The Point of View (POV) rabbit hole has a surprising number of offshoots: what POV is, pros and cons of each POV type, how to choose a POV character, and how to choose what kind of POV to use, and POV and verb tense. I had no idea this subject was going to be so complicated. The topic is so big that I’ve decided to split my research up into multiple posts. This one will focus on defining the different POVs.
When I started looking, I already knew about what POV meant and about the three main options available: first person, second person, and third person. Just in case you’re reading this and don’t know, POV is both who is telling the story—character or narrator—and from what distance, i.e. first (I, me, we), second (you, your), or third person (she, he, they).
Most stories are told from first or third person POV, though there are some written in second person. I’ve read a book told in second person—Tom Robbins’ Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas: it was an odd experience. I found it disconcerting at first, but I stuck with it (mostly because I’m a fan of Robbins’ other works), and eventually I got used to it and enjoyed the story.
As I said, there are a lot of sources out there with information on POV. Here’s a sampling of what I discovered:
Everyone was clear on a few points—there are at least two types of third person: close/limited third and distant/omniscient third. A few people distinguished deep third as well. Close/limited third sticks close to the POV character, only revealing what they know and feel, making it similar to first person. Third person omniscient/distant is just that—distant and all knowing.
Omniscient narrators often have a distinct voice of their own (think Jane Austen’s narrators, the narrator of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, or Toni Morrison’s Beloved). However, everyone agrees that omniscient is not very popular these days, despite being a good choice for a large cast of characters.
Third generally makes it easier to follow multiple characters (the more characters you follow the truer this is), to move back and forth in time and perspective, and to create irony and suspense (by allowing the reader to know things some of the characters don’t). But beware, there is a danger of head hopping and of the reader getting confused or overwhelmed by a large cast of characters.
(Head hopping is when the narrator bounces from the thoughts of one character to another and then another all within the same scene. While this can be done to good effect—see Frank Herbert’s Dune—it can be very confusing if not done right, so it is generally frowned upon.)
First person POV is more intimate and confessional than third person which can make it easier for the reader to empathize with and identify with the character. First person also allows you to create an unreliable narrator.
This is the rare topic where there seems to be little variation in information. So what I found that was interesting or different in the various sources I looked at was more the turn of phrase or the example or nuance that was presented.
Diane Callahan has a video for each of the two main types: third person and first person. They are beautifully done with wonderful examples. In the video on third person, she uses a great analogy for how third person allows you to vary the level of closeness by comparing it to a camera lens which allows you to zoom in and out. Her video on first person points out that first person is necessary for epistolary stories and those that use diaries.
In Joe Bunting’s post “The Ultimate Point of View Guide: Third Person Omniscient vs Third Person Limited vs First Person,” he points out that second person is more commonly used in non-fiction, song lyrics and plays (monologues to the audience).
The blogpost “Third Person Omniscient and Third Person Limited: The Essentials” on Reedsy pointed out that limited third allows “the immediacy and intimacy of a first-person narrative, without being ‘trapped inside’ a protagonist’s head.” This article also pointed out the danger of allowing a third person POV to filter the action too much, i.e. it’s easy to fall into the trap of phrases like “she noticed . . .” or “he realized . . .”
I liked how Abbie Emmons, in her video, “How to Choose a POV for Your Story,” clarified a possible confusion about omniscient narrators: which is the idea that omniscient is like limited but just with more characters’s POVs in the same scene. She said that omniscient third is “not narrating from each character’s POV at the same time,” rather it is a distinct and distant narrator who can tell you what the characters are thinking or feeling.
Over on Janice Hardy’s Fiction University website, she has more than twenty posts on point of view. In one of them, she distinguishes between obvious omniscient and invisible omniscient narrators. The obvious omniscient narrators have a distinct voice, sometimes directly addressing the audience and frequently giving their own opinions on the events they are relating. Invisible omniscient narrators don’t. In fact, she points out that invisible omniscient can sometimes be mistaken for a closer, but detached, third person. So her advice is to “put a soul behind your narrator—whoever they are” because if the narrator has their own personality it will be easier to distinguish it from the other characters.
While a few sources mentioned deep third POV, Anna Zabo has a number of posts on it. They first point out that third person POV is a spectrum ranging from deep (the narrator uses the character’s voice, revealing the character’s thoughts and emotions) to distant (“the narrator is always the same. It’s the voice of a god, telling the reader about the story”).
They go on to make the point that deep third is a type of limited third, and that it is not equivalent to first person. Zabo is clear that just swapping out first person pronouns to third person pronouns won’t make your narration deep third because while a first person narrator is by nature giving at least biased and at most unreliable information about themselves, third person is relating the character’s unfiltered thoughts and emotions.
K.M. Weiland had the most unique approach. She distinguished not between first and third person POV, but between multiple POVs and limited POVs. Her definition of limited POVs closely aligns with first person and limited third while the multiple POVs fit pretty closely with distant third. But it’s an interesting distinction because it places the focus more on the characters than on the author.
Another article on Reedsy, “Point of View: First, Second, and Third Person POV,” has excellent examples of all types of POV.
Well, that doesn’t cover it—I haven’t even gotten to the part about how to chose which characters to follow or how to decide between using first or third. But it’s going to have to wait until next time!
Diane Callahan, “All About Writing in Third Person,” https://youtu.be/fp5ITwpllEw
—. “All About Writing in First Person,” https://youtu.be/0tmkHYz13UY
Joe Bunting, “The Ultimate Point of View Guide: Third Person Omniscient vs. Third Person Limited vs. First Person,” https://thewritepractice.com/point-of-view-guide/
Abbie Emmons, “How to Choose a POV for Your STORY,” https://youtu.be/–h8vnhisLs
Janice Hardy, this link has links to twenty-one of Hardy’s articles on POV: http://blog.janicehardy.com/2008/02/point-of-view-pov.html
Anna Zabo, this link has links to all of their Deep POV posts: https://annlaurelkopchik.com/category/deep-pov/
K.M. Weiland, “How to Choose the Right POV (What I Learned Writing Storming),” https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/how-to-choose-the-right-pov/Reedsy, “Point of View: First, Second, and Third Person POV,” https://blog.reedsy.com/guide/point-of-view/#download-point-of-view-cheat-sheet