At Chautauqua I gave a talk on point of view, mostly about capturing a child’s or teen’s point of view, but here’s the nuts and bolts point of view info (1st person, 2nd person, etc.). You’ll find that people have different terms for particular points of view, so these are my terms of reference, but as long as you understand the varying approaches, that’s what matters. I’ve included links at the end of this post that go into more detail.
Point of View: How Do You Want to Tell Your Story?
1. First Person
This is the “I” voice. You’re telling the story from the perspective of one character. It’s limiting in the sense that this character cannot see anything that’s happening unless she is actually in the scene and has her eyes on the specific incident. Also–this is important— she does not know what other people are thinking or how they’re feeling. She can GUESS these things by observing their behavior, listening to what they say, hearing what other people say about them, or having enough of a history with them that she instinctively knows, based on past experience, how that character thinks or feels. It’s freeing in the sense that you can put yourself in the mind of your character and write everything she / you feel, sense, and think. It also helps the reader have empathy for the character because the reader has an intimate relationship with the character.
This is my favorite because it helps me to get inside my character’s head. And I like reading books in 1st person because I feel like the main character is telling his or her story just to me. It’s so personal.
2. Second Person
This is the “you” voice. It’s hard to carry off in an entire novel and is rarely used. “You see the house covered in ivy. You try get to the door. You turn the knob but it won’t open.” It’s kind of engaging, but can become stilted because there are so many times when you want to say “I” or “she.”
3. Third Person (external)
This is the “he” or “she” voice, but we’re not inside their heads. It’s limited because we only see people from the outside. It’s as if you’re an observer in the scene, watching everything that’s being said and done, but you aren’t in anyone’s head to actually know what they’re feeling or thinking. You can infer from behavior and conversation, but that’s it.
4. Third Person (internal)
This is the “she” where we also know her thoughts and see things the way she does. It’s sort of like “I.” Some people prefer writing in 3rd but having the inside view of the main character as if it’s 1st person. This is probably the most common form of writing. Think of the last ten books you’ve read and most of them will be in this form–unless you’re reading a lot of YA, in which case first person tends to be popular. Why? Teens are self-absorbed, thoughtful, in their heads a lot of the time — it’s simply age appropriate. So, often, first person seems appropriate for YA storytelling.
5. Third Person (omniscient)
This voice is perhaps the traditional storyteller where you know everything about everyone. While it’s told as “He did this,” and “She thought this,” so it sounds like 3rd person, it’s the all-knowing narrator who can get inside everyone’s head and see everything on the outside, too. It’s not used much in current children’s literature. It would have to be an unusual book to pull it off.
6. Multiple Points of View
Some books alternate characters between chapters so we get to see what’s going on in their heads and how each of them feels about what’s going on in the story. Some examples are Jerry Spinelli’s Who Put That Hair in My Toothbrush (brother and sister), Shelley Pearsall’s All of the Above (told in the voices of four students and a teacher who are building a geometry / art project), and Emily Franklin & Brendan Halpin’s The Half Life of Planets (a boy with Asperger’s and a girl he meets).
In summary, the most commonly used points of view (and most commonly accepted by editors) are first person and third person.
What’s Important about Point of View?
Using it correctly! Switching back and forth is not only bad form but also very confusing to the reader. If we’ve been seeing everything through Brittany’s head and only understand the other characters from her point of view, it’s very jarring if all of a sudden we read, “Josh wished he could change her mind. He’d loved her since third grade. Why didn’t she notice him? He swallowed hard and felt a lump in his throat….” Whoa, what am I doing in Josh’s head for the first time in chapter 16?? So, pick whatever point of view you want, but be consistent.
For more reading on point of view:
If you don’t want to read all of them, at least look at the first one: