what is point of view in literature?

What is Point of View in Literature? Exploring Narrative Point of View

You might not notice it, but most published writing contains a narrative point of view. This includes every book, poem, email, instruction manual, even some street signs and cereal boxes.

For us writers, defining the point of view of a story or poem is essential: it’s an important part of making our writing “believable.” Like a camera lens to a photograph, narrative point of view makes the story possible.

So, what is point of view in literature? This is a surprisingly simple concept with surprisingly complex applications, so let’s take a thorough look at some point of view examples, followed by how writers can experiment with point of view in literature. We will also examine point of view in poetry versus prose. But first, what is point of view?

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What is Point of View in Literature?

Narrative point of view (POV) defines who is communicating to the reader. Every written text comes from a certain person’s viewpoint. When we understand who’s speaking to us, we can better understand the story that’s being told.

Narrative point of view defines who is communicating to the reader.

Sometimes, the point of view of a story is given immediately. Herman Melville’s first-person novel Moby Dick begins “Call me Ishmael.” The story then goes on to tell us why Ishmael’s point of view matters—in other words, what makes the story compelling.

However, most stories rarely introduce their protagonists so readily, and it’s much more likely that the narrative point of view will develop alongside the story.

For example, the identity of the narrator in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is never revealed. The television series names her June, based on their interpretation of the story’s opening chapter, but the original novel never reveals her real name. She is simply Offred, or “of Fred”—Fred being the commander she is property of. Despite this, the reader comes to know about the narrator’s past life, current dilemma, and enduring trauma as a handmaid in fictional Gilead.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a cautionary dystopia, and by leaving the narrator anonymous, Atwood suggests that the narrative point of view could be all women’s experiences, not just the narrator’s. This is where understanding what is point of view helps us understand the text, relating it to the novel’s themes and ideas.

Some narrators are entirely absent from the narrative. In other words, no single person is named as the storyteller: they are an unnamed, maybe unbiased viewer, relaying the story from the third person point of view.

Classic novels told by a distant narrator include Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

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The 3 Types of Point of View in Writing

You’ll notice that the above point of view examples are in “first person” or “third person.” What is point of view’s “person?”

“Person,” better described as the story’s frame of reference, identifies who the narrator is in relation to the text. Are they a part of the story, or somewhere outside of it? The point of view of a story is directly impacted by who tells it, so defining the narrator is a crucial component of any story or poem.

The story’s “person” identifies who the narrator is in relation to the text.

This brings us to the 3 types of point of view: 1st person, 2nd person, and 3rd person.

First person uses the “I” pronoun, and it occurs when the narrator is a part of the story. You’ll see first person used most frequently in poetry and autobiographical work, but many novels also choose to write from the vantage of a fictional character. Example: I walked the dog.

Second person uses the “you” pronoun, and it’s rarely used in long passages of prose. Second person is used when the reader is the subject of the story. Although this requires a certain suspension of disbelief, second person storytelling can help make the reader feel more intimate with the story’s plot, as it casts the reader as the protagonist. Example: You walked the dog.

Third person uses impersonal pronouns—he, she, they, it, etc. The majority of fiction is told in the third person, as is non-autobiographical work and some poetry. Example: She walked the dog.

There are divisions within each respective point of view, which we’ve summarized in the chart below. These point of view examples have different uses in storytelling, and when chosen properly, the narrative point of view can amplify certain meanings and ideas.

Point of View Pronoun Point of View Definition Point of View Examples in Literature
First Person I The narrator, who is central to the plot, tells the story from their perspective.
  • Ishmael in Moby Dick
  • Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre
First Person Peripheral I The narrator, who is not central to the plot, tells the story from their perspective.
  • Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby
  • Mr. Lockwood in Wuthering Heights
Second Person You The narrator, who is distant from the plot, tells the story from “your” perspective.
  • Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
  • (Parts of) Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
Third Person Limited He/She/They/etc. The narrator, who is distant from the plot, tells the story from the close perspective of central characters.
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Third Person Omniscient He/She/They/etc. The narrator, who is distant from the plot, tells the story from the perspective of different characters’ viewpoints, and includes information these characters don’t know.
  • Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Why Does Narrative Point of View Matter?

It’s important to consider the point of view of a story. Doing so will help make certain texts easier to understand—and, potentially, easier to write.

Think of the narrator as the cameraman of the story. We see what the camera sees; our view of the story is determined by where the camera points, and what the camera omits.

The narrator is the cameraman of the story

In other words, narrative point of view defines how the story is told. The author may choose a narrator that’s unbiased and objective, but this is only possible with a third person omniscient narrator.

