Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
In this article we’ll focus on the specifics of first-, second-, and third-person POVs.
First person is the easiest to understand although it may not be the easiest to use or the best choice to convey your character’s story.
In first person, one character (or one at a time) narrates the story. This point of view reports what I—the character and not the author—saw, experienced, heard, said, thought, and felt.
I fled the scene, tripping over fallen bodies as I did so.
The first-person narrator is almost always a character in the story. The exception is when a narrator claims to have been told the story he is now telling. However, once this narrator begins telling the actual story, he typically reverts to a third-person narration. That is, he may frame the story with sections of himself as a first-person narrator telling you that he’s going to tell you a story—he might present details of where he got his story and so forth—but once he tells the story, he reverts to a third-person narration. If he actually wasn’t there, he can’t relate a story in the first person as if he had been there.
I is often the protagonist of his or her story, reciting what happens in some adventure of his or her life. But the I telling the story doesn’t have to be the protagonist. A first-person narrator who isn’t the protagonist but who tells the protagonist’s story is called a peripheral narrator. Think Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby and Dr. John Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Peripheral narrators have a part in the story, but they are not the focal character. But if they tell the story, then their reports, like those of the typical first-person narrator, will be limited to what they know or experience. The peripheral narrator may have a different view of events than a typical first-person narrator would, but he can only have his own viewpoint—he can’t see the full story any more than any other single character can.
One story could feature the first-person POVs of two characters—dual protagonists, protagonist and antagonist, or protagonist and antagonist who each consider themselves the protagonist and the other the antagonist.
Readers can learn the character’s thoughts and feelings, but they can’t know anything he doesn’t experience for himself or have reported to him. The character may be in the dark about certain events, and therefore readers are also in the dark.
If there is only one viewpoint character in a story, and he’s a first-person narrator, readers can’t ever know more than he knows. They may have more accurate insight, but they can’t know different facts.
First-person narration takes on the personality of the narrator: word choices reflect his personality and education level; what he notices reflects his interests and concerns; what he tells, or what he withholds, drives the story. His concerns become the concerns of the story.
Strengths of first-person narration—
It’s a POV easy to maintain.
It works well for humor and allows the narrator’s personality to shine through.
All word choices will be in the narrator’s voice, so there’s no need to worry about switching between character voices or between one character’s voice and a neutral narrator’s voice.
Weaknesses of first-person narration—
It may come across as report-like—I did this, then I did that.
The narrator could sound like a braggart.
It may be difficult for readers to slip into the story, feeling as if they were the character, when a strong first-person narrator won’t relinquish that spot.
As with every POV option outside of the omniscient third person, the writer must make sure the narrator can’t report what he doesn’t know, especially what he looks like—My face took on the mask of the indifferent to hide my true feelings.
The narrator’s thoughts can make the read feel claustrophobic for readers. The fix for this is to step outside the narrator’s thoughts often to report action and dialogue.
If the first-person narrator is crazy or evil, the read may be difficult for readers.
All words must be in the character’s voice and experience; he can’t talk eloquently about subjects he knows nothing about or use words he wouldn’t know.
It’s pretty much impossible to kill off the first-person narrator, so there’s little suspense regarding that possibility.
First-person narration often reads as if events truly happened in the past, making it difficult for readers to project themselves into story events. While past tense events in third-person narration can feel as if they’re unfolding in the present (wow, I hope that made sense), that’s sometimes not the case with first-person narration, which can make events feel truly over with. Readers know the first-person narrator is talking about something that’s already happened and is looking back at those events. This may be one reason much of today’s Y/A fiction uses present-tense narration with first-person narrators—to try to create a sense of immediacy.
Writers sometimes project the first-person narrator into the future, interrupting the story’s timeline. As soon as a writer does this, he’s drawn attention to the artificiality of a story. Most of the time we’re working to keep the underpinnings of story hidden from the reader. If we want readers lost in story, we don’t remind them that they’re actually reading fiction.
Consider this sentence—
I would understand what he meant a week later when I unearthed my aunt’s diary.
This sentence, with a slight adjustment—I understood a week later when I unearthed my aunt’s diary—can work great as a scene opener. Without the change and as the final line of a scene or chapter, however, it explodes the myth that story events are unfolding in a linear way. If a character knows what happens in the future, then he knows the whole future and he could just as easily skip to the end of the story, not make us follow each step in the story. This kind of sentence interferes with—ruins—the suspension of disbelief.
This wording may be more familiar; it also interferes with a story’s time element—
How was I to know that the choice I’d just made would lead to murder?
