Elements of Fiction: Point of View

Types | Hints

Point of view is the angle of vision from which a story is told, the perspective or vantage point from which a writer views reality or conveys action or information. There are four basic points of view which fall into two categories (first person and third person):

Point of View Types

First Person

  • the author disappears into one of the characters, who tells the story in the first person, in the "I" (the "I" must also exist outside of dialogue)

  • this character may be either a major or minor character, protagonist or observer, and it will make considerable difference whether the protagonist tells the story or someone else tells it

  • often, the very heart of the story may lie in the difference between what the narrator perceives and what the reader perceives

  • care must be taken to differentiate between the author's attitude and the narrator's attitude: the attitudes and perspectives are not always synonymous

  • pros: it offers, sometimes, a gain in immediacy and reality since the author as intermediary is eliminated; it also offers excellent opportunities for dramatic irony and for studies in limited or blunted human perceptivity

  • cons: it offers no opportunity for direct interpretation by the author; there is constant danger that the narrator may be made to transcend his/her sensitivity, knowledge, or powers of language in telling the story

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Third Person Omniscient

  • the author or narrator tells the story, using the third person (he, she, they)

  • s/he knows all and is free to tell us anything, including what the characters are thinking or feeling, and interpret their behavior (reveal why they do what they do)

  • an omniscient narrator may sometimes comment on the significance of the story s/he is telling

  • stories told from the omniscient point of view may differ widely in the amount of omniscience the author allows her/himself

  • the omniscient point of view is the most flexible and permits the widest scope; skillfully used, it enables the author to achieve simultaneous breadth and depth

  • the omniscient point of view is most subject to abuse; unskillfully used, it can destroy the illusion of reality that the story attempts to create: 

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Third Person Limited Omniscient

  • the author tells the story, using the third person, BUT

  • he/she limits her/himself to a complete knowledge of one character in the story and tells us only what that one character thinks, feels, sees, or hears: the author places her/himself at the elbow of this one character, so to speak, and looks at the events of the story through his/her eyes and through his/her mind; the author moves both inside and outside this character but never leaves her/his side; and the author may interpret the character's thoughts and behavior.

  • the author knows everything about the character—more than the character knows about her/himself—but author shows no knowledge of what other characters are thinking, feeling, or doing except for what the chosen character knows or infers

  • the chosen character may be either a major or a minor character, a participant or an observer, and this choice is important

  • pros: since limited omniscient point of view acquaints readers with the world through the mind and senses of only one person, it approximates more closely than the omniscient the conditions of real life; it also offers a ready-made unifying element since all details of the story are the experience of one person

  • cons: it offers a limited field of observation, for the readers can go nowhere except where the chosen character goes, and there may be difficulty in having the character naturally cognizant of all important events

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Third Person Objective (or Dramatic)

  • author disappears into a kind of roving sound camera that can go anywhere but can record only what is seen or heard

  • the author tells the story, using the third person, but limits him/herself to reporting what the characters say or do

  • cannot comment, interpret, or enter a character's mind: the author is not there to explain

  • the reader is placed in the position of a spectator at a movie or play, seeing what the characters do and hear what they say but only inferring what they think or feel or what they are like

  • the purest example of a story told from the objective point of view is one written entirely in dialogue, for as soon as the author adds words of his/her own, s/he begins to interpret through his/her very choice of words

  • very few stories using this point of view are antiseptically pure, for the limitations it imposes on the author are severe

  • pros: quick and action packed, forces readers to make their own interpretations

  • cons: must rely heavily on external action and dialogue, offers no opportunities for interpretation by the author (may be pro, too), forces readers to make their own interpretations

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Point of View Hints

To determine point of view, ask: 

  • Who tells the story? 

  • How much is this person allowed to know? 

  • To what extent does the author look inside the characters and report their thoughts and feelings?

To determine point of view's importance:

  • Know whether events of the story are being interpreted by the author or by one of the characters. If interpreted by one of the characters:

    • ask how this character's mind and personality affect his/her interpretations

    • ask whether the character is perceptive or imperceptive

    • ask whether the character's interpretation can be accepted at face value or discounted because of ignorance, stupidity, or self-deception

  • Know whether the writer has chosen his point of view for maximum revelation of his/her material or for another reason:

    • ask whether author has chosen his/her point of view mainly to conceal certain information until the end of the story and thus maintain suspense and create surprise

    • ask whether author deliberately misleads readers by presenting the events through a character who falsely interprets them and whether this misdirection is justified (might it lead eventually to more effective revelation of character and theme, for instance)

  • Know whether the author has used her/his selected point of view fairly and consistently:

    • ask whether the person to whose thoughts and feelings we are admitted has pertinent information that s/he does not reveal

    • ask whether the point of view is consistent, and, if it is not, whether the author shifts it for a just artistic reason

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Dr. Robert Burroughs, Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA.

Perrine, Laurence.  Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense.  4th ed.  NY: Harcourt, 1983.

Roberts, Edgar V. and Henry E. Jacobs. Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 4th ed. NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995.


Updated: 08.18.07