In conversations, the terms ‘point of view’ and ‘perspective’ might be interchangeable, both meaning someone’s opinion. But that isn’t the way when it comes to writing.
In the simplest terms, the difference between the two is that point of view is how the story is written and who is narrating, while perspective is the character’s overall worldview.
But what does this mean in practice when it comes to writing? And how do point of view and perspective work together in a story? Let’s see!
What is point of view?
Point of view (POV) is how you as the author choose to write the narration.
There are three types of point of view: the commonly used first person and third person, then the much rarer second person.
Before you start writing, you should learn more about each one to pick which will work best for you and your story.
The way you decide to write your story affects how much information is known by characters and readers, as well as the way readers relate to the protagonist/s.
What is perspective?
Perspective is a character’s worldview. It’s their past, their attitude, their opinions; it’s how they process and react to what’s happening around them.
A great way to think about perspective is a group of characters experiencing the same scenario.
All of them come away with different reactions, and how one sees the event will be different to another who stood on the other side.
To write an impactful story, you must understand all your characters’ perspectives, even if you’re only writing from the POV of the narrator and not directly exploring other characters’ inner thoughts.
Remember: villains aren’t villains in their version of events. They have reasons behind their actions just as much as the hero does.
What are the different points of view and how do they impact a character’s perspective?
Why are these terms so easy to mix up? Probably because they work together.
As I mentioned earlier, there are three types of point of view. Each has a different relation to how a character’s perspective is portrayed, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
First person point of view is when the narrator is one of the characters telling us about events in their life.
It’s easily identified by the use of ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘myself’ within the narrative, as you can see in the example below:
I hesitate as I reach for the door handle. Something isn’t right. A wave of unease crashes over me. I glance over my shoulder, half expecting that someone will be there. But the street’s empty, quiet. I brush it off, scowling at myself. This is just stupid now.
The handle is cold as I enter my home. Soft music drifts out of the living room.
I never turned it on.
When writing in first person, you should first consider who is telling the story.
Is it the protagonist, the lead and hero of the story? This is usually the case in first-person books, as seen in everything from Great Expectations by Charles Dickins to Swing Time by Zadie Smith.
Through first person, the reader can find it easier to understand and empathise with the character and their decisions because they are seeing the character’s perspective directly.
This is an intimate way to forge a bond between the character and the reader as they experience thoughts, emotions and events together, creating maximum emotional impact.
One of the minor disadvantages of first person is the difficulty of describing your lead.
You could have them describe themselves or stare at themselves in the mirror for a physical description, but this often comes across as a cliche and a little unnatural for the story, so keep that in mind while writing.
On the other hand, your narrator might be a secondary character – someone within the story who has a relationship with the protagonist and is telling that person’s story rather than their own.
Think Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, who tells the story of Gatsby himself, or Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, which is narrated in first person by someone other than the famous Hercule Poirot.
Instead of the reader empathising with the protagonist, they are instead viewing the protagonist’s actions through the eyes of someone else.
This can work well when the reader may not be able to relate as much to the protagonist as they can to the secondary character.
It’s perfect for crime novels in particular, as the information is limited. You can build tension and supply the reader with a satisfying surprise when they, along with the secondary character/narrator, only find out who the killer is in the grand reveal.
Finally, your first-person narrator could be an observer – someone who witnesses the story and puts the pieces together, but didn’t live it themselves.
You can see this in A Series of Unfortunate Events, as the entire tale is told by the character Lemony Snicket rather than one of the many characters directly involved with the story events.
Though this style of book can be unique and interesting, writing this way can come with some difficulties.
If the reader is never experiencing the events for themselves, and doesn’t have a close bond with the main characters, they can’t fully gauge what the characters are experiencing or feeling.
It is also limiting in that there will be information about the events that the narrator may not know or be able to relate to the reader.
This is the least common of all the points of view, simply because it’s difficult to pull off. This POV addresses the reader as if they are a part of the story, usually its protagonist.
To do this, the narrative uses the pronouns ‘you’, ‘your’ and ‘yourself’. The example below is the same paragraph from the above first-person section, rewritten in second.
