Guide to Literary Terms Point of View

Point of View

The “point of view” or “perspective” of a story describes how the story is told. Typically, we say that a story is told in either first-person, second-person, or third-person.

First-person:

A story narrated from the first-person perspective is one where the narrator writes or speaks directly about themself. The first-person perspective is usually easy to recognize because it will be narrated using words such as “I” and “me.” Sometimes first-person stories are written in the form of diaries or letters, in which case it’s important to consider the fictional or real audience the narrator addresses. For instance, if the narrator is writing in their secret diary, they will say things and express opinions they wouldn’t if it were a letter to a friend or a speech, although all of these are in the first-person.

Autobiographies and memoirs use the first-person, as do many novels. This inherently limited perspective (unless the narrator is a mind-reader) can serve any number of purposes. Readers get to know the narrator intimately through the narrator’s thoughts, reactions, and biases.

In detective stories, the first-person perspective lets the reader unravel the mystery alongside the narrator, as in the first-person narration of Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes. Many authors use the first-person to create unreliable narrators, who may lie to or mislead the audience. The first-person perspective might also be used to create a frame-tale, where a story is told to the narrator, though the narrator themself is not involved with the main plot (ex: Robert Walton in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Lockwood in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights).

Incorrect example:

  • “It [the letter] was dated from Rosings, at eight o'clock in the morning, and was as follows:— ‘Be not alarmed, madam, on receiving this letter, by the apprehension of its containing any repetition of those sentiments or renewal of those offers which were last night so disgusting to you. I write without any intention of paining you, or humbling myself, by dwelling on wishes which, for the happiness of both, cannot be too soon forgotten; and the effort which the formation and the perusal of this letter must occasion, should have been spared, had not my character required it to be written and read.’”

    • In this part of Pride and Prejudice (a novel written in third-person perspective), Mr. Darcy gives Elizabeth a letter. Though Mr. Darcy writes his letter using “I” and “me,” that does not mean that the perspective has switched. We are reading the letter over Elizabeth’s shoulder; Mr. Darcy has not started narrating the story.

Second-person:

An author employs the second-person point of view when they are directly telling the story to another character or the audience. As second-person narration is addressed to the audience/another character, the author will frequently use the pronouns “you,” “you’re,” and “your.” In literature, this narrative perspective is usually used to make the audience feel included in the action of the story or to create a sense of intimacy between a character and the audience. More commonly, second-person point of view can be found in types of correspondence (ex: letters, emails) or in public addresses like a speech.

Correct examples:

  • “You must come visit soon. You and I have a lot of board games to play!”

  • “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” —John F. Kennedy

Third-person:

In the third-person point of view, the story is narrated by someone who is distant to the main plot. In other words, they are telling us about the events of the story but they are not playing a major role in them. There are multiple ways to tell a story in the third person. For example, the story could be told from the third-person limited point of view. In this case, the narrator informs us of the events of a story but is only privy to the innermost thoughts or feelings of a single character (ex: “Young Goodman Brown”). In third-person objective, the narrator tells the story without ever referencing the thoughts or inner feelings of any character. This is usually done to achieve a neutral, unbiased storytelling style (ex: “Hills Like White Elephants”). The most commonly used form of third-person is third-person omniscient. In this style of narration, the story is told by a third person narrator who is all-knowing. They are aware of any and all events in the story as well as the inner thoughts and feelings of multiple characters. A great example of the third-person omniscient style is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Third-person limited example:

  • “So they parted; and the young man pursued his way, until, being about to turn the corner by the meeting-house, he looked back and saw the head of Faith still peeping after him, with a melancholy air, in spite of her pink ribbons.
    ‘Poor little Faith!’ thought he, for his heart smote him.”

    • In “Young Goodman Brown,” the narrator only expresses the thoughts and feelings of a single character (Goodman Brown) while the feelings of secondary characters (e.g., Faith) remain a mystery to us.

Third-person objective example:

  • “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 to Madrid.
    ‘What should we drink?’ the girl asked. She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.
    ‘It’s pretty hot,’ the man said.
    ‘Let’s drink beer.’ ”

    • Notice that the narrator in “Hills Like White Elephants” only relays what is said aloud or can be visibly observed. The narrator is a purely uninvolved observer, much like you would be if you encountered these two characters in real life.

Third-person omniscient example:

  • “...all agree that, after accepting it and trying to guess the answer, Gollum was bound by his promise. And Bilbo pressed him to keep his word; for the thought came to him that this slimy creature might prove false, even though such promises were held sacred, and of old all but the wickedest things feared to break them. But after ages alone in the dark Gollum’s heart was black, and treachery was in it. He slipped away, and returned to the island, of which Bilbo knew nothing, not far off in the dark water. There, he thought, lay his ring. He was hungry now, and angry, and once his 'precious' was with him he would not fear any weapon at all.”

    • In this excerpt from The Lord of the Rings, we are given the thoughts and feelings of both Bilbo and Gollum, which shows us that this narrator is all-knowing or “omniscient.”