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Point of View in Fiction: First Person, Second Person, and Third Person

The choice of point of view when writing fiction has an important effect on how a story is told.

One of the most important stylistic choices you make when writing a novel or a short story is how you deal with point of view. The narration of a novel is always told in a specific point of view: first person, second person, or third person. The same story told from a different point of view is a different story because the reader experiences it differently.

Here’s an overview of points of view, and how to choose which one to use for a novel or short story.

The three points of view

The three points of view in fiction correspond to the way we perceive the world. The story can be told through the eyes of I or we (the person telling the story, first person), you (second person), or them (third person). There can be variants for some of these points of view, but these are the three options available when writing fiction.

First person

First-person point of view is quite common. It brings a sense of intimacy and immediacy to a story. When the narrator tells a story using I, me, and we, it feels as though they are recounting the story directly to you, more so than second or third person. This point of view lets the reader experience the narrator's thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and is very useful in stories where character growth is a main focus. But there is a limit to first-person point of view: the reader only knows what the narrator knows, and only experiences what they experience. They are shut out from other characters.

However, first-person point of view is very effective in certain genres. Mysteries, particularly hard-boiled mysteries, often use a first-person point of view to heighten suspense and to bring out the unique natures of the investigators who are conducting quests in this sort of novel. Linear stories like this tend to work well with this point of view. The narrator of a novel in first person may be the protagonist, but they don't have to be. For example, all the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels are told by his sidekick Dr. Watson.

This point of view also allows the author to create an unreliable narrator. One example of this is the novel, Gone Girl, which features an interesting twist on the idea of first-person narrative. Other well-known novels told in first-person include The Catcher in the Rye, Marcel Proust's 3,000-page In Search of Lost Time, and an interesting use of the first person is Stephen King's From a Buick 8, which is told in first person by multiple characters.

Second person

The second-person point of view is relatively rare, and for good reason. Reading a book with the narrator saying "you," can become tedious after a while. This approach is fairly common with gaming narratives or choose-your-own-adventure stories, but it is rare in standard fiction. There are exceptions, of course, one notably being Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney, which opens with the lines:

"You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy."

It's no mean feat to pull off, writing an entire novel in the second person, but it can be an interesting experiment to try.

Third person

Third person is, by far, the most common point of view in fiction. It has the advantage of allowing writers to shape a story around one or more protagonists, but still remain distant enough to note what happens around the characters. Close or limited third-person point of view is when an author tells a story from the point of view of a single character, yet can also introduce things around them, such as the things they see, hear, and smell, giving more flexibility through description than would be the case in a first-person narrative.

But third-person narrative is not limited to a single character. It is possible to change point-of-view characters in different chapters, even in different scenes, where each one is told in a limited third-person point of view. One example of this is the Game of Thrones cycle, where there are a dozen or more point-of-view characters in each novel. In stories with large scope, multiple point-of-view characters allow the story to be told across different times and different locations, though if there are too many point-of-view characters, it can be hard for the reader to follow.

When writing a novel with multiple point-of-view characters in Scrivener, you can use labels for each chapter or scene according to the point-of-view characters. Setting the Binder to show label colors allows you to easily spot which elements are told from which point of view, and this is also reflected in the Corkboard and Outliner.

Omniscient third-person point of view takes the narrator to a birds-eye view where they know all of the characters and their thoughts, feelings, and actions. This was very common before the 20th century, but the narrator can seem detached. While they can swoop into the mind of any character, at any time, they tend not to focus on a single character enough for that character to necessarily feel alive. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy used third-person omniscient narration, as did James Joyce in much of Ulysses.

Which point of view to choose

The majority of fiction is written in third-person point of view, but first-person can be quite powerful. If you want to write a novel where the narrator has a distinctive voice, first-person is an excellent choice. Some genres are more adapted to first-person point of view: mysteries, thrillers, romance, young adult fiction, and others benefit from its immediacy.

It can be an interesting exercise to write several scenes or chapters from one point of view, and then rewrite them from a different point of view. If you're unsure which point of view to use for a novel, you might want to try this and see, which feels more comfortable.

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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