There are those of us who tend to use ‘point of view’ and ‘perspective’ interchangeably – whether we’re talking about the technical aspects of writing or just simple everyday conversation. For example, you’ve probably said (or heard someone else say) something like this:
“My point of view is the book could use more work. What’s your perspective?”
When we do this, we present these two terms as though they mean the same thing. But in reality, they do not.
That’s right – when it comes to purely technical talk of writing, point of view (POV) and perspective are indeed different.
As a fiction writer, it’s essential to grasp the difference between the two, for multiple reasons.
First, it will allow you to navigate and refine the construction of your work with greater ease. It marks these often-confused aspects as distinct entities that require a different focus. Without a clear understanding, you risk creating a muddled story by accidentally crossing these threads in your mind.
Of equal importance is the fact that an incomplete grasp of this difference could result in misunderstanding of vital feedback from your editor. When feedback is misconstrued, and you only think you’re making the right changes, the relationship between writer and editor can become fraught. Clear communication is key, especially when dealing with creative products.
So to help with this, this article will demonstrate the difference between POV and perspective. By the end, you will know the clear definitions and examples of the terms – walking away (hopefully) with stronger professional confidence in this part of your toolkit, and the ability to play more exactingly with POV and perspective.
So let’s get started!
Perspective in fiction writing refers to one character’s attitude towards something and their individual perception of the world.
We all have different perspectives on the same events. If we all had the same perspective, we would support the same sports teams, like the same music, and vote for the same politicians.
Ideally, your characters should have different perspectives – different worldviews – because this will drive conflict. And conflict is a core requirement for any story.
A character’s perspective (just like in real life) is formed from their personal history. Intimate details such as where they grew up, what their childhood was like, any failures and successes they’ve encountered in life. Are they a glass half full or glass half empty person by nature?
Spiritualist James Deacon once said, “What you see depends not only on what you look at but also where you look from.”
This means that you, and everyone else, look at the world through filters and biases. That’s why some people don’t enjoy vanilla ice cream – even though it’s quite clearly the best flavor.
Point of View in fiction writing means the person who is telling the story.
When it comes to point of view, there are three types: first, second and third person. Each has its own merits and problems. Let’s look at every POV in a little more detail.
First Person POV
This style of narration uses the pronouns; me, myself, and I. The narrator is telling the story from their own POV.
I crept down the hall, remembering the squeaky floorboard just in time to step over it.
A famous example is the Hunger Games trilogy. All books are written from the point of view of protagonist Katniss Everdeen.
This is the most intimate of all choices for the reader. That’s because, when it’s done well, the reader feels as though they are becoming the first person narrator.
Be careful not to write your own perspective when writing in first person POV, unless you are writing an autobiography. Instead, write what that character would think and feel.
To do this, you have to know your character very well. That includes how they think and their back-story – even if these facts never make it into the novel.
A drawback with this style is you are limited to what that character can see, and their way of looking at the world.
To get around this, authors will sometimes place their character at the center of all the action, so that they know everything that’s going on. They’re never out of the loop.
This is usually a mistake because it is not realistic. If you choose this POV, you have to accept that action and events will happen ‘off the stage’ where the character – and therefore your readers – cannot see them.
Second Person POV
You can recognize the second person with the personal pronoun you.
You crept down the hall, remembering the squeaky floorboard just in time to step over it.
There are examples of novels written in this style, but they are pretty obscure. That’s because stories written in the second person POV feel more like instructions. The only time most people see this POV in text is when reading a recipe. “Take the eggs and crack them open to separate the yolk. Next, you whisk the whites into soft peaks…”
As a reader, this just doesn’t feel like narrative fiction.
There was a fashion, a few decades ago, in children’s and young adult fiction for ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ stories that used second person POV. Besides such a niche, however, it remains unpopular.
Third Person POV
This time the personal pronouns are more varied and include; she, he, it but also they as well as specific character names.
As she crept down the hall, Sarah remembered the squeaky floorboard just in time to step over it.
Traditionally this is the most popular POV because it is so versatile.
The writer can choose to zoom out of the action and describe the events as through the eyes of a narrator. This type is called omniscient third person POV.
The house stood away from the road, hidden by a grove of trees. At an upstairs window, a small girl was watching the birds. She wondered if they liked sleeping in trees.
Another option is to describe the experience focused on one character – that’s limited third person point of view.
Lilly tapped on the window, trying to get the magpie’s attention. She could hear mom calling her for breakfast. Do birds have breakfast? Lilly thought.
Finally, you can write from the POV of several characters as well as an omniscient narrator. This is called multiple third person POV and is the most popular option for novels.
The house stood away from the road, hidden by a grove of trees. At an upstairs window, a young girl watched the birds outside. She wondered if they liked sleeping in trees. Lilly tapped on the window, trying to get the magpie’s attention. From downstairs, she could hear mom calling her for breakfast. Do birds have breakfast? Lilly thought. Danni shouted up the stairs, fumbling with the cutlery in her hands. “Lilly, come on, we have to be quick this morning!”
Why did that girl always have to be daydreaming about birds?
In this example, the three points of view are a little too close together, making for a slightly awkward read – but nonetheless, it shows how they might be combined.
Many authors use third person omniscient to introduce the setting or an important character, then change to either one specific character or switch between them at intervals. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is a good example of switching third person POV.
Now that you have an overall understanding of the difference between POV and perspective, you can put your knowledge into practice. When you read a book, try to stay aware of what POV the author is using, and how a character’s perspective affects not just what they say and do, but how it affects the narrative prose, too. Perspective isn’t only presented through dialogue, so be sure to keep an eye on the ways your chosen author adjusts the surrounding prose when moving from character to character.
A fun exercise is to take a section of writing – either your own or from a book you like, and change the POV. You’ll likely find that changing from third person omniscient POV to first person POV is much more challenging than merely swapping pronouns, partly because the closer you get with POV, the more intensely you’re forced to engage with perspective.
It’s worth finishing up with a reminder that none of this is to say you simply can’t use perspective and point of view interchangeably in casual conversation. Of course you could – but when ‘talking shop’ with fellow writers, it’s a good thing to ensure that whichever term you’re using, everyone is on the same wavelength regarding the discussion. (See our own blog series on individual points of view, where we do just that for ease of reading.)
As purely technical terms, perspective and point of view are not the same thing, though they are very closely tied together. Even with the difference, we wouldn’t recommend a flogging just because you switched them up in conversation to no ill effect – but when it’s just you and the keyboard, be sure you clearly know one from the other.
So go on – have a go at rewriting a passage or two as we recommend here, and share the two versions in the comments below!