11 Things You Need To Know About Point Of View

1. What is it? Simply put, it’s in which character’s perspective the story is being told. The reader sees only what the point of view character sees, hears only what the point of view character hears, experiences only what the point of view character experiences.

2. First person point of view is when the narrator is a character using the pronouns “I and we,” and point of view is limited to that character’s for the entire story. This can be a challenge. You can’t do any “meanwhile, back at the ranch” type of scenes. If the first person character is not in the scene, you can’t dramatize it. Period.

3. The first person narrator doesn’t necessarily have to be the protagonist. The Great Gatsby is a famous example. If you have a good reason for keeping some distance between the reader and the protagonist, consider this option. In the case of Gatsby, it helped to enhance the air of mystery around the character.

4. Third person omniscient is when YOU are the point of view character. This is the point of view of a god-like narrator–in other words, the creator of the story, you–who knows everything about the characters and conveys thoughts and feelings about the characters and what is happening.

This is rarely used today, so it can come across as old-fashioned. Or, it can come off as new and different, depending on how you handle it.

Some writers use it in a limited way. For instance, in The Stand, Stephen King uses third person omniscient to dramatize a few scenes of specific after-effects of the flu epidemic, which are unknown to the characters.

5. Third person limited is when an unknown narrator stays in the point of view of one character. Unlike first person, the pronouns “he, she, they” are used. Like first person, no scenes can take place if the point of view character is not present. Though it’s not the only genre where it’s used, horror stories can benefit from a third person limited point of view. Rosemary’s Baby is a famous example.

6. Third person subjective is when the narrator tells the story in the point of view of more than one character. Again, the pronouns “he, she, they” are used. This is commonly used by many writers. It’s also the narrative form where writers, especially beginners, can sometimes lose control of their story, because they jump in and out of too many characters’ points of view.

Which is why when using third person subjective it’s a good idea to:

7. Limit the number of point of view characters.  If you’re writing a romance, it’s usually best to limit point of view to the hero and heroine. With other genres, it’s really up to you, but in most cases, limiting point of view to a few key characters is the best way to go.

8. The more epic the story, the more point of view characters you can get away with. When this is the case, consider limiting point of view to one character per chapter, as in Stephen King’s The Stand and George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series.

Note, however, that not all or even most characters in these books are point of view characters. Again, pick key characters.

9. Don’t jump from one character’s to another’s point of view within a scene. I know it’s done, but it is really annoying and can take the reader out of the scene. If it involves more than two characters, it also can be insanely confusing. A good rule is to stick to one character’s point of view per scene.

If you feel you ABSOLUTELY MUST break the rule, limit yourself to two point of view characters within a scene.

10. Refrain from using the point of view of animals or inanimate objects. Yes, Stephen King does this now and then — and it’s one of the few things that bothers me about his writing. Unless you’re writing a fantasy where animals and objects can think and talk, resist the temptation.

11. Don’t try to get around point of view by having characters “imagine” what happens in scenes they’re not in. Some writers do it, but in my opinion, it’s a big no-no. You will lose immediacy and urgency. Breaking point of view also diminishes the reader’s relationship with the characters. It’s always best to dramatize events.

If you must, you can have other characters tell of events where the point of view character was not present. Obviously, it can come off as telling rather than showing. A character with a unique voice telling about the event(s) can help you get away with it.

5 thoughts on “11 Things You Need To Know About Point Of View

  1. On the weekend I saw the film Beasts of the Southern Wild, which somehow manages to use first person point of view in a film – which has to be insanely difficult. Yes, there is a voice over narrator (first person) but all the little details down to where the camera is positioned (low down at a child’s eye level) and the way everything in the story is laid out.

    I am trying to remember the book, but I have read number 11 once in a ‘who dun it’ that actually used this really effectively. The protagonist imagined what happened and was wrong! I wish I could remember the book, but it really worked.

    1. I’m sure that there are books that break every rule I mentioned and make it work somehow. That’s awesome if someone can figure out a way to do it. Maybe I should say guideline instead of rule.

      The film adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby also stayed in Rosemary’s point of view for the entire movie and it was very effective. I would love to see Beasts of the Southern Wild–unfortunately, I live in the boonies part of Miami and we almost never get independent films in the theaters here. Will definitely check it out when it gets to Netflix!

  2. I *hate* it when authors jump around POVs in the same scene. It takes all the mystery away, because you actually know what every single character is thinking. Then it becomes less a story, and more a … like, a report or something. I don’t know. Anyway, great post 😀

    1. Thanks! The post was inspired by a book I read recently where the author jumped POV in scene after scene and it drove me nuts! Sometimes writing is about what you leave out.

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