Could you do this, mess with your story time in this way? You can try anything. But is what you gain from this wording worth jarring the reader out of the fiction? Could you instead foreshadow in some other way that didn’t interfere with time?
As we can see, first person, which seems a fairly straightforward point of view, does have pitfalls to be aware of.
Second person is the rarest of the viewpoints. As a matter of fact, two sources I checked out didn’t mention second-person narration at all, at least not as we’d recognize it. One simply ignored it. Another source, a book over 20 years old, called what we know as third-person narration, second person, with no reference to the you narration at all. It’s no wonder that point of view choices are confusing.
Second person pulls the reader into the story by artificially telling him what he has done or felt or will do.
You frantically searched the market for your daughter before calling the police. When Detective Larson accused you of harming Tina, you slapped him.
In second person, the reader, you, becomes a character in the story. This you doesn’t truly know the characters and events, but the writer acts as if he, the reader, does.
While not used much in fiction, the second person is often used in non-fiction articles, in recipes, and in marketing.
Will you use this POV in a novel? You could. You might try it just to see what you could do with it, maybe with a short story. But it’s not likely you’ll publish a second-person POV novel.
Strengths of second-person narration
It’s still novel, so it can keep the reader’s attention.
Weaknesses of second-person narration
The major weakness of this POV is that it’s unfamiliar and unnatural. Readers aren’t familiar with it, so it seems odd. And if it seems odd, then readers are thinking about the mechanics and underpinnings of the story rather than the events of the story itself.
Also, once a reader disagrees with an assertion—You are a fool in your choices of women—the reader can start resisting other assertions. If the you personality doesn’t fit the reader, the reader remains uncomfortable.
Readers often don’t like being told what they are going to do, as happens with this point of view. It reads as accusatory.
It may always feel fictional since the reader knows he didn’t do these things the story is saying he did.
It feels gimmicky, so readers are always aware of the structure of the story rather than the plot.
Note: This second person narration is not the same as a first-person narrator addressing the reader with a generic, non-specific you—You should never cry in public. That’s a lesson my daddy taught me young.
Note: Unless you’re doing so for a specific purpose, don’t allow your first-person narrator to inadvertently address this non-specific you. It’s akin to breaking down the fourth wall, and it disrupts the fiction.
Third person is the most common and the most versatile point of view. At its most basic, it reports story events using he or she.
But beyond using he or she rather than I or you, third-person narration has other differences and multiple options.
Third person may show the story through the eyes of a character or through the eyes of a narrator who plays no part in the story. This means a character may report what’s going on or those duties may fall to a narrator who has nothing to do with the story at all.
Some examples of third-person narration—
Mary reached for her husband’s hand. He pulled it away.
Mary, face stricken, reached out for her husband. But he turned away.
She reached for his hand. Damn them both, she thought, if he turned away.
She reached for his hand, but damn if he didn’t snatch it away.
These are all third-person narration, though each has a different emphasis.
You don’t need to get caught up in the names for the options of the third-person narration, especially since one option could be called several names. But do check out the options; see how they affect the tone of the story. See how distance is affected.
This POV shows what a single character hears and sees but doesn’t report what he thinks or feels. He can only report what he experiences or what’s been made known to him. He cannot see his own face nor know what happens across the world (not without someone telling him).
In this POV, readers would never read Terrified, she felt the hot iron sear her skin. But they could read The iron scored a thin line down her arm from elbow to wrist.
This is very much a showing, reporting, point of view.
Word choices and syntax (sentence construction) can reflect the character’s personality or they can be neutral. If neutral, we’ve moved toward an omniscient narrator, one who doesn’t want to reveal his presence. Either is acceptable; just be consistent.
Note: You can use the word choices of any viewpoint character to tighten ties to other parts of the story.
As an example of the effects of word choice, consider these words concerning Detective Larson, an amateur sculptor, as the viewpoint character in third-person objective—
Deep inside the prison, Larson interrogated Maxwell Prime. (Neutral)
Deep inside the prison, Larson hammered at Maxwell Prime, chipping away his excuses until the truth was exposed. (Not neutral, but still fitting for the POV and a link to Larson’s hobby)
If readers are presented with the third-person objective for multiple characters—perhaps dual protagonists or protagonist and antagonist—this is sometimes called the cinematic, sometimes the dramatic, point of view. It’s the same as third-person objective, but it’s not limited to one character—the narrative consistently takes into account multiple characters. Think of this as the camera view.
For both options—single or multiple characters—what is revealed is only what can be seen and heard. This is a distancing viewpoint because readers can’t get inside a character’s thoughts or feelings. The reader can guess what a character is thinking or feeling, but he can’t know. And even if a character says what he feels, he could be lying.
