Point of view

May 12, 2010

Point of view is the answer to the question “Who is telling us the story?” (or at least this scene). Are we watching everything from the outside and a storyteller/author is telling the story? (= omniscient POV)? Or are we experiencing things through a character (might be first person POV, using “I”, or third person limited, using “she”)?

Many people see point of view as separate and distinct categories, but I personally think it’s more of a continuum.

One dimension that defines POV is how much knowledge readers have.

On one end of the continuum is omniscient POV. The story is told by a narrator who is not a character in the story, but is still a tangible presence. The narrator can look into the mind of any character, all within the same scene, and can also look into the future and the past. He can even comment on things the characters don’t know about. Then you get sentences that start with “She didn’t realize that…” or “Little did she know…” or “If only she had known…”

Not all authors use it when they write from omniscient POV, so they are a tiny step more to the right of the continuum.

Example: She was a spoiled woman with a flair for the dramatic.

I assume the character wouldn’t think of herself that way. So we’re certainly not in her POV. If no other character is present who thinks this about her, this might be omniscient. The storyteller is giving us his opinion on the character.

Of course, omniscient POV can’t be judged by just one sentence or passage. I’ve seen a lot of novels whose authors thought they were writing in omniscient POV when they were really just head hopping. More about that later.

More to the  right of the continuum is third person limited POV with multiple POV characters. Here, characters tell the story — different characters, but only one at a time, with no switches mid-scene! We only experience what the POV characters see, feel, hear, think, etc. That limits the amount of knowledge the reader has.

In omniscient POV, you’re working from the outside in (“Red splotches formed on her cheeks.”). In third-person limited, you’re working from the inside out (“Heat crept up her neck.”). We’re not looking at a character; we’re inhabiting a character.

Even more to the right on the continuum, further limiting the knowledge a reader has, is limited third person with just one POV character. The whole story is told from one person’s POV. It limits what you can show in the story. If the POV character is not present, you can’t tell it.

And the most limited is first person POV. It’s very close to third person limited with one POV character, but even more intimate. Every word you write is filtered through the perception of the POV character.

Personally, as a writer and a reader, I prefer third person limited, usually with multiple POV characters. As a reader, I find omniscient too distancing and as a writer, I find it too difficult to get right. I’m not really a fan of first-person POV, but a few of my favorite stories have been written in first person.

So as a writer or a reader, what’s your personal preference?



  1. As a writer, I exclusively prefer third person limited multiple persons taking POV. I try to limit my POV choices to my primary characters. I find it helps with the tension and pacing.

    As a reader, I am very turned off by first person.

    And as an editor, I cringe at improperly structured POV, whatever the author’s choice.

    • It seems we’re on the same page when it comes to POV, then.

  2. […] Choosing a POV character July 16, 2010 If you are writing in third person limited POV with multiple POV characters, you have to choose a POV character for every scene (or every chapter, […]

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  5. After many experiments, I figured that editorial omniscient point of view, or—as I call it—extradiegetic with zero-focalisation, is my one way to go, as pra ctised already by Thackeray and Fielding. I consider the Jamesian “show don’t tell” doctrine as a perversion and corrupotioon of culture, whence I shun prose following that rule; avoiding to show thing is ieasiest in editorial omniscience,

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