Think of narrative viewpoint as what the storyteller gets to “see” in one or more characters of a story.
Point of view (POV) depends on who is telling the story, in other words, the narrator. The experiences he/she sees or relays to the reader depend on what viewpoint the storyteller chooses to use.
There are four types of points of view:
- First-person point of view (“I” am telling the story)
- Second-person (a story is told to you, most common in nonfiction, not included here)
- Third-person, limited (about “he” or “she” is the most common POV in fiction, but the narrator is outside the story, relating experiences usually about one character)
- Third-person, omniscient (about “he” or “she” but the narrator has complete access to the thoughts and experiences of all characters in the story, often called the God POV).
One can also think of POV as what a video or film camera sees. If the camera is pointed closeup on Susie, Susie is all it can see (first-person). The camera can’t see what is happening to anybody else who might be in the room unless the cameraman widens the frame to include the whole room or different parts of the room (third-person).
In the first-person POV, the narrator is telling the events as he or she personally experiences them. In third-person POV the narrator is not the main character but is depicting the experiences of the character. If a story is using he/she/his/hers/they/theirs, it is told in a third-person viewpoint.
“I” as the storyteller, can tell you that I feel angry. But because I am writing from fist-person, I can’t tell you if Susie is angry, too. “I” cannot be in Susie’s head, only mine. However, “I” might tell you that she appears just as angry as am I because I can see her expression and clenched fists. In the omniscient viewpoint, the storyteller can tell you what is going on inside both characters’ heads.
In Third-person limited, the narrator has access to the thoughts and experiences usually only to one character. But in omniscient view, the one telling the story has access to the thoughts and experiences of all the characters.
The reason we use point of view at all is to help the reader understand the actions and motivations of the characters as they move toward an overall resolution.
To avoid confusing the reader, it is best to choose one point of view and stick with it, at least through a scene break or chapter.
Both first- and third-person have challenges.
In first-person sometimes one tends to spend too much time in your head, explaining your thoughts, rather than showing action in the scene. There must be a balance between introspection (the “I” thoughts) and action (what the character does or experiences). The principle of showing vs telling is fodder for another article.
In the third person, the writer can make the mistake of frequently hopping from what one person is thinking or feeling to another. This sort of “head-hopping” can confuse the reader. A good rule of thumb for third-person is to stick with one character’s thoughts per scene or chapter.
For the beginning writer, first person or third person limited is a little easier to understand and learn to write. Save the God view when you have mastered the other viewpoints.