person characters all come with a subjective viewpoint and are inherently biased. Regardless of their humility and self-awareness, characters will only tell readers what they want them to know. If a reader senses that their narrator may be unreliable, they may scrutinize the narration and wonder what they can believe — which makes for an interesting reading experience.
Bertolt Brecht popularizes the ‘alienation (or estrangement) effect’ in theatre — making the audience understand the characters’ dilemmas from an intellectual perspective instead of emotionally empathizing with them. If you’re making a point in a fiction that relates to a real-world issue, this idea of alienation can be something to play with.
But getting readers to connect with your story on an intellectual level isn’t the only reason for using a ‘challenging‘ point of view. You might also be writing a story that’s intended to put a reader on edge, or perhaps you’re penning a postmodern work that asks the reader to think about the medium of the novel.
How will you reveal plot turns and secrets?
A defining aspect of all POVs is the narrator’s access to information, and as a result, what the reader can know at any given time.
- In first person, the reader only knows what the viewpoint character knows. However, the author can control when to reveal any backstory, either through dialogue or flashback. This is also true of second person.
- In third person limited, the narrator sees and knows everything the main character does and can reveal things about the protagonist that would not otherwise come out in the first person.
- Third person omniscient narrators are all-knowing and all-seeing — but they can choose not to reveal details.
There are many plot and character reasons for choosing certain points of view, but these questions should get you thinking...
Does your book hinge on mysteries and revelations?
As was mentioned before, mystery and thriller novels rarely use an omniscient narrator. Using a ‘close’ POV allows the reader to ‘tag along’ and experience revelations at the same time as their viewpoint characters.
If mysteries and revelations are crucial to your story, then third person limited or first person might be right for you.
At any point, do you want your reader to be one step ahead?
Dramatic irony can be a powerful storytelling tool — when the reader knows something that the main character does not (“there’s a burglar in the house!” or “the man you’re about to fight is your estranged father!”), it can create incredible tension.
To deploy dramatic irony in your storytelling, you may want to avoid a purely first person or a third person limited POV.
Do you want your main character to remain enigmatic?
Jay Gatsby, one of the most memorable title characters in 20th-century literature remains a mystery for much of the book. The novel is told from the perspective of a newcomer to his social scene, and the Gatsby that we see in the book is a man filtered through the prism of someone in awe of him.
An omniscient narrator could technically keep the protagonist shrouded in mystery, but the result can feel withholding — unless, of course, you’re writing from the perspective of an intentionally coy narrator.
To develop a protagonist with an air of mystery, you can tell the story from the first person (or limited third person) viewpoint of a secondary character.
Will you be using multiple points of view?
In just about every genre, there are popular titles that use more than one POV — which is something you can consider for your book.
George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is told from the perspective of dozens of POV characters in third person limited. The points of view almost always switch between chapters, and the number of chapters devoted to each character will vary between books.
Dickens’s Bleak House is told partially from the first person perspective of its heroine, Esther Summerson, and is partly narrated by an omniscient narrator. It allows him to deliver a grand, satirical indictment of the English court system, while also grounding the book with an intimate, character-led plot.
Want to mix first person and third person limited? You can do that too, just as Sara Raasch did in her Snow Like Ashes trilogy: the first book is narrated in the first person by Meira, a young, orphaned warrior in training. In the second book, Raasch expands the world and adds new point of view characters (in third person limited). Keeping Meira’s chapters in the first person, however, is a canny move to remind the reader who their allegiances are with.
N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is a sci-fi saga with three POV characters — one of whom has her story told in the second person. There is no limit to how you can mix and match your points of view.
How to avoid confusing readers when switching POV
Few things put readers off a book more than constantly wondering who's who. So when you’re employing multiple POVs in a novel, it’s essential to shift perspectives as clearly as possible.
There’s the George R.R. Martin approach, where you simply name the chapters after the POV character, so you know before reading the first word that you’re on a Tyrion chapter.
If you’re writing in the third person limited, it’s easy: drop the character’s name early in the first sentence:
Bartholomew rubbed his aching jaw. Why did she have to hit me so hard?
Just from that, there’s no doubt that this is Bartholomew’s perspective.
Some books use different fonts to distinguish between separate first-person narratives, but that might be too gimmicky for some readers. If you’re working with multiple first-person narrators, maybe one of them will only tell their chapters through diary entries or letters to a friend — the change in format will also ring the changes in POV.
So long as you only switch POVs between chapter breaks and make a point of identifying the POV character early in the new chapter, then you should be fine.
Infographic: Which Point of View Should I Choose?
Are you still not sure which POV is right for your book? Maybe you’re a visual thinker — in which case, we’ve compiled the major strengths and liabilities of the four major points of view in this handy infographic.
How do YOU choose the POV for the stories you write? Leave any questions or comments in the box below.