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What Is Point of View? First, Second, and Third Person

Posted by Ashley Robinson | Apr 16, 2019 6:00:00 PM

General Education

 

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One of the best ways to prepare for the AP Literature exam is to learn about different literary devices and how you can use them to analyze everything from poetry to novels. Not only will this help you on the multiple choice section of the test, it’s critical for earning perfect scores on your essays, too!

Today, we’re going to take a closer look at one specific device: point of view. First, we’ll give you the point of view definition, then we’ll explain how the work’s narrator affects its point of view. Then we’ll explain the four types of point of view and provide examples and analysis for each one.

By the end of this article, you’ll be a point of view expert! So let’s get started.


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Point of View: Definition and Meaning

In literature and poetry, point of view is defined as the perspective from which a story is told. Put another way, a story’s point of view is a way to articulate and analyze the position of the narrator in relation to the story they’re telling. Is the narrator a participant in the story they’re telling? Or are they describing events that happened to someone else? Both of these perspectives are different types of point of view (which we’ll talk about in a lot more depth later in this article, so hang tight)!

So how do you figure out the point of view in a text? In order to find the point of view of a story, you first have to identify whose perspective the story is told from. That’s because the perspective of the story determines a piece of literature’s point of view! That means that in order to establish a text’s point of view, you have to figure out the narrator of the text first.

 

What Is a Narrator?

Okay...so obviously figuring out the narrator of a piece of literature is important. But what’s a narrator, exactly? No matter what type of text you’re reading—whether it’s a newspaper article, a textbook, a poem, or a best-selling novel—someone is communicating the story to the reader. In literary terms, we call that someone the text’s narrator.

In other words, the narrator of a piece of literature is the person telling the story. And you know what’s even more helpful than that? Almost all written texts—whether they’re fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or otherwise—have a narrator.

And since a narrator and point of view go hand in hand, that means that almost all texts have a point of view, too!

 

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Finding the Narrator

So how do you figure out the narrator of a text? Sometimes the narrator of a text is pretty easy to determine. For example, for a newspaper article, the narrator of the story is obviously the reporter who’s written the piece to report the facts. They’re the person who followed the story’s trail, and now they’re sharing the story with you!

Another good example of an “easy to find” comes from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The very first sentence of the book reads, “Call me Ishmael.” Because that’s a line in the text rather than a piece of dialogue that uses quotation marks, you know it’s the narrator speaking to the audience. In other words, the narrator of Moby Dick identifies himself and tells you his name in the very first line of the book!

But figuring out the narrator of the text isn’t always that easy. For example, the Harry Potter books by J.K Rowling don’t have an easily identifiable narrator. Neither do some classic works, like The Giver by Lois Lowry or Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. What do you do in those situations? Well, just hang tight: we’ll walk you through how point of view can help you figure out the narrator in these tricky situations!

 

Narrator vs. Point of View: What’s the Difference?

Before we start really digging into point of view, it’s worth pausing a minute to talk about the differences between point of view and narration. Because narration and point of view are closely linked, it’s tempting to think of them as interchangeable terms.

But the narrator of a text and the point of view of a text are two different things. The narrator is who is telling the story. In contrast, a text’s point of view is the perspective the story is being told from. If you think of the narrator as a person, their point of view is the angle they’re taking on the story.

Think of it this way: in literature, point of view and narrators go together like...well, like thunder and lightning. You can’t have one without the other, but they’re definitely not the same thing.

 

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The 4 Types of Point of View

Okay, let’s look more closely at the four different types of point of view found in literature. In the following sections, we’ll explain each type of point of view, give you tips for figuring out if something is written in that perspective, and then walk you through a real-life example of that point of view in literature.

 

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In first person point of view, you see the story through the narrator's eyes

 

First Person Point of View

In first person point of view, the story is told from the narrator’s perspective. This allows the narrator to give readers their first-hand experience, including what they saw, felt, thought, heard, said, and did. Think of it kind of like The Blair Witch Project: in first person point of view, it’s like the narrator is wearing a GoPro camera strapped to their forehead. The reader sees exactly what the narrator sees and gets their singular perspective on the events that unfold. In other words, a first person point of view makes the narrator the eyewitness to the plot of the story.

Using a first person point of view allows an author to dive much more deeply into the narrator’s character, since the reader gets to hear the narrator’s inner thoughts and experience the narrator’s emotions. Additionally, it makes the narrator the main character, or protagonist, of the story. If something is written in first person, it’s a pretty big indicator that the narrator is going to play a pivotal role in communicating the text’s messages or themes.

