Perspective versus point of view—what’s the difference? Is there a difference?
We often use the two interchangeably, but there is a distinct difference. In this post, we’re going to take a very sharp knife and separate the two to give you a clear understanding of how you can use each to strengthen your storytelling. Are you excited? I am. Let’s get to it.
Point of View
Point of view problems are among the top mistakes made by inexperienced writers, and believe me, there’s a lot of room for error. Point of view isn’t easy though, since there are so many to choose from: first person, third person limited, third person omniscient, second person.
Point of view focuses on who:
Who is telling the story?
Who is speaking?
Point of view is defined by the type of narrator you choose to tell the story. If you’d like to get into the nuts and bolts of point of view, I highly recommend checking out this post: All About Point of View: Which One Should You Choose? It’ll give you a great base for entering this discussion. However, let’s briefly discuss what you need to know about point of view here, also.
There are three different points of view: first person, second person, and third person. You can also break down the first and third persons into different classifications which we will do below.
The First Person Point of View
You can easily identify the first person point of view by the use of I, me, and myself in the narrative. The first person narrator relates the story as it’s happening, or retells a story that happened in the past.
This point of view is normally used to convey a personal story where the narrator is also the protagonist (or main character) of the story. However, the first person can also be a secondary character within the story, too. Here’s a look at the four types of first person narrators:
The Protagonist. He or she is the main character in the story. The protagonist shares what happens to him first-hand, along with commentary.
A Secondary Character. This character may not be who the story is about, but can relate his or her experiences within the context of the story and usually has a relationship with the protagonist.
The Observer. This type of narrator witnesses the story but has limited or no participation in the story. The first person observer is closely related to third person limited, but chooses to add personal pronouns (I, me, myself) to inject commentary.
The Unreliable Narrator. This type of narrator cannot be trusted to accurately convey the story. He or she is skewed.
The Second Person Point of View
This point of view is the least common of all three persons, mostly because it’s the hardest to pull off (without coming across as awkward or corny). You’ll recognize this point of view by the use of you, your, yourself with the absolute exclusion of any personal pronouns (I, me, myself). The narrator is the reader. It’s tricky, but it can be done.
The Third Person Point of View
Many authors enjoy the third person point of view because it offer more flexibility than the first and second persons.
Third person can give you the author (and your readers) a more global view of what’s happening in the story. However, just like with the first person narrative, it can be limited to follow just one person. Here’s how it breaks down:
Third Person Limited. This point of view follows only one person throughout the story.
Third Person Multiple. This point of view can follow multiple people, switching back and forth between their individual stories or perspectives.
Third Person Omniscient. The omniscient narrator knows everything about everyone. It also knows everything about the world within the story. Nothing in the past, present, or future is off limits or hidden from view.
Now that you’re comfortable with the different points of view, let’s discuss how perspective is different.
Perspective in Writing
Perspective is how the characters view and process what’s happening within the story. Here’s how it compares with point of view:
- Point of view focuses on the type of narrator used to tell the story
- Perspective focuses on how this narrator perceives what’s happening within the story
You can use perspective in all points of view to help define your narrator’s attitude and personality. The character’s perspective affects how he feels about certain experiences or other characters.
In the landscape of your novel (as in real life), everyone’s perspective should be different. You may have four people at one event, but each person comes away with a unique set of experiences or observations. The story changes depending on who tells it. That’s perspective.
I love this quote from Robert Evans:
“There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying.”
If you want to create healthy, dimensional (not flat) characters, you should understand everyone’s perspective in the story. And believe me, no one is a villain in their own story.
According to John Rogers: “You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world.”
Bear with me for a moment as we take a detour into the children’s section of the bookstore. Here are two well-known stories where the perspective is flipped to show the other side of story:
The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, by Jon Scieszka
In both of these examples, a classic story’s antagonist (or villain) tells the story from their perspective. Although these books mirror the same events, it’s obviously not the same story you’re familiar with. It’s a shift in perspective that brings new life to an old hat.
How to Use Perspective to Improve Your Writing
Would you like to create a more realistic dynamic between your characters?
Write a scene from the perspective of each character. To do this, you’ll need to understand what the other characters think, feel, and believe about their experience. You can write in different points of view, such as first person protagonist or third person multiple.
While you may not use the perspectives from multiple characters in your novel, it can help you understand the motivation behind each character in each scene.
My favorite resource for this is from Stephanie at Teaching in Room 6. She provides a character point of view template that you can use to describe each character’s perspective in a specific event.
I hope this helped clarify the difference between point of view and perspective. Although they’re often used to explain the same idea, they’re actually very different. You can use both point of view and perspective to create a stronger story.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on February 2016 and has been updated for accuracy.