Point of view is the perspective that a writer uses to narrate a story or any particular scene in the story. Most narrative writing employ either a first person or a third person point of view. Another point of view—second person—is less common but has begun to gain more popularity recently.
Along with other main elements of narrative, point of view works in concert to allow for an enjoyable and immersive experience for a reader. It has helped breathe life into static blocks of text, sparking millions of imaginations throughout time and space.
Choosing a point of view may seem arbitrary, but it’s best to understand the differences before a writer begins drafting their next short story or novel. This article will deal exclusively with the two main points of view—first person and third person.
First Person Point of View
Today my Professor assigned a comparison essay worth fifty points. “Choose any topic you please,” she had said. After the online lecture, I launched Microsoft Word and opened a new document. Sitting in front of the screen—brain blank as the page before me—I wondered what in the hell to write about as the pulsating cursor mocked me.
In first person, the reader sees through the eyes of the perspective character. The writer will use first-person pronouns such as “my,” “I,” and “me,” as the above passage demonstrates. A writer, and in turn, the reader, is limited to one perspective. This means that the entire story is narrated by the perspective character and the reader effectively inhabits the character’s body and mind.
In most narratives, particularly in creative nonfiction, the perspective character is almost always the protagonist; however, there are times when the narrator takes a backseat. They become a secondary character who tells the story of a protagonist from their perspective. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is one such example of a narrative written this way.
Advantages of First Person
There are numerous advantages of writing a narrative in first person. Because of the use of first-person pronouns, a close and personal connection can develop between the reader and the perspective character. The reader has direct access to all of the character’s senses, including thoughts and emotions.
A skilled writer is able to use this reader-narrator intimacy to manipulate the reader’s emotions and make the story, or any particular scene, more impactful. In other words, although a reader can try to anticipate what is going to happen next, he never quite knows what will actually happen.
This becomes a useful tool for a writer. If he wants his reader to feel a certain emotion, he can create an event that directly or indirectly affects the character and it will evoke the desired emotion.
If the narrator is a secondary character, the reader is challenged to interpret everything happening around the protagonist instead of being spoon-fed the events.
This can be enjoyable for a writer because he can hide “Easter eggs” and allow a reader to hunt for clues. Many readers and writers delight in this subtle rapport that plays out with each word, sentence, and paragraph.
Disadvantages of First Person
As with most things, first person has its downsides and disadvantages. The writer must be aware and resist these pitfalls or risk losing the reader’s interest.
The most obvious one is the limitation of being stuck inside one perspective. The writer must remember that the perspective character cannot know what he doesn’t know. This means that the English student cannot know what his professor is thinking. The narrative can lose authenticity for the reader if this rule is broken. He can only guess by their words, actions, and hearsay.
Another potential trap in first person is the overuse of filtering language—I saw, I heard, I thought, etc. These phrases can detach the reader from the perspective character. They’re fine if used in moderation or dialogue but can be jarring for a reader otherwise. For example:
I was about to give up when I saw the seductive eyes on the hardcover of The Great Gatsby, which lay quietly, staring from the left corner of my cherrywood desk. I could write about POV, I thought to myself, suddenly excited.
One could simply rewrite the sentence without the filters as:
I was about to give up when the seductive eyes on the hardcover of The Great Gatsby caught mine. It lay quietly, staring from the left corner of my cherrywood desk. I could write about POV!
Because the reader should already be seeing through the English student’s eyes, he should’ve just seen the book cover, not be told that he did. Also, instead of writing “I thought,” one should just write down the thought by itself without the dialogue tag. Filter language increases the narrative distance and decreases the intimacy that is crucial when writing in first person.
Third Person Point of View
Today his Professor assigned a comparison essay worth fifty points. “Choose any topic you please,” she had said. After the online lecture, he launched Microsoft Word and opened a new document. Sitting in front of the screen—brain blank as the page before him—he wondered what in the hell to write about as the pulsating cursor mocked him.
The same passage written in third person pulls the reader out of the character’s perspective and into an observer viewpoint. Instead of sitting and wondering and staring at a computer screen, the reader feels like they are standing over the character’s shoulder and witnessing things unfold.
The point of view goes from first person to third person with a change of pronouns. The writer replaces “my,” “I,” and “me” with “his,” “he,” and “him.”
A writer has more freedom because he is no longer trapped inside one character. He can use this freedom to zoom in on other characters or things that the protagonist isn’t even aware of.
Many successful writers have even written from the point of view of a narrator who can zoom out and give a birds-eye view of the world around the protagonist.
Advantages of Third Person
Similarly to first person, but to a varying degree, third person also has its own advantages. Probably the most helpful is the freedom and flexibility that is afforded to a writer. He can choose to narrate the story from one or more perspectives with a little or a lot of distance separating the reader and the characters.
The writer can choose to detach from the characters and be purely objective, or he can pick a character to follow closely and show the story unfold from that character’s viewpoint.
He can jump between characters and transport the reader from one place to another whenever he pleases. Third person is analogous to watching a movie on television. The writer is the movie director, the reader is the camera’s perspective, and the protagonist acts out the narrative.
In direct contrast to first person, the writer can choose to reveal information that the protagonist isn’t even privy to. This means that even though the English student is the protagonist, the writer can leave him in his office and show the reader what other characters are up to.
Disadvantages of Third Person
Writing a narrative in third person has its own drawbacks as well. Although it allows the writer more leeway in his storytelling, it can actually hinder the story if the writer goes overboard.
The reader can become overwhelmed with too many characters, plots, and subplots. This can make the story hard to follow and cause the reader to constantly backtrack or just give up entirely. It requires some control and finesse.
Another snare that can trip up a writer is that the narrator can become too detached. For a reader, it can come off as cold and unemotional, making it hard for them to connect with the story and its characters.
A writer must also be careful not to get carried away with describing every single detail of a setting or a character. Using the example from the previous paragraph, a writer who over-describes might write:
He was about to give up when he saw the white eyes on the blue hardcover of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic, The Great Gatsby, staring back at him. It lay quietly blanketed by scribbled and half-crumpled paper, staring seductively from the left corner of his scratched up cherrywood desk. “I could write my comparison essay on first person and third person point of view,” he thought, suddenly excited.
It’s actually common practice for writers to overwrite—detail and describe meticulously—during their first draft and then edit afterwards. Others prefer to edit as they go.
Choosing a point of view all depends on how a writer plans to tell his story. He would need to decide how much freedom and flexibility are needed to accomplish his storytelling goals.
One might argue that first person is too limited in its scope while another finds that the same limitation pushes his creativity to another level. It’s hard to imagine The Great Gatsby written in third person or even from Jay Gatsby’s perspective. Some have said that it’s not the writer, but the narrative that chooses the point of view.
Maybe a writer is working on a dystopian novel that requires him to zoom out and let the reader grasp the post apocalyptic landscape. Or, maybe it’s a short story about an English student struggling to juggle schoolwork and other responsibilities.
Although first person and third person are as distinct as a full-length novel and a five-thousand-word short story, they do share one thing. They are tools at the writer’s disposal that are used to create a narrative—with the reader’s experience in mind.