What is point of view?

What is POV? magenta text over lightened image of a stone arch window looking out over a body of water with a snowcapped mountain in the distance
Date Posted:
9/21/2022

What is point of view?

You’ve probably heard the terms speaker and point of view before, but perhaps not explored the ways you, as a writer, can create different viewpoints in storytelling.

When we're talking about point of view, what we mean is the perspective from which the piece is written. Who is the speaker? Is there a speaker?

When writing nonfiction, which is a personal narrative, the point of view is clear: the author is the speaker. When writing fiction or poetry, however, the speaker is not always the same as the person writing, i.e., the author sharing their personal experience.

First-person point of view

Let's talk about the three basic points of view that we come across in writing poetry and fiction. First person uses I, me, we, us, ours, and mine—first-person pronouns. For example, “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by William Wordsworth is written in first-person. We don't assume that William Wordsworth was literally wandering around, but that he has created a speaker, a different point of view. Wordsworth was trying to create a human experience to share with the reader. An example of a first-person point of view in fiction would be Nick Calloway’s in The Great Gatsby:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some 

advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember 

that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

Nick Calloway is the speaker here, not author F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

So, even if the narrative is written in the first-person—if the poem or story says, “I did this or that”—the speaker in a poem is not necessarily the same as an author of the poem. The story or poem is not necessarily autobiographical.

Second-person point of view

Second-person is when the writer is talking directly to the reader and using you, yours, and your pronouns. A well-known example of the second-person are the Choose Your Own Adventure books from the 1980s. Authors often use the second-person in self-help books, how-to manuals, and cookbooks. When there's a sentence like “Chop the onions and saute them in a pan,” the writer is speaking to an implied you: You chop the onions and saute them in the pan.

Using the second-person creates an intimate point of view. Jamaica Kincaid’s short fiction piece, “Girl,” uses implied second-person for most of the piece:

Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; 

wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; 

don’t walk bare-head in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet 

oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off; when buying cotton 

to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn’t have gum in it, because 

that way it won’t hold up well after a wash; soak salt fish overnight before you 

cook it; is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?...

This passage put us in direct conversation with a mother who appears to be directing her young daughter. 

Often poets will use a mix of first- and second-person to really create that intimacy and that human experience. For example, in these stanzas from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” you can see that it's like the speaker is there talking to you about this statue.

We cannot know his legendary head

with eyes like ripening fruit...

 

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced

beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders

and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

 

would not, from all the borders of itself,

burst like a star: for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

Third-person point of view

Finally, third-person point of view is probably the one with which we are most familiar. When the author is just narrating a story, using primarily he, she, and they pronouns and proper nouns, that’s third-person.

In third-person, we often get the thoughts of several different characters, rather than being limited to just one character. In fact, there are two different types of third-person narrative. We could get a limited narrator, where the reader only gets the perspective of one character; or we could get an omniscient narrator that can dive into the private thoughts of any and all characters, revealing details that the characters might not know.

Most novels and works of fiction are written in third-person. This excerpt from Pride and Prejudice is a great example:

 When Jane and Elizabeth were alone, the former, who had been cautious 

in her praise of Mr. Bingley before, expressed to her sister how very much 

she admired him.

 

“He is just what a young man ought to be," said she, "sensible, good humoured, 

lively; and I never saw such happy manners!—so much ease, with such perfect 

good breeding!"

 

"He is also handsome," replied Elizabeth, "which a young man ought likewise 

to be, if he possibly can. His character is thereby complete." 

The only instances of “I,” the tell-tale sign of a first-person narrative, fall within the dialogue, where the character is referring to herself. 

Writing exercise

Grab a book from your bookshelf and turn to page 63. Select a paragraph or two and write or type it out. Identify which point of view the passage is in.

Re-write the passage in the other two points of view. Think about how you can add or take away details to make the passage adhere to the POV.

For the first-person and second-person versions, create a backstory for the speaker (not the author). 

Consider how changing the POV changes, or could change, the entire story.

What did you learn about point of view in this post? Will you try the exercise, or try wrting in a POV other than the one you usually write in? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading:  What is fiction?

What is memoir?

What is a prose poem?

What is imagery?

Want to receive tips and inspiration like this in your inbox every Sunday morning? Join our email list community! You will receive weekly advice, a year’s worth of weekly writing prompts as a FREE download, and be eligible to participate in our monthly photo prompt contest for a chance to share an original piece of writing with our community of more than 2,400 writers.