On POVs

Post by Ray




Originally posted to r/WriterChat, Ray talks about the advantages and use-cases of different points of view in fiction.


There was talk in the chat about the Points of View (POVs) that we like and dislike. Someone went so far as to say that they've bought a book, and then never read it because they realized it was in first person.

That's dumb. All POVs are valid if they're used under the right circumstances. Even some POVs that should be horrific mistakes can be done wonderfully by competent enough writers. So let's break some of these POVs down.


First Person

I skipped to the river with Cindy, her hair bounding up and down. I remembered the tangles that I had to brush out of my hair after the last time we were here. The way it pulled my scalp, and the way my brother asked from the other room, "Doesn't that hurt?"

I asked him what he meant.

"I can hear your brush from over here. It sounds painful is all."

In first person, we're in the character's head, and the character is directly telling us their story: I did blank. Here are some cases when you might want to use first person. Not every instance of first person has to fulfill all of these, or even one of them. These are just common examples.

Essentially, this is the POV to use when you want to filter the narrative/world very intensely through the frame of one character's head.

Third Person Omniscient

Alice and Cindy skipped to the river, their hair bounding up and down.

The last time Alice was here, she had to brush all sorts of tangles from her hair afterwards. Her brother had heard her from the other room: she let out a little yip every time the brush caught. He would watch her pull until the knot came out or the bristles slipped loose. Then she would start again on the same strand of hair, thinking to herself how she would have to be more careful to put her hair in a tie next time.

"Doesn't that hurt?" John asked her at one point.

"What do you mean?" Alice asked.

"I can hear your brush from over here. It sounds painful is all."

In third person omniscient, we can jump into any character's head. The word omniscient is from Latin, and means all-knowing. Anything we want to draw from the setting or the characters is fair game. Here are some use cases:

So third person omniscient: good for expansive stories, or for stories where it's important that the reader actually believes you.

Third Person Limited

Alice skipped to the river with Cindy. Alice watched Cindy's hair bound up and down. It reminded her of the tangles she had to brush out of her hair after the last time they were here. The way it pulled her scalp, and the way her brother asked from the other room, "Doesn't that hurt?"

"What do you mean?" she asked him back.

"I can hear your brush from over here. It sounds painful is all."

In third person limited, we're in one character's head, but instead of being told about it by them like in first person, we're told about it by somebody else—a third person. Whether this is more similar to first person or to third person omniscient depends on how you look at it. We get the pronouns of third person omniscient (she/her instead if I/my), but we're seeing the world in a way that's more filtered like first person. Use cases:

Third person limited is great for closely following one character through a story, without being uncomfortably close. (Although you can scooch up pretty close to them, if you wanted to. ;)   )

Third Person Multiple

This one is a little harder to illustrate in a succinct example. Basically, you're following one character, in the same way as third person limited. But then, in the next section, you're following a different one character. Essentially, we follow multiple characters, but only one of them at a time. You probably wouldn't be in Alice's head and then switch mid-paragraph to Cindy's. You might, however, switch from Alice's head to Cindy's if you were starting a new chapter. This sounds a lot like third person omniscient, but the key difference is that we're never all-knowing: we only get one character's knowledge at any given time.

I've done most of my writing in third person multiple lately. I dabble all over the place, but this is my favorite. The reason why is because I happen to value these use cases: use third person multiple if...

Second Person

You skipped to the river with Cindy, her hair bounding up and down. You remembered the tangles that you had to brush out of your hair after the last time you were here. The way it pulled your scalp, and the way your brother asked from the other room, "Doesn't that hurt?"

You asked him what he meant.

"I can hear your brush from over here. It sounds painful is all."

In second person, the reader is forced to assume the role of a character. This isn't just close: this is imposing. Here are some use cases:

To anyone who's making writing software, I want to request a feature where if it catches you writing in the second person, it puts up a flag asking if you're sure you want to do that. It's a POV with a very limited use case. If you're doing it for fun then knock yourself out, but you'll have a hard time engaging readers in a story when they're too busy asking questions about the unusual point of view.

Mixing Points of View

Mixing any of the above POVs is usually bad practice. Once you've committed to telling a story in the first person, you want to think really hard about whether you should address the reader—for anything—in the second person. Once you've been telling a story for multiple chapters in third person limited, it would be a little weird if you suddenly told one in third person omniscient.

There are exceptions for skilled enough writers. A while back, I beta-read a book that was in third person multiple, but one of those multiple POVs was told in first person instead of third. That's a conceptual nightmare. If that writer and I had been talking about that before he had written the thing, I would have flat-out told him that he shouldn't do it. But he did, and I'll be damned, it was an amazing book, made that much better by having one character in first person and the rest in third.

But statistically, he was probably more talented than you. Build up to that kind of thing: have a very solid command of first person and third before you invest too much time into mix-and-match.


As I said near the start of this, the use cases I've outlined aren't set in stone, nor are they complete. You can use them or not use them. If you're new, you're very likely to misuse them, and that's okay. If you're seasoned, you're more likely to use them by instinct rather than by careful thought. A lot of this just comes down to nuance. And we haven't even touched tenses yet.

This is just a post to help you organize your options. You've got plenty to choose from. The important thing is that you get started: if you want to make progress on that project of yours, even the wrong POV is better than no POV.