How to understand point of view in fiction (part one)

What is point of view?

A point-of-view character is the character through which a story – or part of a story – is being told. The reader will experience the story from the point of view of that character. That means the reader should feel as if they are in the character’s mind, experiencing everything that the character does and at the same time. This should include all thoughts, emotions and sensory experiences of the viewpoint character.

Point of view can be difficult to understand, especially for new authors, but it is important to get it right as it will affect your reader’s understanding of the story and how deeply they are able to immerse themselves in your prose.

It is advisable to choose one point of view per chapter as it’s easier to keep track of whose head we are in. Alternatively, section breaks can be used to change point of view between scenes.  You may even only want one point of view for the entire book. Changing point of view randomly – known as headhopping – creates confusion for the reader and stops them being immersed within one character. 

Types of point of view

There are five types of point of view that can be used in fiction writing.

  • first person
  • second person
  • third person limited
  • third person objective
  • third person omniscient

In this post we will discuss first-person and second-person points of view. The third-person points of view will be discussed in part two.

First-person POV

First-person point of view is used when the story is narrated by the character using ‘I’ or ‘we’ personal pronouns. It’s very immediate as the reader is in the head of the narrator and should feel that they are part of the character and living the experience alongside them. The reader will only get to experience what that character experiences, and the character could choose to withhold information or even be dishonest.  Sometimes,  authors choose to use first person just with certain characters in specific chapters.

A basic example of first-person point of view is shown below:

I helped Delaney to move the body.

We helped Delaney to move the body

An important point to remember with first-person point of view is that the reader should not be able to move outside of the mind of the character. They cannot know what is going on in the minds of other characters.

I  helped Delaney move the body. He frowned at me, knowing I had lied to him.

We are in the head of the narrator, so it would be impossible for us to know what Delaney is thinking. Giving the reader an insight into a non-viewpoint character’s mind is an example of headhopping (also known as a viewpoint drop). I discuss headhopping in more detail in part two of this post.

I helped Delaney move the body. He frowned at me. Did he know I had lied to him?

By rephrasing the last part as a thought using free indirect style, we can keep the point of view with the narrator and add some suspense to the story.

Below is an example of first-person point of view from a published book.

I never thought something like this would happen to me. I suppose that’s what makes me behave as though I’m in a film. I have no idea what else to do. I stop, for a moment, testing him, and his footsteps stop too.

I start again, this time faster, and I hear him begin too. My imagination fires up like a sprinter off the starting block and soon I can’t tell what’s real.  is he right behind me – I can’t look – and about to reach for me? The pounding of his footsteps is consistent, slapping against the wet concrete, but I can’t tell any more than that new.

I will call somebody, I decide.

Anything You Do Say by Gillian McAllister, Chapter 1, Kindle

Some problems with first-person POV

Showing facial expressions

When writing first-person point of view, portraying facial expressions realistically is often a problem. Someone could feel embarrassed but might not know they are blushing unless they look in the mirror.

I was embarrassed at tripping over in the street and I blushed immediately.

If we add in an action beat to say their cheeks were burning, we are showing their embarrassment. Also adding in some free indirect style shows that they can guess they are blushing.

I was embarrassed at tripping over in the street, My cheeks burned. I bet my face looked like an overripe tomato.

Events must be experienced directly

It’s important to remember that in first person, the viewpoint character can only report on events that they know about or experience directly.

I am getting ready for bed. I hear a man open the front gate. He hides behind the rhododendron bush.

Our viewpoint character won’t know that someone is lurking in their front garden unless they look out of the window or go outside. 

I am getting ready for bed. I freeze. Was that the click of the front gate? I swallow and peek through the curtains. A figure dressed in dark clothes disappears behind the rhododendron bush.

The intimacy of first person can draw the reader in and create an intense experience especially if the narrator is a deep thinker.

Overuse of I

One of the disadvantages of using first-person point of view is the constant use of I. This is one of the reasons some readers avoid books written in this point of view.

A stream of I did this’ or I’ said that’ or ‘I heard him’ is repetitive and can become tedious to read. Using thoughts, actions and emotions along with observations of the character’s surroundings will help avoid repetition and create compelling reading. This will show the reader the character’s experience rather than telling them. Consider the examples below:

I felt a hand grip my wrist.

A hand gripped my wrist.

I heard the sound of a piano.

The tinkling of piano keys filled the room. Was it Mozart?.

I saw a man run out of the bushes.

A man ran out of the bushes.

I always got emotional listening to Christmas carols.

My eyes pricked with tears. Christmas carols always got me.

I smelled the fish on my plate. It was off.

The fish did not smell right. My stomach flipped.

The example below shows that first person does not need to be all about I.

The fear pulsing through my body begins to abate – this is not the terrorist I expected. This is someone’s grandmother. We are a long way from safe, but if the others are like her…

It’s clear that I’m not the only one to have this thought, because those passengers who are standing begin to move towards her as if by some pre-arranged signal. My mind begins to race thinking ahead to when we have her on the floor. There are plastic restraint cuffs in the crew lockers, and, however many of them there are, there are more of us and all we have to do is—

Hostage by Clare Mackintosh, Chapter 29, Kindle edition

Second-person POV

Second-person point of view uses the ‘you’ pronoun and addresses the reader directly, as if the narrator is having a conversation with them. The reader often feels like  a character in the story, which can feel disconcerting. Second-person point of view can be a bit sinister to read, but this is great for creating suspense and intrigue.

It’s unusual to find books written entirely in this point of view as it can be challenging to write.

The extract below is from page 9 of Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney.

You cross under the rising stanchions of the old elevated highway and walk out to the pier. The easterly light skims across the broad expanse of the Hudson. You step carefully as you approach the end of the rotting pier. You are none too steady and there are holes through which you can see the black, fetid water underneath.

Part two of this article discusses the three third-person points of view.

Final thoughts
  • Decide how you are going to use point of view in your book and whether you will have one point-of-view character throughout, per chapter or per scene.
  • Switching point of view haphazardly is called headhopping, which is confusing for your reader. The reader needs to know whose head they are in at any one time. 
  • First person is a great choice if you want to give your reader an immersive experience with a close narrative distance. But remember you are limited to what your viewpoint character knows or experiences.
  • Second-person is fabulous if you want to create suspense. The reader will feel as though they are a character in the story as they are being addressed directly, which can be unsettling.

Anything You Do Say, Gillian McAllister, Penguin Books, 2018

Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney, Bloomsbury, 2017

Hostage, Clare Mackintosh, Sphere, 2021

Work with me

I’m Clare Black, a fiction book editor based in Stockport, UK. I help independent authors prepare for publishing by fixing the important details and improving the readability of their books. I specialise in crime, thriller and contemporary fiction, but I am happy to consider other genres. I am a Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP).

I offer various packages to help indie authors get published and would love the opportunity to discuss your book and how I can help you prepare for publishing.


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