You hesitate as you reach for the door handle. Something isn’t right. A wave of unease crashes over you. You glance over your shoulder, half expecting someone to be there. But the street’s empty, quiet. You brush it off, scowling at yourself. This is just stupid now, you think.
The handle is cold as you enter your home. Soft music drifts out of the living room.
You never turned it on.
There aren’t many fiction books written in this format, but a few to check out include:
- The Inheritance Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin
- Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
- If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Otherwise, the main types of writing that use second person are instructional or self-help books, Choose Your Own Adventure books and persuasive articles.
To make writing second person easier, you can mix it with first person, like in the book You by Caroline Kepnes – though this book changes second person a little to give the reader an actual character in Beck.
It also includes the use of ‘I’ and ‘me’ as the main character Joe, a stalker, talks about Beck (aka the reader), mixing together two points of view. This gives a rather creepy yet slightly more empathetic tone to the character.
The benefit of writing in second person is that the reader can often easily empathise and connect to the narrator, as it is essentially themselves, so the bond is already there.
Their own perspective will blend with that of the character you’ve created for them. But you can also risk telling the reader too much about how they feel and think, which in turn alienates them from their own character.
This POV is the most popular among authors, possibly because it has more flexibility. You may not be as limited by a character’s knowledge and can take a more a global view of what’s happening within the story.
Pronouns in third-person narrative include ‘she’, ‘he’ and ‘they’, as well as the character’s name. The paragraph below has now been rewritten in third person:
Sarah’s hand hesitates as she reaches for the door handle. Something isn’t right. A wave of unease crashes over her. She glances over her shoulder, half expecting someone to be there. But the street is empty, quiet. She brushes it off, scowling at herself. This is just stupid now, she thinks.
The handle is cold as she enters her home. Soft music drifts out of the living room.
She realises she never turned it on.
There are different kinds of third person narration that can affect not only how much information readers get about the characters and the world, but also how they view and relate to the character’s perspective.
Limited third person
Also called ‘close third person’, limited third person POV only follows one character during the novel.
This means that though there is a little more freedom than first person in terms of how much knowledge the narrator has, it is still limited, as the reader isn’t privy to what other characters are experiencing.
Examples of this include Persuasion by Jane Austen and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick, among many, many others.
In relation to how the reader perceives the protagonist’s actions and feelings, limited third person is similar to first person.
However, the reader is now held a little more at arm’s length, as they are no longer seeing directly through the character’s eyes.
Multiple third person
Multiple third person follows two or more characters, switching back and forth between them to tell the story. This is a great way of exploring more of the story and giving the reader more insight into the different characters.
One famous book series that does this is the Song of Ice and Fire saga by George R. R. Martin.
The story switches between many different characters, creating empathy and more of a bond with each, giving insight that the reader wouldn’t have if they were only seeing the world from Jon Snow’s perspective.
It also has the added bonus of allowing readers to explore more of the vast world of the story, as POV characters are spread across many different locations.
This is a great way to portray how each character can experience the same event but come away with a different interpretation, giving the reader the opportunity to work out what’s fact and what’s opinion.
The disadvantage of this is that the more characters there are, the more diluted the reader’s connection with each.
They may not particularly enjoy reading one character and can resent having to read those sections, creating a sense of distance between them and that part of the narrative.
Omniscient third person
Omniscient third person is more of a pullback and looks at the world as a whole.
The narrator knows everything about the world, past, present and future. Nothing is off-limits, including how many characters we follow or whose POV we dip into at any given moment.
Stephen King’s Salem Lot is omniscient third person. Though the story mainly follows Ben Mears, there are times where we follow other characters, both those who affect the main events and the smaller ones who hardly make a dent on the overall plot.
This can be a great way to expand your world and build tension. Of course, it comes with a downfall, as it increases the likelihood of readers not being able to connect with some (or any) of the characters.
If they don’t care for the characters, there is no emotional impact, and no investment in the story and its outcome.
Another downfall is that there is no real possibility of an unreliable narrator.
Overall, point of view and perspective may be similar, but when it comes to writing they differ. One has more to do with form, while the other is more about narrative.
When choosing which point of view to write your story in, takes the above into account and decide how you wish your character’s perspective to be shown.
It’s all about what suits your story best.