As a writer you can choose to tell your story using first person, second person, or third person as your viewpoint. Different viewpoints suit different stories. Different tenses suit different types of stories. Memoirs, for example, are almost always written in first person present tense. Crime fiction, especially in the police procedural genre, is almost always written in third person past tense.
There are no absolute rules for choosing a viewpoint for your story. You can even choose to tell the story from multiple viewpoints, although we suggest you have no more than three per novel.
Once you’ve chosen there is one rule you should observe with viewpoint. Never change viewpoint in a scene. This confuses readers who like to be in one character’s head at a time.
We cover viewpoint in more depth on our Writers Write course, but I’ve put together some definitions, and examples here.
First Person – The character tells the story, using the pronoun ‘I’.
Example: I walk into the room. I know he’s there in the darkness. I smile as I smell the sunshine and wind in his hair.
- Simple – One character tells the story. Example: Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
- Simple Unreliable Narrator – One character tells the story but we don’t know if he is telling the truth. Example: Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye
- Rashamon Effect – This means multiple characters tell their version of the same events in the story. Example: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
- Separate Multiple Viewpoints – This means multiple characters tell the story using first person perspectives. Example: blueeyed boy by Joanne Harris
- Sequential Multiple Viewpoints – This means different characters tell the story from their perspective in a timeline or sequence. You may have Jane narrating events in January, Debbie narrating events from February to June, and Sarah in July. Example: The family sagas written by Susan Howatch
- First Person Omniscient - The narrator is a character in the story, but also knows the thoughts and feelings of all the other characters. Examples: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Second Person – The character tells the story using the pronoun ‘You’.
Example: You walk into the room. You know he’s there in the darkness. You smile as you smell the sunshine and wind in his hair.
This is the least common of all viewpoints used by authors. It is used to make the reader feel uncomfortable. The character is often alienated or in an altered state. The reader feels as if he or she is being compelled to listen. Children do not like second person. Examples: Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, Half Asleep In Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins
Third Person – The narrator tells the story using the pronouns ‘He’ and ‘She’.
Example: She walks into the room. She knows he’s there in the darkness. She smiles as she smells the sunshine and wind in his hair.
- Subjective – This means the author focuses on one character and his thoughts and feelings. It is similar to simple first person but the author uses ‘he’ instead of ‘I’. Examples: The Harry Bosch novels by Michael Connelly,The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. (You can also use separate multiple viewpoints and sequential multiple viewpoints in third person subjective.)
- Omniscient – This means the author gives readers a broad view of the story. The thoughts and feelings of many, or all, the characters are shown. Examples: Jane Austen’s novels, Tom Clancy’s novels, Charles Dickens’ novels
- Objective – This means the author observes, and tells the story according to the actions of the characters. Readers have no idea what is going on inside the heads of the main characters. Examples: Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway and The Mallory Novels by Carol O Connell
By Amanda Patterson, author of Writers Write – how to write a novel