Master Point of View

Updated: Mar 21

1. First-person POV uses the pronouns “I” and “we”. Ex: “I run through the woods, tearing through branches and tripping over roots.” 2. Second-person POV uses the pronoun “you”. Ex: “You run through the woods, tearing through branches and tripping over roots.” 3. Third-person POV uses the pronouns “he”, “she”, “it”, or “they”. Ex: “She runs through the woods, tearing through branches and tripping over roots.”

First- and third-person POVs are most common, with second-person often reserved for interactive fiction stories such as the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. One example that breaks the mold, however, is The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, in which second-person is used to place distance between the protagonist and their experiences, reflecting their state of mind.

First- and third-person POVs each come with two main “sub-modes”, so to speak. 1. In First-Person Reliable, the narrator tells the story as they see it from their perspective. – This is the more popular first-person sub-mode. 2. In First-Person Unreliable, however, the narrator purposefully deceives readers to serve their own purposes.  – For two excellent examples of unreliable narrators, check out Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

Now for the third-person sub-modes: 1. In Third-Person Limited, the point-of-view is restricted to one character’s thoughts and experiences at a time. – With this sub-mode, which is the more popular of the two, the narrator must be a character in the story.  2. In Third-Person Omniscient, however, an all-knowing narrator relays the stories of one or multiple characters.  – A narrator who shares multiple characters’ thoughts and experiences is a true-omniscient, while a narrator whose knowledge is limited to just one character is called limited-omniscient.

Whew! That’s a lot to think about, right? If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, consider how different points-of-view are most often used: 1. A first-person POV is most frequently used in Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction (think: The Hunger Games or Divergent), in literary novels, and in stories in which one primary character takes center stage. This is because first-person creates the least amount of distance between the point-of-view character and readers. It’s intimate. Personal. It puts readers directly in the protagonist’s shoes, encouraging them to not only see the world through that character’s eyes, but to become that character for a time.

2. Third-person POV, on the other hand, is great for many high-action stories and those that take place in fictional worlds. Though it can still be highly subjective, third-person offers slightly more distance between the point-of-view character and readers, allowing readers to follow that character’s journey more-so than become that character. For this reason, third-person often has more of a visual, film-quality feel that can be enhanced by utilizing other filmmaking techniques for written fiction.

All that said, there are plenty of novels that break these point-of-view norms. If you’re unsure which would be the best fit for your story, choose the mode that feels most natural to write. Simple as that.

Now, how about tense? “Tense” refers to verb tense, the tool through which you express action and its relation to time in your writing. There are two types of tense that are most often used in fiction:

1. With the present tense, the action takes place in the moment, now.  Ex: “I jump over the fallen tree trunk, narrowly escaping a nasty tumble.” Books: The Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Night Circus.

2. With the past tense, however, the action has already taken place.  Ex: “I jumped over the fallen tree trunk, narrowly escaping a nasty tumble.” Books: To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, The Maze Runner.

Typically, tense follows a similar pattern to point-of-view. Present tense is more immediate and personal, meaning it pairs well with a first-person point-of-view, while past-tense allows for slightly more distance, making it more flexible. Strangely enough, however, present-tense is the option that has a more film-like quality in this case, given the immediacy of film.

This article brought to you by Kristen Kieffer.


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