1st, 2nd, and 3rd Point of View: How They Differ and What to Use

The debate of which point of view (pov) to use in your novel is a great one. I spent a great deal of time going back and forth between if I should use first or third pov in Sun Protection Factor, and I wrote a few scenes in both before I finally decided. But which one should you use?

First point of view (also known as first person) is told through a specific person’s head. In first person, the narrator is a character. They use descriptive words such as “I, me, we, our,” etc. This sort of view is like if you were to tell about your day’s adventures: “First I woke up, then I went to the store, and then I had lunch at a really great sandwich place…”

First person is a great point of view if you’re telling a very character oriented story—if it’s the character thinking through things and making decisions that moves the story forward. In first person books you are able to form a deeper connection with the reader, as that’s how they themselves think, and how we hear others tell stories about themselves (say your friend Jim was telling you about waiting in line for a movie ticket: “I waited for ten minutes! Ten! And it was so cold out—I was freezing. Finally, when I got my ticket, I was late to my movie.”) In first person, someone is telling and showing you their story. 

If you plan for your story to stray from one character to another, or you want to insert a few quick scenes away from the “main character,” this may not be the best pov for your book. However, there have been many successful novels told with multiple characters in the first person (usually the different character switches are identified through a chapter change). To be victorious with this sort of approach, all of your characters shown in first person need to be well-developed and not just a “background” or “side character.” They need to have goals, thoughts, and ideas of their own, and shouldn’t be shown in first just to aid a single main character.

Second person view is rarely used. This is when the author is telling the reader what s/he feels. It attempts to draw the reader in and use him/her as the main character themselves. Ex: “First you woke up, then you went to the store, and then you had lunch at a really great sandwich place.” The only books I have seen using this technique are some of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books. And while this point of view may seem like a good idea to make readers more involved with the story, it often only alienates readers (not to discredit Mr. Stine, who was able to pull it off…as much as second person can be pulled-off). Often, readers can’t see themselves in the character the author is trying to portray them as, and it only serves to confuse the reader (and have them asking “Why am I doing that? I wouldn’t do that. And why is my hair blonde? I have brown hair.”) taking them away from the plot of the story you are trying to tell. In second person, you are telling and showing the readers their part in a story, and even portraying them as a character. 

Third person comes in some two varieties: Omniscient and limited. Third pov is characterized by words like “he, she, them:” “First she woke up, then she went to the store, and then she had lunch at a quaint little sandwich place.” When writing third person, you as the author are the narrator. You are telling what your characters are doing, like if you were to describe a book to someone: “First, the main character learned he was a wizard—he was pretty surprised—then he went away to a wizarding school.”

But that’s not all, because if you decide to write third, then you also have to decide between omniscient or limited third. Omniscient means “all-knowing.” In omniscient you are the god, free say whatever you want as a narrator (i.e. you may develop a voice as a narrator), and are not tied to any character’s perspective. You don’t see too many contemporary stories in omniscient third, as many times these stories push the reader away from the sole plot with the characters. Sometimes the author may come off as “preachy” using this narration, especially if they add a lot of narrative voice to the plot. Head hopping (in which narrators hop from character’s view of the world to another) that commonly occurs in omniscient has lead agents to shy away from this pov, as well as this narration being notorious for telling and not showing enough. Nowadays, readers don’t want to hear about what someone else (the narrator) thinks about the story. They don’t want to be told about the story, they want to be in the story. There are ways to be successful and write in omniscient, but often these involve leaving out all narrative voice, which may lead writers right back to more of a limited third.

Limited third point of view is more similar to first person than omniscient. Limited may also use chapter or scene breaks like first person to distinguish between the thoughts, the “filter,” of one character and another. While still using “she, he, them,” limited focuses on one character at a time and may dive into their thoughts and emotions. More than that, limited third differs from first person because the narrator is not the protagonist. The narrator tells and shows what’s happening, but not through the head of the protagonist, and not as much through the eyes of a separate god-like figure like in omniscient. When compared to omniscient, this creates a greater emotional connection between the characters and the reader. Sarah J. Mass’s Throne of Glass series uses limited third, mainly separating different characters’ happenings and filters by chapters.

Limited third may pick up on the fact that, when your protagonist turns around, the antagonist is sneaking up behind her with a knife, when first pov readers would not know about this. Because of this, many authors with a grand “agenda” for their story may opt for limited third. Maybe you have a secret the protagonist is keeping that you don’t what the readers to find out about until the end. Maybe, using a small bit of narrative freedom, you want to foreshadow future events in a way first person couldn’t. Maybe your protagonist’s mind is too unreliable for first person in the story you want to tell (he could be autistic, deaf, a psychopath, or have dyslexia, etc).

Sometimes using third point of view in general boils down to the fact that your cast of characters is too big for only one character at a time to have a voice—in too many scenes too much is happening to too many characters. Or perhaps you book is a bit more plot driven, and all those thoughts from a character in first person just takes away from what’s happening to everyone.

When writing, be aware of how each one of these view points is perceived, and make sure you know how to write your pov properly before starting a book with one. Many, many, authors have done very well with all of these viewpoints. Just make sure you’re consistent throughout the book with your point of view…unless you’re purposely changing from one to another (see below).

Taking all of these viewpoints into account, your story doesn’t have to be written in one single point of view (1st, 2nd, or 3rd). Sometimes authors will use a different point of view for their prologue or epilogue. Stockett’s The Help used an omniscient third during a chapter in which all of her protagonists and antagonists were in the same place, when she had previously been using first person and switching between characters.

To give you some more food for thought, my first book, Rhinos, was told in first person because the story revolved around an unreliable narrator’s thoughts on life. My second book, Sun Protection Factor, was a sort of coming-of-age story and could’ve gone either way, but I chose first person because it allowed a deeper understanding of my protagonists motives. My third book is being told in limited third because of the plot twist I wish to implement later in the story, and the irony that needs to go into that. One of my story ideas was told in limited third because my protagonist is a seventeen year old girl who’d been stuck on an island since she was six—her vocabulary and language skills would’ve made first person almost impossible.

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