What is "point of view"?



"Point of view" (or p.o.v.) is the perspective from which a story is told.

Let's say we're examining a crime scene. The police may have 10 witnesses who all saw the same crime. Yet they may give 10 different descriptions of what happened. Because they saw the same crime from different angles and from different lengths of time, they may have different perspectives on what happened. These different perspectives are called "points of view."

In prose and poetry, fiction or non-fiction, someone is always between the reader and the events inside the writing. This "someone" is the author (as narrator), or the characters that the author creates. The narrator or the characters are the "witnesses," and you - the reader - are the police officer. You'll have to use your judgment to understand what exactly is going on.

There are different types of point of view. A story can be told from the first person ("I", "my") or from the third person ("she", "they"). We can get into the minds of the characters ("omniscient") or we can simply see them from the outside, like real life ("objective"). We can see the story from a main character who is central to the plot, or from a minor character who is largely just an observer.

Here are the six major types of point of view:

  1. (3rd Person) Omniscient: Told from the p.o.v. of an outside narrator, the "omniscient" author nevertheless gets inside the thoughts and feelings of any character he or she wishes (in other words, two or more characters). This p.o.v. offers a lot of information, and is suitable for large, complex novels. This was a common p.o.v. in 18th and 19th century novels [authors of the time often entered the story as all-judging moralists], but it's much less common today. .
  2. (3rd Person) Limited Omniscient: In order to limit the information, and focus the attention of the reader onto one character, the author will sometimes tell a story by entering the mind of one key character (usually the protagonist). As in all 3rd person p.o.v.'s, limited omniscience does not use "I" or "my".
  3. (3rd Person) Objective or Dramatic: Here the outside narration is completely bereft of (lacking) any interior thinking. The author, and the readers, can only observe exterior actions and dialogue, and from that infer a character's thoughts. In other words, the author must describe gestures and actions that indirectly show how a character feels, thinks and deals with internal conflict. Authors will use this p.o.v. to achieve a high degree of realism, since it mimics how we interact in real-life. It's also useful to shield the reader from the true thoughts and feelings of the characters, as in Shirley Jackson's suspenseful "The Lottery".
  4. 1st Person Central: This perspective is told from the p.o.v. of the main character. It allows the author to bring the reader closer to the character, and create more sympathy for the character's struggles. However, it also limits the reader to one person's perspective, and we don't have a broader, more balanced point of view. Nevertheless, this view grants a sense of immediacy: we see everything through this character's eyes.
  5. 1st Person Peripheral: This also uses "I" or '"my," but from the p.o.v. of a minor character who observes - usually in a more neutral and detached manner - the actions of the main characters. Like with 3rd person objective, the detachment from the main character(s) creates a lack of knowledge, and heightens the suspense.

  6. 2nd Person: This is a relatively rare point of view and is difficult to sustain. It is based upon the address of one speaker to a second person. It uses the "you" and "your" pronouns throughout, which, as you can imagine, is difficult to maintain without sounding repetitive. Here's an example: You will receive the revised essay criteria by Tuesday, September 22. You will have an opportunity to respond to it in writing before October 17. In fiction, the "you" being addressed is often a central character, and the effect is to turn the reader into the character. A classic example of this is Will Baker's "Grace Period".

Point of view is a major tool for an author. You can understand a lot about the craft of writing by seeing how an author chooses his or her point of view. Ask yourself if the story would be different if it was told from another point of view. How does it affect your feelings for the characters, or your understanding of what is happening? Do you feel closely connected to a particular character, or can you understand many of the characters, including the antagonist? You'll be surprised by how different a story might be with these different perspectives.

For more information, check out the Open School's discussion of point of view.