Other than the third person omniscient, narrative viewpoints cannot be truly objective. First and second person narratives are inevitably biased, as we are perceiving the story through a single point of reference. The same is true for the third person limited, where the narrator tells us about solely the protagonist’s thoughts, feelings, desires, and interpretations. Even if that narrator is not central to the story, they also have a personality, and they also have blindspots and biases.

As a result, narrative point of view goes hand-in-hand with character development. No matter what point of view the author chooses, the story’s style and ideas will be affected by the protagonist’s personality. The most authentic stories lean into the protagonist’s style, making them seem like living, breathing characters.

Point of View in Poetry

So far, we’ve mostly discussed the point of view of a story, including how storytellers can (and should!) write from the protagonist’s limited perspective. Does the same apply to poetry?

In short, yes: a poem contains a point of view, and this helps define the poem’s tone, message, and identity. However, the role of point of view in poetry differs from that of fiction. Here are a few key differences:

1. Point of View in Poetry: Narrator vs. Speaker

In prose, the person telling the story is called the narrator, and the narrator is usually well defined. We usually know their name if the story is in first person; if it’s in third person, we know who the story’s frame of reference is, and can discern whether the narrator is biased or not.

In poetry, the person writing to us is called the speaker.

Now, the speaker is less defined in poetry than the narrator is in prose. It’s easy to assume that the poet is the speaker, and in many cases, the speaker writes directly from the poet’s heart.

However, when it comes to poetry analysis, it’s important to distinguish the speaker from the poet. A poem operates best when its meaning is universally applicable, rather than attached to one specific person.

For example, the poet Sylvia Plath is well known for her confessional poetry, and it’s hard to disconnect her poems from her own lived experiences. Plath struggled greatly with death and mental illness, which become recurring themes in much of her poetry.

Although Plath was certainly writing about her own experiences, poems are multifaceted and convey different truths to different people. By decontextualizing the author from the poem, the poem can be interpreted as a standalone unit. For more on this, you may be interested in Roland Barthe’s critical essay The Death of the Author.

Lastly, some poems have explicitly defined speakers where the poet and the speaker are different. These poems, known collectively as persona poetry, allow the poet to write from the experiences of other people, organisms, or objects. An example of persona poetry is the spoken word poem “Skinhead” by Patricia Smith, as well as Louise Glück’s poetry collection Wild Iris, which was written from the point of view of flowers.

2. Point of View in Poetry: Crystalized vs. Fluid Pronouns

In prose, the time and place of the story are usually well defined. We know when and where the story takes place and from whose point of view we’re experiencing the story.

Because of this, the pronouns in prose will be consistent, or crystalized. A story that begins in the third person will remain in the third person, unless there is a clear shift in the story’s time and format.

For example, the novel In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez is told from four different perspectives, and each perspective has a different frame of reference. One character’s story is told using first person point of view diary entries; another character is written strictly in the third person limited. Although the pronouns change, they change per chapter, not just randomly. The novel makes clear who is narrating and when the event they are narrating occurred.

There are, of course, notable exceptions to this rule. William Faulkner, for one, was famous for experimenting with narratology.

For example, Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury is told from four different perspectives. Quentin’s story, the second part of the novel, jumps between different points of view, due to its stream of conscious narrative. The present is told in the first person, but some of Quentin’s thoughts are in the second or third person point of view, depending on whom he’s thinking towards.

Thus, in some parts of The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner uses fluid pronouns—a narrative tactic much more common in poetry.

Poems can switch between first, second, and third person pronouns much more fluidly, though of course these pronoun shifts must be meaningful. Poets from the Modernist Era were especially likely to experiment with narratology, such as T. S. Eliot and his poem “The Waste Land.”

“The Waste Land” can be described as a Modernist lament of the death of culture and society. Whether Eliot was right is still a topic of intense debate, but to accomplish this lament, the poem frequently jumps between different perspectives and pronouns. Take this excerpt from the poem’s second section:

And other withered stumps of time
Were told upon the walls; staring forms
Leaned out, leaning, hushing the room enclosed.
Footsteps shuffled on the stair.
Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair
Spread out in fiery points
Clawed into words, then would be savagely still.

“My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”

I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.

The perspective shifts from third to first person here, transitioning from the woman in her lavish room to her husband’s inner monologue. Transitions like these help the poet juxtapose different narratives, and altogether, this style of interweaving narratives happens much more frequently in poetry than in prose.

