"What is Point of View?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

View the Full Series: The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms

What is a Point of View? Transcript (Spanish and English Subtitles Available in Video. Click HERE for the Spanish Transcript)

By John Larison, Oregon State Senior Lecturer in English and Bestselling Novelist

12 August 2020

Point of View.  You’ve heard the term but what does it really mean?

Let’s start with video games. Now maybe you’ve played a third-person adventure, and watched your character overcome obstacles from above. Or maybe you’ve played a first-person shooter, and seen the battle through the eyes of the hero. Point of view, simply put, is the audience’s perspective on the events of the narrative. The storyteller—be that person a novelist or a video game developer—selects point of view with strategy. The storyteller asks, “Given the details of this story, which perspective will be most satisfying for my audience?”

Point of view has three distinct variations.

In the third person point of view, the audience watches the hero navigate the story’s challenges. Let me tell you a quick story told in the third person:

John was on his way to class when he slipped from the curb and soaked his new shoes in a mud puddle. Just his luck. Now he had to decide: go home, change his shoes, and end up late to class--or show up at school with squeaky feet.

Now notice how the pronoun “he” keeps us outside of the story looking in. Third person will always refer to the story’s hero using the pronouns she, he, or—in a gender-neutral context--they.   

Third person can be “omniscient,” meaning the audience has a god-like perspective on the events and is allowed to follow many of the story’s characters. Or it can be “limited,” meaning that the audience is allowed access to only one or two especially important characters. “Limited” third person points of view vary in their “psychological distance.” How much can the audience see of the hero’s thoughts? Our third-person story about the soaked shoes is “close,” meaning that we see the hero’s own private thoughts in the line, “Just his luck.” But this story could have been told in a distant third person point of view had the narrative stuck just to the facts, as in:

John was on his way to class when he slipped from the curb and soaked his new shoes in a mud puddle. He went to class with squeaky feet.

The “second person” point of view is less common but still sometimes used. With second person, the audience IS the hero navigating the story’s challenges. On the page, second person looks like this:

You were on your way to class when you slipped from the curb and soaked your new shoes in a mud puddle. Just your luck. Now what? Go home, change your shoes, and end up late to class--or show up on campus with squeaky feet?

Notice, in the second person, you become the hero of the story. Second person is rare in fiction and film because it limits the storyteller’s ability to build the character of the hero.  When you can’t see the hero, for example, you can’t know what that person looks like. But storytellers use the second person point of view because it can help make the action of a story feel immediate and relatable to the audience.

Finally, there’s “first person,” which is the most natural point-of-view. In fact, you’ve probably used it a few times already today. First person is a story told by the hero to the audience. Take a look:

I was on my way to film this lesson on point of view, when I slipped from the curb and soaked my new shoes in a mud puddle. I decided to show up here with squeaky feet.

Notice, with the first person, the audience is listening to the story. First-person is fascinating because we learn about the hero from the events of the story—but also from how the hero chooses to tell that story. Is the story understated or boastful—do you believe it? If not—if you find yourself doubting the hero’s version of events, you’ve found a story with an unreliable narrator,” a protagonist who shouldn’t be trusted.

When you encounter a first-person story in fiction, or in real life, always ask yourself, “Why is this person telling this story?” The answer to that question can help you decide if you should believe or doubt.

Don’t let yourself be tricked by point of view. Sometimes a first-person narrator will use the pronoun “you,” in a device called “direct address.”  It looks like this:

I was on my way to see you when I stepped in a mud puddle. 

Just because we hear the word “you” in a story doesn’t mean we’re experiencing the second-person point of view. Here we have a first-person story—"I was on my way”--and the narrator is simply referencing the audience—“to see you.”

At last, back to videogames for a moment. In truth, there has never been a “first-person shooter.” A real first-person videogame would be boring—rather than playing a part in the narrative, you’d be listening to your character tell you about playing a part in the narrative. So if so-called first-person games aren’t using the first-person point of view, which point of view are they using?

Not the third person, right? Because then you’d be watching your character from above as they overcome obstacles and challenges. A so-called first-person game places the audience inside the physical body of the hero; the audience is looking out and seeing what the protagonist sees.

Games like these should, honestly, be called “second-person shooters.” Somewhere during the game’s development, the storytellers—the game’s designers--decided the most satisfying point of view for this specific adventure would place the audience—you—into the hero’s own mud-soaked shoes. 

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Larison, John. "What is a Point of View?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 12 Aug. 2020, Oregon State University, https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-point-of-view. Accessed [insert date].

Further Resources for Teachers

Leo Tolstoy's short story "Kholstomer: The Story of a Horse" offers a unique opportunity to practice identifying point of view in stories.

Writing Prompt: Who is the narrator of this story?  How would you classify this point of view? Does this narrative perspective change? Why might Tolstoy have chosen to write from this strange perspective?

Interested in more video lessons? View the full series:

The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms