The Definition of Narrative Viewpoints
Narrative viewpoints, also known as perspectives, determine who is narrating the plot or events of a story. Writers of fiction and nonfiction alike can use different narrative viewpoints to control how readers receive their work. Each of the most commonly-used narrative perspectives has its own advantages and drawbacks for the reader and writer.
Narration from a first-person viewpoint uses the pronouns “I” and “me” for the narrator of the story, usually a character inside the story, either the protagonist or someone present for the plot events. For example: "I played the video game for hours that day and enjoyed every second." First-person narrative follows the inner thoughts of that character, so readers empathize with him. However, first-person viewpoint limits the author to places and times when the narrator was either present or aware of the story’s events. Rarely, stories can be written in first-person plural voice, using “we” to describe the thoughts of a collective. For example: "We knew Jim played too many video games, but we didn't know how to stop him."
In third-person omniscient narration, an all-knowing narrator tells the story and moves between characters’ actions and feelings. For example: "As Jim played his video game, birds across the road flocked around a fountain." This narrator is not a character in the story, but stands in for the author or reader observing the fictional universe. This perspective frees the writer to describe complex, nonlinear plots and multiple viewpoints. Omniscient narration distances the reader, however, which means characters in the story may be less relatable and events may feel less urgent.
A compromise between first-person and third-person omniscient, a third-person limited narrative uses an all-knowing narrator, but focuses their narration through a single character. For example: "Jim loved the game and didn't mind sitting for hours at a time to play." Third-person limited narration combines the intimacy of first-person with the flexibility of third-person omniscient. This narrative keeps some of the drawbacks of both viewpoints, however, with more distance for the reader than first-person and less range for the writer than third-person omniscient.
Second-person narration, much rarer than first- or third-person and more often found in poetry than in prose, involves referring to a “you” to whom the writer speaks. For example: "You couldn't stop playing the game." Second-person alienates readers who feel forced into the role of the "you" character even when his feelings don't match theirs. This perspective appears in how-to guides and other manuals, where the author intends to give directions to the reader.
Chuck Lander holds a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing from American University. In addition to working at university writing centers and teaching writing skills in high school classrooms, he has written for blogs and publications such as the American University Writing Center and "Practicing Planner" since 2008.