While this point of view might work for specific scenes or sections of a novel, a full novel presented in this viewpoint might seem cold and read like a report.
Third-person Limited Subjective
Much the same as third-person objective, but this point of view adds in reports of what the single character feels and thinks.
This is the POV that allows readers to see not only through the eyes of a character, but to feel the character’s emotions and know the character’s thoughts. (It’s sometimes called third-person limited or third-person subjective. Sometimes third-person limited subjective.) Characters with storytelling duties in this POV can only use words they would know and speak on subjects they’re familiar with.
When a story or scene is told in this POV, readers can only know what this character knows and thinks and feels. This character can feel, but he still can’t see his own face, so he can’t report that His eyes narrowed until only the barest glimmer of light shone out of them.
In this POV, the viewpoint character will not, except in rare instances, refer to himself as the doctor or the husband or Gen. P. Thomlinson McGillicutty. Since the story is being told through this character’s eyes and emotions and thoughts, he wouldn’t refer to himself in such distancing terms.
We can go even deeper into the character’s viewpoint by using deep POV. Deep POV does for third-person narration what first person naturally does—puts the reader into the head and heart of the character.
Rather than a character reporting what he thinks or feels, he simply thinks and feels. So, for regular third-person subjective, you might say—
He felt winded, so he slowed as he approached the corner. He wondered if they waited on the other side of the wall. He held his breath and listened. And then he heard softly, so very softly, the sound of one of them wheezing.
For deep POV you could say—
Winded, he slowed as he approached the corner. They probably waited on the other side of the wall. He held his breath and listened. A faint wheeze, human, eased around the brick wall.
There is nothing wrong with the first approach, but it does set the reader at some distance from the action. It also emphasizes the character’s name or the pronoun (he) more than in the deep POV version. Removing some of the pronouns and names—focusing on the action and dialogue of others—allows readers to imagine himself as the character.
I need that money, he thought. It was his. It’ll buy me a chance at happiness.
With deep POV, you don’t need the italics or the thought tag. If readers know they’re in the character’s head, simply write the thoughts:
He needed that money; it was his. It would buy him a chance at happiness.
But you could use the italics and write:
I need that money; it’s mine. It’ll buy me a chance at happiness.
Note: I have very recently seen, in a third-person POV, thoughts rendered in first person without italics. I admit that the practice threw me, but this was done in a traditionally published contemporary novel. And I did adjust to the style. All I can advise is that you stay abreast of options.
Deep POV allows writers to do away with report words—he saw, thought, felt, heard, wondered, guessed, and so forth. The character can experience story events as if he were the one going through them, without having actions and thoughts and emotions filtered through the character’s report of them.
Deep POV has come into fashion in a big way over the last 20 or so years. It allows readers to draw so close to characters that they can imagine themselves as the character or in the story. This narration expresses the character’s words and his attitude without filters.
Strengths of third-person limited subjective—
This POV puts readers into the thick of the story.
It’s very familiar to today’s readers.
Third-person subjective, whether deep POV is used or not, feels less like a report than first person or omniscient POVs do. Rather than readers feeling as though they’re reading about events happening to someone, they can feel they’re part of the unfolding of those events as they happen.
This POV produces a feel of intimacy rather than distance.
Weaknesses of third-person subjective
Writers must take care to not slip into a different character’s head mid-paragraph or scene.
As with first person, deep POV may get claustrophobic for readers, giving readers no relief from a character’s thoughts. But narrative distance can be achieved by stepping back and moving out of the character’s thoughts and emotions.
Note: Distance can be achieved for all third-person POVs by using an impartial omniscient POV to introduce new scenes and settings. Staying too long with the omniscient narrator would require a switch to the omniscient POV, but the omniscient can be used briefly with other third-person POVs. Readers are used to such a practice—many books or chapters open with the omniscient POV before pushing in toward a specific character’s POV.
Note: Some definitions use the limited part of third-person limited to mean limiting the entire story to a single viewpoint character while others use it to refer to being limited to a single character’s point of view per scene or chapter. (Thus there could be multiple viewpoint characters, but only one per scene.)
Some use the term unlimited to refer to the POV that switches between multiple characters who share viewpoint duties, each from the third-person subjective viewpoint, while others call that third-person multiple POV.
Again, not everyone applies identical terms to the points of view.
The third-person subjective POV is the one used most often for today’s genre fiction, and deep POV is finding its way into a lot of that fiction, even though there are some who don’t agree with its frequent use. But you are welcome to use either. Or try first person—it may be just what your story needs.
In the final article in this series, we’ll look at the omniscient narrator.