But there are also some pretty major limitations to a first person point of view, too. Just like real life, readers won’t be able to get the thoughts and feelings of other characters in the novel. Also, the narrator’s observations might be skewed depending on how they feel about other people. Because of that, first person narrators can be unreliable, meaning that their perspective skews the accuracy of the story they’re telling. That means it's up to the reader to determine whether they believe the narrator is being truthful or not.

 

Tips for Identifying First Person Point of View

In many ways, a first person point of view is one of the easiest to pick out because it uses first person pronouns, like I, we, me, my, our, and us. If the book is written using these terms, then you can pretty much guarantee that the author is using first person!

Keep in mind that not all first person narrators are the book’s main character, like Moby Dick’s Ishmael or The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen. That’s because first person narrators aren’t always the main characters in the work. Take, for instance, the Sherlock Holmes stories, where Dr. John Watson is the narrator. While he’s an important character in the story, he’s definitely not the main character--Sherlock Holmes is!

Additionally, sometimes first person narrators are anonymous, like third person narrators often are. (Don’t worry: we’ll get into third person narration in just a minute.) That’s why it’s best to look for pronouns when trying to figure out a work’s point of view! If you’re trying to find the narrator’s name, it might not always be there. A good example of this is Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130,” where the narrator is describing the woman he loves. The narrator of the poem is never named, but because he uses pronouns like “I” and “my,” you know it’s written in first person.

 

Example of First Person Point of View: Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29”

Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets are written in first person, and “Sonnet 29” is no different. Let’s look at the full poem and see why it qualifies as being written in first person:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, 

I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
     For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
    That then I scorn to change my state with kings.


Remember, we can tell that something’s written in first person if it uses first person pronouns outside of dialogue. Since there’s no dialogue in this poem at all, we can look at the entire text to find evidence of the first person point of view.  

Notice that the narrator (or speaker, as the narrator is often referred to in poetry) uses words like “I,” “me,” and “myself” throughout the poem. This is a clear indicator that this poem is written in a first person point of view!  

Actually, “Sonnet 29” is a good example of something written in first person where the narrator isn’t named. But we can still learn quite a bit about them through the poem itself! For example, we learn that he’s an outcast (line 2) who is unhappy with his current status (line 4). Despite his all-encompassing misery (line 9), when he thinks upon his love, his spirits are lifted (lines 10, 11, and 12). As we start piecing the evidence together, we begin to get a clearer picture of who the narrator of the poem is, and the power love has to lift us out of even the bleakest circumstance.

 

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Other Works Written in First Person Point of View

First person is a really popular writing technique, so it’s no surprise that there are tons of books written in this point of view! Here are a few other poems, books, and book series that you might be familiar with that use first person point of view:

 

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Second person point of view uses pronouns like "you" and "your" to tell the story.

 

Second Person Point of View

In second person point of view, the story is told from the perspective of another character. Sometimes this character is another person in the book, but it can also be the reader themselves! More importantly, when a writer uses second person, they want readers to connect emotionally with the topic they’re writing about!

Here’s an example of what we mean. Say you’re reading an article about the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean. If the writer wants to pull on your heartstrings and make you take the issue they’re writing about seriously, they might use a second person point of view and write something like this:

“Imagine you’re on the vacation of your dreams sailing across the Caribbean. You can’t wait to get out into the open water, where everything will be calm, peaceful, and gorgeous. You take a nap as the captain sets sail, and when you return to the deck, you’re shocked by what you see. Instead of a vast expanse of sparkling blue water, you see a huge, bobbing mound of trash. Fast food containers, plastic bags, and discarded water bottles bob along the surface as far as you can see. It looks like you’re sailing through a garbage dump, and you feel equal parts disgust and despair.”

Using the second person point of view in a passage puts the reader into the story—in this case, it’s a story about pollution. Second person makes the reader feel like they’re making every move...from the joy of going on vacation, to the shock of seeing so much plastic in the water, to the “disgust and despair” of realizing what pollution is doing to the sea. Suddenly, the reader becomes more invested in what the author has to say about the problem, since the second person point of view makes them feel like they’ve experienced it first-hand!

While it’s very rare to find a text that’s written completely in second person, many authors will switch to this perspective when they want readers to feel connected to the topic they’re writing about.

 

Tips for Identifying Second Person Point of View

Like first person point of view, it’s pretty easy to spot the second person point of view...when you know what you’re looking for, that is. When something is written in second person, the writer uses second person pronouns (like “you,” “yourself,” and “your”) in the text that falls outside of dialogue, too.

