Working with PoV: First, Second and Third

I am a dog. You are a dog. He is a dog. Confused of your identity yet? Let’s talk about changing perspectives.

Point of view is something that is often given not as much significant praise or attention in fiction pieces as other elements of craft. However, who is telling the story—or to whom the story is being told—can actually play a pretty important role to the strength of the events in the plot. Point of view can offer a lot of instances for character development. How close to the character(s) the reader is can change the experience in terms of sympathy, believability , and realism.

So how does one go about picking which POV to write in?

Well, let’s start off with defining the three main types of POV: firstsecond, and third. First and third are the more commonly used types of perspectives in stories.

For first person POV, the story is told from the view of only one character, documenting their interactions with other people and things. Sometimes, the story can be told from multiple ‘first person POVs’ depending on the type of story (for example, a short story of a compilation of letters could all be told using a first person narration). However, the key, defining feature of the first person POV—other than the use of personal pronouns such as “I”, “me” and “we”—is the fact that we are limited to that main character’s thoughts only. All other characters, situations, and events are told through the main character’s reflections.

So what are some of the benefits to writing in first person POV?Personality & voice can sometimes be stronger than any other perspective; every little quirk of the narrator we, as readers, are invited to see. Every emotion, sarcastic comment, and opinion towards other characters/situations can be shown more so than in other perspectives. First person can allow the story to become far more personal to the narrator, if that’s what you’re doing for.

In addition to keeping the narrative so close to one perspective, one of the elements that can be played with in first person POV is the idea of trust. Is our narrator reliable or unreliable? One of the fun things about first person is letting the reader determine whether to trust the narrator or suspect them. Just because a main character is untrustworthy doesn’t necessarily make for a bad story either. After all, how do we know whether they’re a good character or bad character? If they’re in the right or in the wrong? These can make for even more interesting stories because situations have to be played up in a certain way that can showcases the narrator’s truths and their lies. A great example of an unreliable narrator, that still allowed for a successful story, would be Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.

Next, we have second person POV. As I mentioned earlier, this is a lesser seen perspective in creative writing stories, more often seen in poetry. This is where the speaker is talking to a specific audience or person, referring to the character as “you”—as if they are directly listening–as opposed to using their otherwise given name. It reads very much like a conversational dialogue or a spoken letter. Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story, titled Once in a Lifetime, is a great example of a speaker talking to a specific, or direct, audience—in this case, Emma (our main character) speaks to Kaushik while recounting their childhood together.

A couple genres come to mind when I think about what the best instances for using second person POV would be: mystery and horror/thriller/suspense. Keeping the “you”, or implied auditor, generalized could allow the reader to place themselves directly in the situation and setting. It could feel as if the reader has become a character to the plot, which could build to the suspenseful atmosphere. The key point here is to play around with it! Experimenting is the best part of creative writing, after all!

Finally, we have third person point of view. This type of point of view can be broken up into three categories: third person close,  third person limited and third person omniscient. Third person close keeps us in the perspective of only a single character, very much like first person. However, whereas personal pronouns are used for first person, the distance is kept between the narrator and the reader through using pronouns of she, he, they, etc. In one of my creative writing workshops, we were told to think of the third person close POV as like placing a Go-Pro camera on the character’s head: we’re allowed access to their inner thoughts and feelings but we still only see the world through their perspective.

The opposite of close would be limited, where we’re only allowed access to the characters’ experience and nothing more. No thoughts, no feelings, no inner dialogue. The Go-Pro camera sits on the tree branch, overlooking the characters as they pass by. This can be helpful sometimes if the story is to be told without bias, sort of like a news report or television show. It’s very much the perspective of the outside observer.

On the other hand, we have omniscient first person. As the name implies, this is an “all-knowing” perspective. The observer knows everything about the characters, including their thoughts, feelings, and their situations. The slang for this is “God’s POV,” which is fitting when you think about. God hears all, knows all, and sees all, and so does an omniscient third person narrator. Very Bruce Almighty.

For me, the benefits of writing in third person involve exploring with sentence structure/variation and my own writing style. I’ve found that, with first person POV pieces, it was always a little harder for me to vary my sentences, as I felt as if I were starting multiple sentences with personal pronouns. Third person sometimes allows me to forget about the main character and focus on more outside points of interest, such as exposition and setting. It allowed me to become more comfortable with my own writing style so that I could experiment with more POV in the future.

At the end of the day, it never hurts to ask a writer if they’ve ever considered writing their story from the perspective of either another type or another character; sometimes, changing the perspective can better hit the goal they were trying to achieve in their plot or make for an interesting read. Suggestions never hurt, and more often than not, many creative writers are receptive to all types of constructive feedback!

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Mike T. says:

    Great post, Lexi! I think you’re right to point out how underrated point of view is—it seems to be one of the last aspects of storytelling amateur writers such as myself consider when we frame our stories. I think a lot of people know the basic rules, but within each point of view, there are actually a lot of options to explore. For instance, first person can be fairly detached or peripheral like Nick from Gatsby. Also, second person, the “you” point of view, can also be a way for the narrator to distance themselves from themselves for an interesting purpose (like recounting a painful memory or repressing a bad habit). One thing that recently struck me about third person is that one can limit the knowledge of the narrator in an almost endless number of ways (access to thoughts but not feelings, access to one characters thoughts but no others, etc.). Anyway, this is all to say that point of view offers a lot of interesting options for the writer that can dramatically change the story, and that’s a powerful thing!