3. Point of View in Poetry: Objective vs. Imaginative Storytelling

Finally, prose and poetry have different styles of storytelling. The goal of prose is to tell a story as truthfully as possible, explaining a set order of events through strictly set viewpoints. Prose, in general, should be clear and concise, conveying information through as few words as possible.

Poetry, by contrast, can take a much more imaginative focus. We’ve already seen how the point of view can change in poetry; because of this, a poem’s setting and mood can also change much more fluidly.

Here are some examples of imaginative storytelling:

  • Writing from unique points of view. Wild Iris by Louise Glück is a collection of poems told from the perspective of flowers.
  • Using metaphor as plot. Take the poem Entanglement by Carmen Giménez Smith: obviously, the speaker does not have a tiny telephone physically inside of her, but this metaphor sets up the poem’s message about love and growing together.
  • Writing towards a global “us.” Prose functions best when it focuses on a few key individuals, but poetry can address everyone without a clear setting. Example: A Litany for Survival by Audre Lorde..
  • Interweaving disparate voices, often without signifying a change in speaker. This tactic is used frequently in “The Waste Land.”

Let’s return to “The Waste Land” as an example. Many elements of storytelling change frequently throughout the poem, including its setting, characters, and tone. Take this excerpt from the poem’s second and third section, where we suddenly transition from the rituals of posh London society to the dismal bank of the Thames:

[End of II. A Game of Chess]

And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot—
HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME
HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME
Goodnight Bill. Goodnight Lou. Goodnight May. Goodnight.
Ta ta. Goodnight. Goodnight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.

III. The Fire Sermon
The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.

Of course, longer works of prose can also include a wide array of characters, settings, and tones. The difference is, prose explores those elements in depth, whereas the poem hardly offers “backstory” for the characters or an extended description of the settings.

Rather, these storytelling elements are used symbolically, intertwining with the poem to develop its many complex themes.

Throughout the poem, we hear many different voices interwoven: that of the speaker, a countess named Marie, the spouse of a shell-shocked WW1 veteran, the voices of women undone by men, etc. No singular line of the poem tells us what the poem is “about,” but as we visit the many souls in England whose lives were forever changed by The Great War, a tapestry of decline emerges. We don’t need the poem to tell us that society is in jeopardy: we can see it with our own two eyes.

Note: “The Waste Land” is an exceedingly complex poem. Literary critics and historians still debate the poem’s many different meanings, and the poem itself is best read alongside T. S. Eliot’s marginalia. This analysis does not offer a full understanding of the poem, but if you’re interested, this summary of the poem from critic Dr. Oliver Tearle might elucidate.

Point of View in Poetry & Prose: Venn Diagram

There are a few key differences between the point of view of a story and the point of view in poetry. These differences are summarized below.

point of view in poetry venn diagram

 

Experimenting with Point of View in Writing

How do writers experiment with point of view, and what can they achieve with it? In the same way that a film director can play with cinematic style and the camera’s filmography, writers can play with point of view in writing.

In creative writing, rules are made to be broken. We’ve described the narrator as the faithful, objective cameraperson of the story, who keeps the storytelling tidy by using the same pronouns, and situating those pronouns in clearly defined settings and plots.

Yet, we’ve already offered several examples of prose writers who broke those rules—namely William Faulkner, who spearheaded much of the 20th century’s experimentations in prose.

Here are some ways that prose writers can experiment with narrative point of view. These strategies also apply to poetry, but since point of view is less-strictly defined in poetry, many of these rules either don’t apply or are easy to experiment with.

  • The Unreliable Narrator: narrators can deceive, though this deception should be relevant to the story itself. This tactic is often used in mystery and suspense novels, as the narrator often lacks all the necessary information—or the narrator is the antagonist. A contemporary example is the novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
  • Pronouns as Scene Changes: to create a truly immersive world, the narrator might jump freely in and out of a character’s stream of consciousness. Rather than telling the reader “these are the character’s spontaneous thoughts,” the narration can jump inside characters’ heads through the use of pronouns changes, as well as other shifts in style. A classic example is the novel The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner.
  • Multiple Narrators: when the story’s plot is complex and multifaceted, the writer might tell the story from multiple vantage points. Different chapters will be told from different viewpoints, and those viewpoints are (usually) well defined. A recent example is the novel Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, or Sirens & Muses by Antonia Angress. 
  • Omniscient Flashbacks: you might want the reader to know more than the protagonist does. Why? Because authors are evil and love to make their protagonists suffer. That, and because this information will be revealed to the protagonist later, so it helps make the story more compelling and suspenseful. As a result, some stories might interrupt the main narrative to offer a third person omnipotent flashback. A recent example is the novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami.
  • Story Within a Story: the story might utilize a first person narrator who is not relevant to the story—in other words, a first person peripheral narrator. This narrator might tell the bulk of the story in a different point of view, as they are often telling stories that happened before the narrator’s present day. A classic example of this is Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte.

Choosing and Managing Point of View

Here are instructor Jack Smith’s thoughts on finding the right cameraman for your story.

Jack Smith You’ve chosen your protagonist. This is a character you’ve had in mind for some time. You want to tell this character’s story. Or… you’ve just come upon this character in your pantser intuitive mode. This looks like a character who will interest readers. The reasons can, of course, vary: a character with a goal many can appreciate, a character who’s stoic in the face of adversity, a character who’s quirky and calls in question conventional attitudes and behaviors.

Whatever your character is like, one thing to consider—early on, if possible—is whether or not this character will, in fact, be the character with the most interesting or compelling vantage point, or perspective, on the story’s action, the one you’ll give the most time to.

For instance, let’s say your story is about a bank heist. Let’s say you have a protagonist in mind, the one who will be your point of view character: the bank robber who has planned the heist. Should you stick with that character, or would a different POV character work better? Who might this be? One of the bank robbers? Which one? A hard-nosed killer who’ll stop at nothing? A novice who’s nervous? A robber with a dashboard filled with robberies he’s committed, one who is going to make this his last heist? How about the driver of the getaway car?

Each of these characters will play a different part in the robbery, and have a different experience. Which is likely to make the most interesting story? Which will have the most impact?

Let’s say it’s a bystander outside of the bank, who witnesses the robbery from across the street. Will that make a good story? Let’s say that you yourself witnessed a bank heist, or perhaps a robbery of a convenience store, or liquor store, and you want to tell that story. But will you have enough conflict? Perhaps if you heard guns going off, saw a person killed about to enter, or exit, the bank (or store)… maybe then. If your witness brings enough to this story, maybe a past of witnessing different acts of violence, they might make a good protagonist, or POV character. As I’ve described it, your witness is an observer only. But perhaps this character could become a participant, not in the robbery, but in some other way.

Let’s say you’re really invested in this story. You have to tell it because it happened to you.

Be careful not to be bound by what happened, but instead let your imagination run free. Here’s a link on writing autobiographical fiction you might be interested in:

https://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/filtering-fact-through-fiction/

Another point of view example:

Let’s say your novel is going to be about a strained relationship between two family members. You’ve chosen to focus on the difficult relationship between a teenage daughter and her mother. Would it be better to tell it from the daughter’s point of view or the mother’s? If you’re writing autobiographical fiction, and you’re coming from the daughter’s perspective, you might try telling your story from the mother’s point of view. This would keep you from getting too personally invested in one point of view over the other. Could the mother’s POV work? Let’s say that the mother tends to be a bit myopic? That could come across in the kinds of things she notices and says. You could have a case of unconscious irony, and, to the extent to which the mother seems unaware of her own biases, etc., perhaps (if you use first person point of view) an unreliable narrator—at least at times. Just keep in mind that choosing your protagonist is a matter of choosing a perspective, a vantage point, on one’s self and others. Other POV characters are possible, of course, but they would be secondary.

This takes us to multiple points of view. In the case of the bank heist, you could tell the story from several POV’s: the guy who plans the heist, one of the robbers, and the driver of the getaway car. You’d have to decide if their points of view are of equal weight, or if one is more important than the other two. In the case of the strained relationship between the teenage daughter and mother, you could alternate points of view from chapter to chapter.

Ask yourself what stakes your protagonist has in this story. How invested are they? This question pertains to motivation. If you’re a plotter, you can decide on this early on; if you’re a pantser, get a good feel for this protagonist—what are his or her stakes? What motivates them to do what they do, to care about the outcome, to get involved in the fray?

Before you get too far into your story, think of the best perspective(s) from which to tell your tale. The earlier you make a choice, the less work you’ll have doing revision later on.

Explore Narrative Point of View at Writers.com

What else can writers do with narrative point of view? It’s up to you to find out! Writers are constantly experimenting with different ways to tell their stories, and while point of view is not the only way to experiment, it is an essential component of any story you write. So follow the rules, break them, or create entirely new ones—the blank page is yours to command.

When you’re looking to workshop your writing, check out our upcoming course schedule. Our instructors are ready to help fine tune your story’s point of view.

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