What is First and Third Person Point of View in Writing?
The Point of View (or POV) of a story, in essence, describes who is telling your story. Another way to phrase this is to ask, who is the narrator? For many fiction books (such as The Expanse series or Harry Potter series), there is a disembodied god that sits high above and describes what all the characters below are feeling and doing and saying: Bob wok up with his alarm and smelled coffee. This is a Third Person Point of View. Sometimes it's one of the characters (often the main character) describing what everyone is doing: I woke up and smelled coffee. This is called First Person Point of View. There is even an elusive Second Person POV!
Here we'll discuss the different types in detail, some sub-categories, and why you might choose one over the others.
Third Person Point of View
First and third person POVs are easily the most popular amongst fiction writers, although the popularity of each can vary by genre. (A lot of modern YA, for instance, tends towards First Person.) But all three types of POV share some instances of third person POV.
At its core, third person POV is simply one person (the narrator) describing the life and events of another person. (If this were a video game, the player's camera would be floating behind their character's avatar; or, they might not even be stuck to one character at all!)
The key pronouns are he, she, they, them, it, the object, then entity. But don't get this confused with a focus on gender pronouns (although that's certainly what they also describe); the important thing to notice here is their relationship to the narrator. In third person POV, you will never see an "I/my/mine" pronoun (except in dialogue).
Take this example:
Bob woke up with his alarm. Six AM: time to make the donuts.
His room already smelled of the coffee brewing in the kitchen. Many moons ago, he'd bought a fancy power board with a timer he'd set for a few minutes before his alarm. That way, there wasn't any waiting. Every morning, he'd shuffle like a zombie across his one-bedroom apartment and down his scolding-hot cup of Joe. There were probably fancier coffee makers at some department store with built-in timers, but Bob didn't need anything so complicated. He liked his jury rigged life.
Some other person (the narrator) is describing this man named Bob. They describe his actions (waking up, drinking, walking) and senses (the smell of coffee). They describe the environment (his apartment), as well as some of the world and his thought-process (that Bob doesn't want a better coffee maker).
Again, the important thing with third person is that it isn't Bob telling us this about himself, but someone else.
For a dedicated discussion on Third Person Point of View, check out our comprehensive guide to writing in third person point of view.
Omniscient vs Limited
Your third person POV will usually be written in one of two key variants: Omniscient third person or Limited third person. These are also referred to as Far or Close third person, respectively.
A limited third person POV is one that sticks very close to the main (or focus) character of a scene. (Books like in the A Song of Ice and Fire series may have multiple point of view characters throughout each book, but each scene/section of the story stays focussed on one character's point of view.) Generally, the narrator will only tell us things that the focus character is thinking and feeling, and generally sticks to only the things they know about. (Sometimes you can bend the rules if, for instance, you want your audience to know a bit more about your magic system or sci-fi machinery. But such things might also be better served to the reader as dialogue from other characters.)
Take for example:
Bob walked into the kitchen and saw Todd sitting at the table. Bob sipped as his coffee and thought it tasted a little funny, but drank it all down anyway.
On the other hand, you can imagine an omniscient narrator flying far overhead and able to see not just the people around our focus character, but also inside everyone else's thoughts and feelings too. They can also see far into the past and future.
Bob walked into the kitchen and saw Todd sitting at the table. Bob had no idea that Todd had poisoned the coffee pot, so he drank all of it.
When to use third person point of view
Third person will fit every genre and situation, so it's always a good go-to if you have no other preference.
It can also help if your story has multiple point of view characters, but isn't mandatory.
If your focus character is very young (so wouldn't necessarily have the vocabulary or sophistication to describe their world), has a thick accent, or any other feature that would make reading or writing in their voice tedious, third person is probably for you. (The flip side - as we'll see in the First Person section - is that writing in the character's voice can be highly thematic, such as in Flowers for Algernon.)
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First Person Point of View
First person novels have a focus on the I and the me. The person narrating the story is telling you, the reader, a story about themselves (them as in the narrator). You're learning about their thoughts and feelings and actions, as opposed to having some third-party describe it.
Our Bob example converted to first person reads:
I woke up with my alarm. Six AM: time to make the donuts.
My room already smelled of the coffee brewing in the kitchen. Many moons ago, I'd bought a fancy power board with a timer I'd set for a few minutes before my alarm. That way, there wasn't any waiting. Every morning, I'd shuffle like a zombie across my one-bedroom apartment and down my scolding-hot cup of Joe. There were probably fancier coffee makers at some department store with built-in timers, but I didn't need anything so complicated. I liked my jury rigged life.
You can see that it's almost identical except that our narrator is now Bob, and he's talking about things that he did, and things that he felt.
And, of course, any story will eventually include other characters. At that point, the writing essentially becomes third person: I walked out into the kitchen and saw Todd already sitting at the table. He watched me pour the coffee, but he didn't say a word. He didn't even say good morning to me.
For a dedicated discussion on First Person Point of View, check out our comprehensive guide to writing in first person point of view.
Is there omniscient and limited first person in first person POV?
There is, but unless your character is in the distant future telling us, the reader, about things that happened to them years ago (or unless the author has a good reason for the reader to know before Bob that Todd is trying to poison him) most books will stick to a close, limited point of view for the focus character. That is to say, the narrator can of course describe the actions of others that they view, but can really only guess at what someone else is thinking and feeling.
When to write in first person
Like with third person, there aren't any hard and fast rules of when to use first person, and it can serve you well in most situations. It's especially useful when you only have a single point of view character, and we're going to experience the world and story only through their eyes and existing knowledge. All we learn about the Hunger Games and District 13, for instance, is only what Katniss knows or learns throughout the story.
It might also be highly thematic to have the story told in the main character's voice. In Flowers for Algernon, for instance, our narrator starts out with severe mental disabilities that makes his voice quite simple and child-like. But, as the story progresses, we see his abilities increase, and the writing changes to match.
Second Person Point of View
Second person point of view is very rare in fiction writing, as it's all about you, the reader. The pronouns used are you and your. For example:
You wake up with your alarm. Six AM: time to make the donuts.
Your room already smells of the coffee brewing in the kitchen. Many moons ago, you'd bought a fancy power board with a timer you'd set for a few minutes before your alarm. That way, there wasn't any waiting. Every morning, you shuffle like a zombie across your one-bedroom apartment and down your scolding-hot cup of Joe. There were probably fancier coffee makers at some department store, but you didn't need anything so complicated. You like your jury rigged life.
You're probably hard-pressed to thing of a novel you've read that was written entirely like this (perhaps with the exception of Choose Your Own Adventure novels). It's often used for effect, to put you the reader deeper into the story, but you can probably see that it does limit the story you can tell and the (main) characters that you can create.
When to use second person point of view.
This is the one style you might want to use sparingly. It can work to great effect in short bursts to really immerse the reader, such as a short scene about a mysterious killer or ghoul in a horror story. Or perhaps you want them in the mind of a not-long-for-this-world victim being stalked through a dark forest.
How do I choose which point of view to use?
There's no solid algorithm that'll decide for you, but I'll give you a few pointers to help you choose.
First, almost definitely forget about a second person POV.
Second, it might help for you to write a test scene (maybe 3-4 pages) in third person, then re-write it as first person. Afterwards, read them back and see which one feels right to you. That's probably the POV to stick with. (Test scenes are usually a good idea anyway!)
If the main character's emotion's or state of mind are going to play a big role in the narrative, first person might be a great idea for your story.
On the other hand, if you have a lot of point of view characters in the one book, third person might be easiest for the reader to manage.