Like we just mentioned, it’s pretty rare to find a whole text that’s written this way. More than likely, you’ll find a few paragraphs written in second person, rather than an entire work. The one exception to this rule is the classic Choose Your Own Adventure book! You probably remember these from when you were a kid: each book had a topic, and at the bottom of each page, you were given decisions to make. Depending on what you chose, you’d flip to a different page in the book, and your decisions would affect the story!

 

Example of Second Person Point of View: Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerny

Jay McInerny uses second person to open his book, Bright Lights, Big City, which tells the story of life in the fast lane in 1980s New York. Let’s look at the first paragraph to see the second person point of view in action:

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. How did you get here? It was your friend Tad Allagash. Your brain is rushing with Brazilian marching powder. You are talking to a girl with a shaved head. You want to meet the kind of girl who isn't going to be here. You want to read the kind of fiction this isn't. You give the girl some powder. She still doesn't want you. Things were fine once. Then you got married. 

Notice that all the pronouns in this section are either “you” or “your,” which is a clear indicator that this is written in second person! It’s also a good example of how using second person can immediately pull someone into a narrative by making the reader and the main character one in the same. In this case, McInerny is creating a whole backstory for your character—from giving you friends like Tad to hinting at your dysfunctional marriage.

 

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Other Works Written in Second Person Point of View

Second person is probably the rarest of the points of view. Usually writers will use second person in sections of their work to emphasize a point, rather than throughout their entire work. Here are some pieces of literature that use a second person point of view (at least in part):

 

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In third person omniscient point of view, the narrator is god-like and tells the reader everything!

 

Third Person Omniscient Point of View

The third type of perspective you can find in literature is a third person omniscient point of view. In third person omniscient, the narrator uses third person pronouns like “he,” “she,” “they,” and “their” to refer to all the characters in the work. As a result, the narrator removes themselves as a critical character in the work (unlike the narrators that use a first or second person point of view).

Additionally, because this is a third person omniscient perspective, the narrator is given god-like qualities over the story. (Merriam-Webster defines an “omniscient” person as someone who has “universal or complete knowledge”!) That means the narrator can dive into any character’s head and share their thoughts and emotions with the reader. Additionally, the narrator can move around in time and place to show the reader events that the characters themselves may not be aware of! That includes jumping around from location to location, or even moving backward and forward in time.

Using a third person omniscient narrator lets an author show the reader the whole gameboard, so to speak. There’s no real limit to what a narrator can show the readers! Consequently, it allows the author to build a robust world full of well-developed characters, since the author no longer has to contend with the single-character limits of a first or second person point of view. It’s also a particularly useful technique in works with large casts of characters, since the narrator can introduce the reader to each character more quickly—and with more detail—than other points of view would allow!

 

Example of Third Person Omniscient Point of View: Middlemarch by George Eliot

The narrator of George Eliot’s Victorian novel, Middlemarch, is an excellent example of how a third person omniscient narrator can give readers a comprehensive view of a text. Let’s take a look at the book’s opening paragraph to see this type of point of view in action:

Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible,—or from one of our elder poets,—in a paragraph of to-day's newspaper. She was usually spoken of as being remarkably clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common-sense. Nevertheless, Celia wore scarcely more trimmings; and it was only to close observers that her dress differed from her sister's, and had a shade of coquetry in its arrangements; for Miss Brooke's plain dressing was due to mixed conditions, in most of which her sister shared. The pride of being ladies had something to do with it: the Brooke connections, though not exactly aristocratic, were unquestionably "good:" if you inquired backward for a generation or two, you would not find any yard-measuring or parcel-tying forefathers—anything lower than an admiral or a clergyman; and there was even an ancestor discernible as a Puritan gentleman who served under Cromwell, but afterwards conformed, and managed to come out of all political troubles as the proprietor of a respectable family estate. Young women of such birth, living in a quiet country-house, and attending a village church hardly larger than a parlor, naturally regarded frippery as the ambition of a huckster's daughter. 

Remember: omniscient narrators are god-like in that they can give you more information than a single character could provide from their limited perspective. In this case, Eliot’s omniscient narrator gives us tons of information about Miss Brooke. We know that she’s beautiful but not financially well off ( the narrator calls this living in “mixed conditions”), which is reflected in her “plain garments.” Regardless, Miss Brooke is also “remarkably clever.”

Beyond that, the narrator tells us about Miss Brooke’s family by looking into her past—which is easy given that the narrator is omniscient! We learn that she and her sister, Celia, aren’t aristocratic, but they come from a good family that includes admirals, clergymen, and politicians. This helps Eliot develop characters and situations quickly, which is important in a book with a large cast of characters like Middlemarch.

