Choosing the Right Viewpoint and Tense for Your Fiction [With Examples]

17 Oct 2022 | Fiction

Note: This post was first published in 2013, and was last updated in October 2022.

Who’s telling your story?

Perhaps the choice is easy and obvious: you’re writing from a particular character’s viewpoint in the first person (“I”) and the whole story is from their perspective.

Or perhaps it’s trickier than that. You’ve got a story to tell involving multiple characters, and you need to make some choices.

The point of view (POV) or viewpoint is the angle the story’s being told from. For instance, in Emma Donaghue’s Room, the point of view character is 5-year-old Jack.

The story might be told in the first person (“I”), second person (“you”), or third person (“s/he”). It can also be told in past tense or present tense, which I’ll come onto in the second part of this post.

What Viewpoint Should You Use for Your Story?

Second person is rare, but first person and third person are both very common, so I’ll tackle those two first. Most of the examples I’m using are the first lines, or within the first chapter or two, of their books, to avoid spoilers.

First Person (“I”)

Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero.

(Room, Emma Donoghue – /

Well, let’s start with Elizabeth, shall we? And see where that gets us?

I knew who she was, of course; everybody here knows Elizabeth. She has one of the three-bed flats in Larkin Court. It’s the one on the corner, with the decking? Also, I was once on a quiz team with Stephen, who, for a number of reasons, is Elizabeth’s third husband.

(The Thursday Murder Club, Richard Osman – /

A first person narrator tells the story as though they’re talking to you or, occasionally, to another character. Normally, nowadays, it’s their story – they’re both the protagonist (main character / hero) and the narrator.

(The protagonist and the narrator aren’t invariably the same person, though, especially in 19th century fiction. E.g. Sherlock Holmes is the protagonist, but Doctor Watson is the narrator.)

First person narrators are necessarily limited to what they know, so the reader only gets the action from a particular time and place. They may be unreliable, not necessarily deliberately.

First person allows you to do a lot with voice, particularly if your narrator has an unusual voice (like, say, Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime). It can create a close connection between the reader and the narrating character, and it can create some interesting effects – in Room, for instance, the reader understands far more of what is going on than the narrator Jack does.

Some readers really dislike first person, so you may potentially limit your readership. It can be hard to do well: if your story relies on your main character overhearing conversations or intercepting letters, you might struggle to keep it convincing.

Third Person (“He” or “She”)

Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong—belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd.

(Brighton Rock, Graham Greene – /

As she woke up in the pod, she remembered three things. First, she was traveling through open space. Second, she was about to start a new job, one she could not screw up. Third, she had bribed a government official into giving her a new identity file. None of this information was new, but it wasn’t pleasant to wake up to.

(The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers – /

Third person narration is at some distance from the characters. It can vary from almost as closely linked as first person (with the narrative using the character’s turn of phrase and including their thoughts) – or it can be distant and impartial, as if seen by a god-like observer. These are known as “limited” and “omniscient” third person. In practice, most fiction falls somewhere between the extremes.

It’s usual in third person novels for multiple perspectives to be given – usually either with several “limited” views from different characters’ vantage points, and potentially with some “omniscient” narration too.

Third person is probably the most conventional choice, and works well if you have a wide cast of characters.

For many authors, the choice between first and third is automatic: one or the other simply feels right for your story. If you’re struggling to decide, try drafting the same scene in first person then in third person – which seems to work better?

Second Person (“You”)

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room.

(If on a winter’s night a traveller, Italo Calvino – /

For the past ten years you’ve lived as ordinary a life as possible. You came to Tirimo from elsewhere; the townsfolk don’t really care where or why. Since you were obviously well educated, you became a teacher at the local creche for children aged ten to thirteen. You’re neither the best teacher nor the worst; the children forget you when the move on, but they learn.

(The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin – /

Very little fiction is written with “you” as the main character. It’s sometimes used for experimental short stories, as well as for “choose your own adventure” books (remember those?) but it’s very tough to do successfully in a novel.

There are, however, some literary / experimental novels written in the second person, like Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller (quoted above). The Fifth Season uses second-person for Essun’s chapters, but Damaya and Syenite’s chapters are in third-person.

I read Charles Stross’ Halting State many years ago, which is written from three different second-person viewpoints. This fits with the subject matter of the novel – text-based virtual worlds tend to use “you” – but I found it a distracting irritation, and it’s now pretty much all I remember about the book.

If you do want to give second person a go, use it for a short story, and don’t just do it for the sake of it – have a narrative reason for making the reader the protagonist.

Should You Tell Your Story as Though It HAS Happened or IS Happening?

As well as deciding on first or third (or maybe second) person, you’ll need to choose whether to tell the story in the past or present tense. (I’ve never read a whole story written in future tense, though I suppose it’s just about conceivable…)

Past Tense

Police officers, as a rule, don’t need an excuse to go to the pub, but one of the many non-excuses they have is the traditional end-of-probation booze-up when members of the shift get the brand new full constables completely hammered. To that end, Lesley and me were dragged across the Strand to the Roosevelt Toad and plied with alcohol until we were horizontal. That was the theory, anyway.

