Point of View – First Person, Third Person, or Objective?

20 Dec

by Julie Eshbaugh

~~~

There are few decisions a writer can make that will have a stronger influence on their story than the choice of point of view.  The point of view (POV) from which a story is told answers more than the simple question, “Who tells the story?”  It determines “How much is the narrator allowed to know?” and “To what extent can the narrator perceive the characters’ thoughts and emotions and share them with the reader?”

There are four basic choices when it comes to POV:

1.)    Third person omniscient

2.)   Third person limited

3.)   First person

4.)   Objective

THIRD PERSON OMNISCIENT may appear to a writer as the simplest means of telling a story, because the reader can know the thoughts of all the characters and therefore the writer can take the reader to any scene in the story and reveal as much – or as little – of the story as needed.  Unlike third person limited or first person, the writer isn’t tied to what a single character sees or experiences.

Here’s an example of a scene from the classic story Hansel and Gretel told in third person omniscient POV.  Italics are used to show the places the narrator conveys knowledge of a character’s thoughts or feelings:

“Hansel walked ahead of Gretel; after all, he knew he belonged in the front because Gretel was just a girl. Gretel dropped breadcrumbs behind her as she went, knowing that her bumbling brother couldn’t be counted on to find his way home from the outhouse, let alone from the middle of the woods.

Ahead of them, an old witch waited, her stomach rumbling at the thought of what a delicious dinner the two plump children would make.”

In this example, the writer is fairly liberal with her knowledge of all the characters.  However, this doesn’t necessarily need to be the case.  Some narrators may reveal the thoughts of all the characters but one, which raises the mystery and significance of the “unknown” character.  Other times, a story might be told by a narrator that confines his observations to only one character at a time.  This happens in the short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” by Richard Connell, where the POV shifts from Rainsford to Zaroff near the end of the story.

Third person omniscient gives the writer the most flexibility, and, when used well, it can enable a story to capture both depth and breadth.  However, there are certain inherent dangers to omniscient POV.  For one, the writer may come between her reader and her story by offering too many interpretations of events.  The reader may become confused by an apparent inconsistency from shifting points of view, and the story may lose its realism by revealing so much more than what is experienced by the reader “in real life.”

THIRD PERSON LIMITED is similar to omniscient, except the writer can only access the thoughts and feelings of one character.  The writer stays by the side of this character, so the story is limited to this one person’s experiences, and the narrator tells the story through this one character’s eyes and mind.  Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is told in third person limited, with Elizabeth Bennet serving as the point of view character.  By putting limitations on what the reader is able to know, suspense and mystery become much more available to the writer.  Also, the narrator often takes on the attitudes of the point of view character, assuming that the character’s beliefs about the events of the story are true.  This brings the focus in on this one select character and makes the story much more personal.

Here’s our Hansel and Gretel example, but from third person limited, with Gretel as the point of view character:

“Hansel walked ahead of Gretel.  Gretel dropped breadcrumbs behind her as she went, knowing that her bumbling brother couldn’t be counted on to find his way home from the outhouse, let alone from the middle of the woods.

Notice that the mention of the witch is gone, since Gretel has no knowledge of her at this point.

FIRST PERSON POINT OF VIEW takes the narration and moves it completely into the interior of one character.  At first it may seem that the flexibility and limits of third person limited and first person would be the same, and they are very similar, but there a few key differences.  Since in first person, the story is told by the character directly, the author as intervening narrator is completely eliminated, adding a bit of extra immediacy to the story and making the character’s “voice” much more discernible.  However, the author who chooses first person over third person limited sacrifices the ability to interpret the character in any way that the character is not personally aware.  Whereas third person limited allows the writer the opportunity to tell the reader things about the point of view character of which he or she may be only dimly aware, first person is limited entirely to what the narrating character asserts he or she sees.  This makes the point of view very subjective, and if the first person narrator has a limited outlook, the reader will receive all the events filtered through the narrator’s limited ability to interpret his or her surroundings.  One great example of a first person narrator who filters the story’s events before telling them to the reader is Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s CATCHER IN THE RYE.  Holden isn’t the most objective narrator, so the reader is left to figure out the story’s events and their meanings while simultaneously figuring out the particular quirks of Holden’s personality.

Here’s our Hansel and Gretel example, but from first person, with Gretel as the point of view character:

Hansel walked ahead of me.  I made sure I dropped breadcrumbs behind me as I went, since my bumbling brother couldn’t be counted on to find his way home from the outhouse, let alone from the middle of the woods.

Notice that the entire passage is italicized, because all of it is Gretel’s thoughts.

OBJECTIVE POINT OF VIEW is often referred to as Dramatic point of view, because the story is narrated by the author as if he is a mere spectator of events.  Objective point of view contains no references to thoughts or feelings; it only reports what can be seen and heard.  One way to imagine this POV would be to think of the narrator as a roving movie camera.

Objective POV has its own advantages and disadvantages.  Of all the points of view available to an author, it could be argued that it offers the most speed and the most action.  However, it doesn’t allow the writer any room to interpret events at all.  This works well when writing stories with serious themes, because it removes the danger of the narrator coming across as “preachy.”  Objective POV allows the reader to form his or her own opinions.  It puts a lot of pressure on the writer, therefore, to convey all that needs to be conveyed with action and dialogue.  A classic example of objective POV used to perfect effect is the short story “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson.

Here’s our Hansel and Gretel example, but from the objective POV:

“Hansel walked ahead of Gretel. Gretel dropped breadcrumbs behind her as she went.

Ahead of them, an old witch waited.”

Notice that none of the passage is italicized, because all of it is action, and no thoughts or feelings are included at all.

So which do you like the best?  Have you ever attempted objective POV, or do you stick to a more standard approach?  Do you always write in the same POV, or do you like to mix it up, depending on the project?  I hope you’ll share your attitudes toward POV in the comments!