 

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Other Works Written in Third Person Omniscient Point of View

Third person omniscient is a common point of view, especially in longer texts. Here are some examples of other works that feature an omniscient point of view:

 

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In third person limited point of view, it's as if the narrator is standing behind one character's shoulder.

 

Third Person Limited Point of View

The last point of view an author can use is the third person limited point of view. Just like the omniscient perspective we talked about earlier, texts written in a third person limited point of view use third person pronouns to discuss characters outside of dialogue. The difference between the two is in how much information the narrator shares with the reader. 

With a third person limited perspective, the narrator is limited to giving you the perspective of a single character. The narrator can peek inside the character’s head to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences, similar to a first person point of view. Unlike first person, however, a narrator using a third person limited point of view can also zoom out to give readers a better understanding of how the character they’re following fits into the text’s plot, setting, or situation!

Here’s an easy way of understanding the difference between a first person, third person omniscient, and a third person limited point of view. Think of the narrator as a person holding a camera. You, as the reader, get to see everything the camera sees. With first person point of view, it’s like the character has had the camera implanted in their brain. You can see whatever the character looks at and nothing more.

With a third person limited point of view, on the other hand, it’s like the narrator is standing behind one character and filming over his shoulder. Not only can you get a sense of what the character is seeing, the narrator can also step back a little bit to show readers what’s going on around the character...as long as the character stays in the frame.

Third person omniscient is the most comprehensive view. It’s as if the narrator is filming from the rafters of the building. They can zoom out to show everyone for a global perspective, or they can zoom in on different events to give you a better idea of what’s happening in specific situations.

So why would a writer use a third person limited point of view? Well, it’s great for situations where knowing every single detail of a story would spoil the plot. Mystery novels, for instance, often use third person limited point of view. It allows the narrator to give you the detective’s thoughts and feelings while not spoiling the whodunit! It also allows the writer to focus on developing a single character while giving readers a better view of what’s going on around that character.


Example of Third Person Limited Point of View: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Like we mentioned earlier, all texts have a point of view...which means that the Harry Potter stories do, too! Let’s look at a passage from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to get a better idea of how a third person limited point of view works. In this scene, Harry and his friends, Hermione and Ron, are looking through the library to learn more about the sorcerer’s stone:

Hermione took out a list of subjects and titles she had decided to search while Ron strode off down a row of books and started pulling them off the shelves at random. Harry wandered over to the Restricted Section. He had been wondering for a while if Flamel wasn’t somewhere in there. Unfortunately, you needed a specially signed note from one of the teachers to look in any of the restricted books, and he knew he’d never get one. These were the books containing powerful Dark Magic never taught at Hogwarts, and only read by older students studying advanced Defense Against the Dark Arts. 


It’s clear that this passage is written in third person: the narrator uses pronouns like “he,” “she,” and “them,” instead of first person pronouns like “I” or second person pronouns like “you.” But how do we know it’s third person limited? Well, we get Harry’s thoughts and feelings—like his curiosity about Nicholas Flamel—but no one else’s. We don’t know what Hermione and Ron are reading, or if they’re excited, nervous, or scared.

Rowling wrote all seven Harry Potter books using a third person limited point of view that made Harry the focal point. The narrator can tell us what Harry’s thinking, feeling, and seeing—as well as zoom out to tell us more about the precarious situations he finds himself in. But because the narrator is tied to Harry, they can’t give us a glimpse into other characters’ minds, nor can it show readers what’s happening in other parts of Hogwarts (where Harry isn’t). That helps readers get to know Harry, even as it helps Rowling maintain the mystery around the sorcerer’s stone (or the chamber of secrets, or the half-blood prince, etc.).

 

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Other Works Written in Third Person Limited Point of View

The third person limited point of view is a popular perspective for writers to use, so there’s no shortage of examples! Here are a few works you might be familiar with that feature a third person limited point of view:

 

What’s Next?

If you’re studying for the AP Literature exam, you’ll need to know about more literary devices than point of view. Why not check out our other comprehensive guides, like this one on personification? The more familiar you are with literary terms, what they mean, and how to use them, the better your test score will be!

Did you know that there are two English AP tests? One is the literature exam, which focuses on literary analysis and comprehension. The second test is the language exam, which tests your ability to understand argument and write persuasively. Click here to learn more about the AP Language exam, how it differs from the literature exam, and what you need to do to knock it out of the park!  

After you learn the fundamentals, the best way to prepare for an AP exam is to take practice tests. Check out this article on how to find the best AP practice exams, and learn how to use them to boost your score!

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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.



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