There’s much confusion about the different styles of Point of View (POV) in novels, and exactly what each of them mean. I’ve just read a plethora of comments on the subject, and some clarity is desperately needed. Here I am, intrepid reader, to explain it as best I can. I’m not a POV expert, I don’t even play one on TV.
First Person- The entire story is told by the main character. The MC is the narrator. If the MC doesn’t see it, hear it, experience it, neither does the reader.
I wish I was a woman of about thirty-six dressed in black satin with a string of pearls.
–Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
Second Person- The entire story is told by a character secondary to the MC. It is told from the secondary character’s eyes, and anything they don’t directly experience, the reader doesn’t either.
I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Third Person Omniscient- The narrator is not a character in the story at all. The narrator is God and knows all the things, whether or not the characters themselves know it. The narrator is telling you the story, often while telling the reader the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters as well as happenings removed from the characters. The narrator may explain or define events for the reader.
For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.
–Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Third Person Objective- The narrator is not a character. The narrator is completely neutral and relays no feelings or opinions of his own. The narrator does not know the thoughts or feelings of any of the characters. They are the “fly on the wall” relating what can be seen and heard. Dual-Narrative and Multi-narrative often fall in this category, though they can occur in other Third Person narratives as well.
The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building.
–Ernest Hemmingway, Hills Like White Elephants
Limited Third- (Sometimes called Close Third or Deep Third.) The narrator is not a character of its own right, but tells the story from the point of view of a single character. If it doesn’t happen around the MC, the reader doesn’t know about it. Limited Third lets the reader experience the thoughts and feelings of the MC.
“Do you remember me telling you we are practicing non-verbal spells, Potter?”
“Yes,” said Harry stiffly.
“There’s no need to call me “sir” Professor.”
The words had escaped him before he knew what he was saying.
— J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Some will say that the Harry Potter series falls into Omniscient, because the entirety of the work is not from Harry’s viewpoint. However, there is no godlike narrator present. We experience around 95% of this story from Harry’s eyes. It most closely resembles third person limited with a few spots where the viewpoint is cheated. This “cheating” is done well and to good effect.
Head-Hopping- A derogatory term to refer to a narrative where the viewpoint jumps quickly from character to character, confusing the reader. Often mistaken for Omniscient by the writer who creates it, but there is no godlike narrator present. A normal switch in POV from character to character in a Dual or Multi POV occurs at a chapter or scene break. Head-hopping occurs when the reader is presented with several character POVs in the same scene.
Now that I’ve told you all of that, I’ll tell you it’s all wrong and useless! All right, not exactly. The above is a bare generalization of POV characteristics, but there are no hard and fast rules. POV is malleable. The above examples can be mixed, bent, and cheated, and done so in an effective way that does not take away from the story. However, as with any chunk of grammar or writing style guidelines, writers who break the rules need know the rules in the first place, and break them with intent and purpose rather than through laziness.
Another issue is not everyone agrees what the rules and characteristics of each POV are. You will find articles that argue Close, Limited, and Deep Third are three separate things, while most agree they are three words used to describe the same thing.
Keep in mind that what’s popular in POV changes with the times, just as it does with other writing style choices. First Person and Limited Third are very hot with readers right now, and Omniscient is far less popular. Different genres also have specific POVs that are popular in that genre. That said, write in the POV that suits your story best. If it’s well written, it will be read.
My best advice to writers starting out is to pick a POV for your book and stick to its rules without cheating. Wait until you are conversant with all the traditional styles before you start to mix and match. Look for head-hopping in your narrative and kill it with fire. If what you want is Omniscient, then write Omniscient, create your godlike narrator and don’t head hop.
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Thanks for sending me the link to your blog. Very helpful and useful. – Jess (from AW)
I’m glad I could help!
Thank you! Newbie here who head hops out of ignorance, and I’ve been all over Google trying to find a fix. Here it is, in a few short sentences. Bless you
So glad to be of help! Fear not, we all start out by head hopping, but a little practice will fix the issue. To get out of the habit, try something in Close Third or First. By forcing yourself into one character’s head, you really become aware of the shifts.