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Understanding Perspective in Writing: How to Choose and Write the Correct Point-of-View
 
 
 
Writing the Point of View

 
 
Point of view is defined as the angle at which the viewer sees objects or scenes.  Although some writing books claim there are 26 points of view that can be used, there are just three basic approaches: first person, third person, and omniscient.  All other points of view stem from these three and are no more than combinations of them. That said, the basic three are all you need to know when you write. 
 
First Person Point of View
 
First person point of view speaks in the "I" voice. Everything is told from the first person perspective. Take a look at an example below:
 

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."

He didn't say any more, but we've always been unusually communicative in a reserved way and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence I'm inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought -- frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon -- for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth.

-Excerpt from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

As in the example, first person point of view allows you to let your readers into your character's mind. You can make the readers feel what your character is feeling, see what they are seeing, and be influenced by your character's thoughts and opinions.  

It seems easy to write in the first person point of view, because you can easily portray your main character that way.  However, first person point of view might be one of the hardest to write from, because you are very limited in what you can write.  Since you're only writing from the perspective of one character, you can't give insight into other characters' thoughts or feelings.  In essence, what you gain in personal insight is lost in perspective.  In addition, your character must be strong and interesting enough to hold the readers' interest, but not so eccentric and bizarre that they're unbelievable or unlikable. 

Another problem with first person is that you limit your ability to let your readers get to know other characters intimately. You can create different scenes with different characters' first person point of view, but that can become difficult for a newer writer, and confusing to your readers.  It's highly recommended, if you're going to use the first person point of view of many characters, that you first study the work of some experienced, respected novelists, such as Sol Stein's The Best Revenge, to learn better how to do it.

Use the first person point of view when:

  • You want to tell a story from your or a character's perspective.
  • You want to show thoughts, opinions, and feelings of one character.
  • You want to create intimacy between your readers and a character.
  • You want to bring your readers inside your character's head.   

Do not use the first person point of view if:

  • You need to show several characters' perspectives.
  • Your character is not strong or interesting enough to carry the first person point of view.
  • You want to show things that are not the perspective of your character who is telling the story. 
  • Your story can be better and more effectively told through another point of view.

 Because it seems easier to give a firsthand account, it is actually harder to write a good story in first person than in the other points of view. 

The most common mistake editors and publishers find with stories written in first person is the inability to keep it in first person. While flopping back and forth between points of view is fine, editors and publishers know when the switch is intentional and when it is the mark of an amateur.  It is easy, in the process of writing, to accidentally jump out of first person, but you must know the rules and characteristics for first person so you can go back and correct your errors when you edit.

Make sure if you write in first person, that your character is not only interesting enough to carry it through, but also that you can adequately convey all thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and scenes enough to tell the complete story. If you need to show other points of view to tell the story effectively, then you might want to avoid using first person and, instead, choose one of the other two.   
 


Omniscient Point of View
 
The omniscient point of view can be considered the direct opposite of first person. While first person is written from a character's perspective and allows the reader inside their head, omniscient isn't written from inside anyone's head or thoughts. In the omniscient point of view, the narrator can report whatever he knows, sees, or chooses to show. However, because the narrator only sees the scenes as they unfold in front of his eyes, the intimacy that exists with first person cannot be portrayed with omniscient. You cannot, while writing in the omniscient point of view, show any thoughts or otherwise unseen events in your scenes.  The perspective is greater, but the insight is much less.

An example of the omniscient point of view can be seen below.

 

The house was big, old, and Levin, though he lived alone, heated and occupied all of it. He knew that it was even wrong and contrary to his new plans, but this house was a whole world for Levin. It was the world in which his father and mother had lived and died. They had lived a life which for Levin seemed the ideal of all perfection and which he dreamed of renewing with his wife, with his family.


-Excerpt from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

 

As you can see, every aspect of the scene that the narrator reports is just an observance. The omniscient point of view can be tricky for writers because it's so tempting and easy to dip into a character's head. You cannot do that with the omniscient.

Before writing in the omniscient point of view, ask yourself a few questions. If you can answer yes to just one, the omniscient point of view isn't going to work in your story.

  • Do you want to intimate any of your characters thoughts or feelings? 
  • Do you need to give a certain character's perspective on a scene or event?
  • Is the narrator more than an observer?
  • Is the narrator someone who will add their thoughts and opinions?
  • Do you want to add more personal information and warmth instead of just narrating a scene as it unfolds? 
In fact, if you answered yes to any of those questions, but don't feel comfortable writing in the first person point of view either, then maybe the third person point of view is right for the story you're telling.  
 


Third Person Point of View
 
The third person point of view is the perfect mix of the first person and omniscient.  It gives more perspective than the first person, but it also gives more intimacy than the omniscient. 

Take a look at the example below.
 

 

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!" 

-An excerpt from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

 

As you can see, although the third person point of view isn't as intimate, and cannot portray as much insight, as the first person, it does give more than the omniscient.  Using the third person point of view, you can move from character to character more easily than the first person.  And, unlike the omniscient, you can give more insight and more intimacy to your readers.

Today, most scenes in most books are written from the third person point of view of one character.  Picture a camera filming your book. The character who is giving their point of view may change from one scene to the next, but it's still an "outside looking in" glimpse of what's going on, just as if a camera is filming as the scenes unfold.  Although you can "look" deeper than the surface of the scene with third person, as opposed to omniscient, you still can't go as deep as you can with first person. Still, however, it is the most commonly used point of view because it allows you to give different insights and different perspectives, without losing all intimacy or being restricted to one perspective. 

Note:  Make sure you are only giving the point of view of one character in a scene. Create a new scene to give a point of view of a different character.

The problem most writers have with third person is that they don't limit the point of view to one character per scene.  You must decide which character's point of view you are going to show, then only reveal what that character would hear and see. All your descriptions, conversations, and interior monologue will be of this one character. If that character can't see the stolen book, then don't mention the book is there, if it is. 

 

 
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