Point of View: It's Personal
What to Know
The point of view of a story determines who is telling it and the narrator's relationship to the characters in the story. In first person point of view the narrator is a character in the story telling it from their perspective. In third person point of view the narrator is not part of the story and the characters never acknowledge the narrator's presence. Less common than first and third is second person point of view. In second person point of view the reader is part of the story. The narrator describes the reader's actions, thoughts, and background using "you."
When you tell a story, an important thing to choose is the point of view that the story should take. Point of view determines who tells the story, as well as the relationship that the narrator has to the characters in the story. A story can have a much different feel depending on who is doing the telling.
The main points of view are first person and third person, with second person appearing less frequently but still common enough that it gets studied in writing classes. These are also the terms used to distinguish the personal pronouns. The pronouns I and we are first-person pronouns; they refer to the self. The pronoun you, used for both singular and plural antecedents, is the second-person pronoun, the person who is being addressed. The third person pronouns—he, she, it, they—refer to someone or something being referred to apart from the speaker or the person being addressed. Narratives are often identified as first, second, or third person based on the kinds of pronouns they utilize.
First Person Point of View
In first-person narration, the narrator is a person in the story, telling the story from their own point of view. The narration usually utilizes the pronoun I (or we, if the narrator is speaking as part of a group). The character who tells the story might be in the middle of the action or more of a character who observes the action from the outer limits, but in either case you are getting that character’s recounting of what happens.
It also means that impressions and descriptions are colored by that character’s opinions, mood, past experiences, or even their warped perceptions of what they see and hear.
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question.
I was glad of it: I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.
— Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, 1847
In Jane Eyre, the narration is provided by the story’s title character, a governess. The information shared comes from her memories and impressions—of the weather, her knowledge of Mrs. Reed’s dining habits, and her dread at receiving a lecture from Nurse Bessie. We are likewise shielded from information that Jane doesn’t know.
Many classic works of fiction feature characters made memorable by their first-person voices: The Catcher in the Rye (Holden Caulfield), The Handmaid's Tale (Offred), or To Kill a Mockingbird (Scout Finch). In some stories, such as in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the first person narrator (Nick Carraway) is an observer of the character around whom the story is centered (Jay Gatsby).
Second-person narration a little-used technique of narrative in which the action is driven by a character ascribed to the reader, one known as you. The reader is immersed into the narrative as a character involved in the story. The narrator describes what "you" do and lets you into your own thoughts and background. The most well-known piece of fiction that employs second-person narration might be Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City.
At the subway station you wait fifteen minutes on the platform for a train. Finally a local, enervated by graffiti, shuffles into the station. You get a seat and hoist a copy of the New York Post. The Post is the most shameful of your several addictions.
— Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City, 1984
You will also find second-person narration used in the "Choose Your Own Adventure" style of books popular with younger readers, in which readers determine where the story goes by which page they turn to next. Allowing the reader to "be" the central character in the story provides an immersive reading experience, enhancing what is at stake for the character and reader.
Third Person Point of View
In third-person narration, the narrator exists outside the events of the story, and relates the actions of the characters by referring to their names or by the third-person pronouns he, she, or they.
Third-person narration can be further classified into several types: omniscient, limited, and objective.
Third Person Omniscient
Omniscient means "all-knowing," and likewise an omniscient narrator knows every character’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations even if that character doesn’t reveal any of those things to the other characters.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott serves as a good example of third-person omniscient narration:
"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
"It's so dreadful to be poor!" sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
"I don't think it's fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all," added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
"We've got Father and Mother, and each other," said Beth contentedly from her corner.
The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly, "We haven't got Father, and shall not have him for a long time." She didn't say "perhaps never," but each silently added it, thinking of Father far away, where the fighting was.
— Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, 1868
The story is not told from the point of view of Meg, Jo, Beth, or Amy, but from someone who is observing the four sisters as they talk to one another. Each character is therefore referred to by their names or the third-person pronoun she. The narrator does not exist as a character in the story, and the girls do not acknowledge the narrator’s presence.
However, the narrator is omniscient, which means that they know what the characters are thinking. This is demonstrated in the last line of the excerpt, when the girls silently ponder the thought of their father never returning from the war.
Third Person Limited
In third-person limited narration, the narrator still exists outside the events of the story, but does not know the motivations or thoughts of all the characters. Rather, one character is the driver of the story, and the reader is given a closer peek into that character’s psyche than the others.
J. K. Rowling utilizes third-person limited narration in the Harry Potter novels. Even though the narrator is not Harry, and Harry is referred to as 'he,' the reader is allowed into Harry's thoughts—what he is wondering without saying out loud. We are also, like Harry, left uncertain about what other characters are thinking:
Three days later, the Dursleys were showing no sign of relenting, and Harry couldn't see any way out of his situation. He lay on his bed watching the sun sinking behind the bars on the window and wondered miserably what was going to happen to him.
What was the good of magicking himself out of his room if Hogwarts would expel him for doing it? Yet life at Privet Drive had reached an all-time low. Now that the Dursleys knew they weren't going to wake up as fruit bats, he had lost his only weapon. Dobby might have saved Harry from horrible happenings at Hogwarts, but the way things were going, he'd probably starve to death anyway.
— J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, 1999
In third-person objective narration, the narrator reports the events that take place without knowing the motivations or thoughts of any of the characters. We know little about what drives them until we hear them speak or observe their actions. The resulting tone is often matter-of-fact, not colored by any opinions or commentary, nor of knowledge of what takes place outside the scene.
The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o'clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 25th. But in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o'clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.
— Shirley Jackson, "The Lottery," 1948