~~~

Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.  She is also a freelance editor. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

 

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43 Responses to “Point of View – First Person, Third Person, or Objective?”

  1. authorguy December 20, 2010 at 7:28 AM #

    Interesting. I thought third person limited could be any character, which is the way I use it. In my boundless depths of dislike for expositional prose, I started writing my descriptions as the setting was seen by the character. Whenever any character speaks (which I call ‘having the focus’) all description is done through that character’s perceptions. This means that the POV shifts from one paragraph to the next. From your descriptions above POV shifts shouldn’t happen.

    Marc Vun Kannon

    http://authorguy.wordpress.com

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 20, 2010 at 9:53 AM #

      Hi Marc!
      I wouldn’t say that the kind of shift you’re talking about shouldn’t happen; I would just categorize that as omniscient. Though the POV in your stories is limited to the character ‘having the focus’ at the time, over the course of the book the narrator accesses many characters, so to me, that’s an omniscient narrator who just changes the focus as the story goes. Judging by your strong experience as a writer, I’d guess that you’ve found a POV that works for your storytelling style. :) Thanks for commenting!

  2. Rowenna December 20, 2010 at 10:30 AM #

    Handy post, Julie! Would the exception be those “Choose your Own Adventure” stories written in second? “Hansel walks in front of you. You’re getting nervous–is that a gingerbread smell on the breeze? If you drop bread crumbs, flip to page 10. If you drop stones, flip to page 26.” LOL :)

    I tend to stick to third person–I suppose a blend of omniscient and limited, in that I’m in only one character’s perspective per scene. One head at a time. New scene, new character’s head. I’ve done stories with only two, and stories with four or five. I love the variation toggling back and forth can add to the perspective and the voice. But then I started playing with a new idea that could really only be in first. And that’s fun, too! The story, I think, informs the POV–and probably the other way around, too.

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 20, 2010 at 12:12 PM #

      OMGosh, I can’t believe I left out second person! I guess that deserves it’s own post. I’ve read short stories in second person that I felt worked well, but I think it would be a pretty big task to try to successfully pull off an entire novel in second person. (Okay readers – if there’s a well-known second person POV novel out there that you know I’m blanking on, please post a comment reminding me!)And of course, there are always those wonderful “choose your own adventure” stories you referenced in your comment, Rowenna! Thanks for commenting! :)

  3. Savannah J. Foley December 20, 2010 at 10:49 AM #

    Excellent article, Julie! I’ve been thinking about POV a lot as a work some on my new book… it’s first person, which I think is the best choice, but I think there’s a lot to be said for third person as well, especially since I’m reading Sabriel again for an education on how to write good fight scenes.

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 20, 2010 at 12:14 PM #

      Savannah – I’ve been thinking about POV quite a bit lately too, mainly because I started a new idea in third, and I almost always write in first. When I sent a sample to my agent, her first comment was, “I can’t get a feel for your MC’s voice,” and I know it’s because I had stepped TOO far out of her head when I decided to use third. Now I’m back in first, which seems to be my comfort zone. ;) Thanks for your comment, Savannah!! :)

  4. kaemccrae December 20, 2010 at 11:54 AM #

    There’s also books like ‘Demon Theory’ by Stephen Graham Jones, but that’s a rare one. : ] The POV was told as a narration of a film, so you got camera angles and what music was playing and allusions to scenes in other movies for comparative purposes. You got the visuals of a movie with the empathetic connection of a novel.

    Kind of a ‘camera narrative’.

    Weird little book, but a plenty fun read if you don’t get frustrated too easily! : ]

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 20, 2010 at 12:19 PM #

      Wow, that sounds like an uber-interesting book! MONSTER by Walter Dean Myers has sections told in film script style. I think it worked really well for that book. There are definitely stories (or, in the case of MONSTER, characters,) that work well with a cinematic kind of narration. Thanks for the comment! I’m definitely going to take a look at DEMON THEORY. :)

  5. sdennard December 20, 2010 at 12:37 PM #

    What a great post, Julie! Totally informative and thorough! Because I write YA, I tend to write primarily first person, but I recently tried writing a limited, deep 3rd — it was great! I almost enjoyed it more than 1st! I found I got even more in touch with my character because I was more conscious of her thoughts and more focused on trying to convey them.

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 20, 2010 at 12:47 PM #

      Hey Sooz! I agree that YA tends to lend itself to first and that’s probably why I find myself using it so much, too. But I’m really intrigued by your successful experiment with limited third! I can see what you mean when you say you were more focused on trying to convey your POV characters thoughts. Maybe some day I’ll manage to pull off a strong third person narrative myself. ;) Thanks for commenting!

  6. Brooke December 20, 2010 at 1:13 PM #

    I tend to write third person limited. I have tried first person time and time again, but to no success. I just CAN’T write it! I’ve also tried omniscient, but didn’t like it either. There’s something about third person limited that just feels right to me. I tend to get a bit objective in first drafts, depending on the scene, but usually, I’m able to bring it in to one character after a revision or two.

    For some strange reason, my reading styles follow the same pattern. I very rarely read first-person POV stories. For me, it’s harder to get into the story with a first-person POV, which should be the opposite, you would think. There are a few exceptions. I loved Paranormalcy by Kiersten White, which I picked up despite its first-person POV.

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 20, 2010 at 1:24 PM #

      Hey Brooke! You make a good point about your reading patterns and writing patterns reflecting each other in terms of POV. I think I maybe feel more comfortable writing in first because most of what I read is in first. A certain “voice” definitely fills my subconscious while I write, but who knows where that voice comes from? Maybe it’s the voice of all the books I’ve ever read? Anyway, PARANORMALCY=Awesome. :) Thanks for commenting!

  7. Elle Strauss December 20, 2010 at 2:53 PM #

    This is a great post! Thanks for making sense of all the POVs–very helpful. I’m going to bookmark this for later review.

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 20, 2010 at 3:37 PM #

      Hey Elle! Thanks! I never thought of POV as being so complex until I tried to write in something other than first! I realized I had no real grasp on how to do third limited – how much about the POV character to put in, how much to leave out. I’m glad you found this helpful! :)

  8. Sammy Bina December 20, 2010 at 8:08 PM #

    Julie, this is a GREAT article! Exactly what I needed at the moment. I think I tend to write a lot of first person, and my current WIP is done in that style. But I think it was really smart to point out the benefits that come with each style. I guess I was subconsciously aware of them before, but this is really going to help when I move on to my next project.

    Oddly enough, I really like second person POV. I haven’t found many good stories written in it, but there was one kid on a workshop of mine who was, like, a MASTER. I kind of always envied him that.

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 20, 2010 at 8:13 PM #

      Hey Sammy! Thanks! Funny, but I really LOVE second person when it’s done well, too. I just have a feeling it would be a tough sell unless it was PERFECT. It must have been fun to read that kid’s writing. I wonder if he knows what a cool gift he has? Thanks for commenting!! :)

  9. Cassie December 20, 2010 at 11:42 PM #

    HA! And I dare call myself a writer? As far as my knowledge went (before reading this), 1st person is “I”, “me”, “my”, etc, and 3rd & omniscient are the same! Oi vei…and to top it off, I’ve been writing in 3rd person limited for a loooong time without even realizing it! So thank you for educating me with this much-needed post…! ><

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 21, 2010 at 12:05 AM #

      Hi Cassie! LOL I’m sure you deserve to call yourself a writer without a textbook knowledge of point of view. ;) There are SO MANY choices we make in our writing that I think are based solely on our instincts – like your use of third person limited, for instance. It’s fun and helpful to know how it all breaks down, but I would bet many writers have written wonderful books without ever consciously thinking about point of view. Thanks for your comment! :)

  10. Jamie Evans December 30, 2010 at 11:37 AM #

    Really nice summary. So what would 4th-person be? :D

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 30, 2010 at 11:54 AM #

      LOL that’s a mind-bending question! Although I’ve been considering giving 2nd person it’s own post… Thanks for the comment! :)

  11. Melinda Brasher November 26, 2011 at 2:47 AM #

    Great Post. I’ve been doing my NaNoWriMo novel this year in omniscient–first time I’ve EVER written a story in omniscient, and I find myself rather drunk with power. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I might have to scale it back to limited third. I’ll see in revisions.

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 27, 2011 at 1:27 AM #

      Hey Melinda! I completely get how omniscient could go to your head LOL. It does sound like you’re having fun with it. Best of luck with your revisions!

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    This is really interesting. The book I am writing atm is in third person, but I am trying to include sections from different people’s POV like diary entries as ‘mini chapters’. I still don’t know whether it will work, but I am willing to try. :)

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 13, 2013 at 10:42 PM #

      I LOVE this idea! It may prove tricky but I love your “I am willing to try” attitude! Best of luck with it. It very well may work, but if you decide you don’t like the results you will definitely learn from it. Thanks for commenting! :)

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