am, you are, she is, they will be — these are all things we say on a near-daily basis, and they’re all examples of different points of view. But what is point of view within storytelling and how can writers use it strategically? We’re going to explain everything you need to know about point of view in literature, with cinema and video game examples as well. But first let’s review the basics.
Point of View Definition Literature
First, let’s review ‘point of view’
You’ve probably heard the saying, “according to so-and-so’s point of view” before. A point of view, in simplest terms, is how somebody sees a situation. Usually the “point of view” is inferred by the audience, but sometimes, a character comes right out and says it — like it does with our favorite anti-hero, Anakin Skywalker, in the clip below. The line in question lands around the 1:07 mark.
It’s generally not a good idea to say “from my point of view” in a story. Audiences tend to feel talked down to when information is relayed in such a hamfisted way. Perhaps that’s one reason why the Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith screenplay faced criticism upon release. Ultimately, the feeling of betrayal is well communicated in the film, but it’s still rooted in a poor foundation.
Now that we’ve covered how point of view can be used to articulate a feeling, let’s jump into a point of view definition!
POINT OF VIEW DEFINITION
What is point of view?
Point of view is the perspective from which a story is told. There are three major points of view that are used in writing: first person, second person, and third person. Each perspective is used to achieve a different creative end: first-person keeps the story intimate and personal; second person creates a dialogue between the words of the writer and the thoughts of the reader; third person presents the story “as is” and gives a feeling of distance.
Types of Point of View:
- First Person Point of View (I)
- Second Person Point of View (You)
- Third Person Point of View (He, She, They)
Define Point of View in a Story
The first person point of view
The first person POV is all about the letter I — I like, I think, I feel, etc, etc. In the first person POV, you might write something like, “let me tell you a story,” in which the emphasis is given to me rather than you. The first person point of view is told from a personal perspective, and commonly used in narrative essays, short stories, and novels.
Here’s how writers use the 1st person point of view in literature:
- “My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this middle-western city for three generations.” (The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
- “Gloria Hilton and her fifth husband didn't live in New Hampshire very long. But they lived there long enough for me to sell them a bathtub enclosure.” (Go Back to Your Precious Wife and Son, by Kurt Vonnegut)
- “The day of my father’s funeral had also been my nineteenth birthday. As we drove him to the graveyard, the spoils of injustice, anarchy, discontent, and hatred were all around us.” (Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin)
You may have heard “first person” in reference to movies and video games as well. This interpretation of the term suggests that the camera acts as a conduit for a character’s POV. We’ve seen as POV shots in various films, like Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition, the surrealist film Being John Malkovich, and the sci-fi genre classic The Terminator.The 2015 film Hardcore Henry was shot entirely in the first person POV. Let’s take a look at how it was done:
By framing the entire film in the first person POV, Ilya Naishuller was able to create a visceral, frenetically paced film unlike any other. Just remember, the use of the first person POV in film is nauseating to some, and gimmicky to others.
2nd Person POV
The second person point of view
If the first person POV is all about I, then the second person is all about you. Although second person is rarely used in writing, and near impossible to convey in other mediums, it’s still a useful perspective for writers to consider.
Here’s an example of POV in the second person: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world” — Mahatma Gandhi. In this quote, the emphasis is placed on you. This turns the prose into an activator for the reader by forcing them to become a participant in the story.
Here are some other 2nd person point of view examples in literature:
- “Eventually you ascend the stairs to the street. You think of Plato's pilgrims climbing out of the cave, from the shadow world of appearances toward things as they really are, and you wonder if it is possible to change in this life. Being with a philosopher makes you think.” (Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney)
- “You're the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything.” (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino)
- “You prefer not to see the gears of the clock, as to better tell time.” (The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern)
The second person POV isn’t easy to communicate in visual mediums, but this next video explores how a video game played with perspective to a point where it was possible:
The main weakness of the second person POV is that it’s hard to sustain over a long period of time. It certainly works in spurts, but because it’s so restrictive, it starts to feel redundant after a while.
3rd Person POV
The third person point of view
Of all the perspectives available to writers, the third person POV is perhaps the most common. Instead of placing the emphasis on I or you, the third person POV places emphasis on a person’s name or third person pronoun.
Here are a couple of third person point of view examples:
- “Chris went to the store today.”
- “She is a great runner.”
- “They are about to win”
- “It has a good chance of breaking even.”
And here’s an example of the 3rd person POV limited in literature:
- “Harry had taken one step toward it when a slithering sound made him freeze where he stood. A bush on the edge of the clearing quivered . . . Then, out of the shadows, a hooded figure came crawling across the ground like some stalking beast.” (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling)
The purpose of the third person POV is to create distance between the reader and writer. Nearly every piece of professional news is written in third person, as are academic articles, biographies, and some novels.
This next video takes a look at everything you need to know about writing in third person, including third person omniscient POV vs. third person limited.
Here’s an example of the third person omniscient point of view:
- “The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.” (Hills Like White Elephants, by Ernest Hemingway)
I’d say that the third person POV is the most natural storytelling perspective for a written narrative. It allows you to construct a world from a distance, and tell a story in which you’re more of a neutral party.
What Does Point of View Mean for Writers?
Point of view meaning and purposeSo what does point of view mean, and how can writers use points of view to change perspective? Each POV offers a different perspective to tell a story. In many ways, perspective can change the very essence of what a story can be and how it can be received. This next video explores why point of view is so important:
It’s worth experimenting with different points of view, even just as an exercise. By understanding how different POVs are used, we’re better prepared to write the strongest story possible.
What you need to know about plot
No matter what POV you use, it will have an enormous impact on the plot of your story. The plot, in simplest terms, is the sequence of events that make up a story. If your story is told from the first person point of view, the plot will follow what your narrator sees. But things can change considerably when you use the second and third person points of view. In this next article, we break down everything you need to know about plot, so that you’ll be one step closer to making your story a reality!