(Rivers of London, Ben Aaranovitch – /

Late in the winter of my sevventeeth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.

( The Fault in Our Stars, John Green – /

Past tense is often seen as the “natural” storytelling tense, and it usually makes sense: after all, when we tell a story, we’re relating something that happened in the past, not something that’s ongoing.

It has the advantage of reading easily and smoothly: if you want readers not to notice your style and to get absorbed in the story, past tense is a good way to go – especially with third person narrative.

Present Tense

She laugh, dance a little happy jig waiting on me to get her out. I give her a good hug. I reckon she don’t get too many good hugs like this after I go home. Ever so often, I come to work and find her bawling in her crib, Miss Leefolt busy on the sewing machine rolling her eyes like it’s a stray cat stuck in the screen door.

(The Help, Kathryn Stockett – /

For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. On Thursday afternoons he drives to Green Point. Punctually at two p.m. he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor Mansions, speaks his name, and enters. Waiting for him at the door of No. 113 is Soraya.

(Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee – /

The present tense is often seen as a more literary choice, though there’s nothing stopping you using it for commercial / genre fiction. For the reader, it can make the story seem more immediate, but it also risks feeling slightly “off”.

Present tense is more commonly used for first-person than third-person narratives, and might be tricky to pull off in a third-person novel. That’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t do it, but give it a bit of thought before committing yourself.

(One quick word of caution: some writers find that they accidentally switch between past and present tense without meaning to. Make sure you choose one and stick with it!)

So … what’s right for your short story or novel?

If you don’t know what to pick, third person, past tense will (usually) be the easiest to work with.

If you’re writing a mainstream or genre novel, you’ll probably want to use past tense. Third person or first person can both work well, but unless you have a main character with a strong or unusual voice, I’d recommend third person.

If you’re writing literary or experimental fiction, and particularly if you’re writing a short story rather than a novel, any viewpoint (even second-person) and either tense can work. However, try to have a reason for your choice: don’t go for an unusual viewpoint for the sake of it.

Further Reading

For more help with viewpoint, take a look at these posts:

Choosing Viewpoint Characters: What’s Right for Your Story?

If you’re not sure who should be telling your story, this post should help. It explains the pros and cons of a single narrator versus several narrators, and looks at the different possibilities you might explore if you think your story needs to be told from a different or new perspective.

Split Narratives: Dividing Your Story Between Two or More Narrators

Sometimes, it makes sense to have a single narrator … but splitting your narrative between two (or more) narrators can allow us to see things from different perspectives. This post takes a look at how to do that effectively and gives brief examples along the way.

Extra Resources

If you want to go further, check out The Advanced Fiction Pack. It’s a set of four self-study seminars, covering:

  • Handling Viewpoint in Fiction
  • Story Ideas: Where to Find Them and How to Evaluate Them
  • Heroes and Villians, with Lorna Fergusson
  • Seven Ways to Add Depth to Your Characters

You can find it on the self-study seminar packs page.


I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.

Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.

My Novels

My contemporary fantasy trilogy is available from Amazon. The books follow on from one another, so read Lycopolis first.

You can buy them all from Amazon, or read them FREE in Kindle Unlimited.


  1. Elizabeth Maria Naranjo

    Yes, I remember the choose your own adventure books, and I loved them! Whatever happened to those?
    On POV, I like third person best unless, like you point out, the character has a unique voice and first person really lets them shine, or the narrator is unreliable. I have a difficult time with second person POV. It almost always feels gimmicky to me, but there are two examples I can think of where it’s perfect. One is that short story “How to Talk to a Hunter” by Pam Houston and the other is the collection by Laura Numeroff that includes “If You Give a Moose a Muffin.” Have you heard of those? Kitty will love them in grade school, they are so cute. 🙂
    Present tense used to throw me off a little, but it’s getting so common I hardly notice anymore. I like both present and past tense.
    I think I’ll check out that Italo Calvino book–thanks for the great examples. And maybe I can find some of those choose your own adventure books in a used book store . . . my daughter would like those.
    Elizabeth Maria Naranjo’s last blog post ..800 Reasons to Submit Your Writing

    • Ali

      I read a lot of the Choose Your Own Adventures as a kid, and often picked them up second-hand — good luck finding some. 🙂 I’m know there are similar stories around that use hyperlinks for a similar effect (literary example here:,_a_story)

      I agree on second person POV often feeling gimmicky. I hadn’t heard of either of those stories — thanks for pointing me their way! If You Give a Moose a Muffin looks very cute, and How to Talk to a Hunter looks kind of creepy. And they both use the future tense too … there we go, it is possible. 🙂

      • Elizabeth

        You know, I never even thought about that–the future tense in those stories. I wonder if that’s the difference then; maybe I only like second person POV when it’s combined with the future tense.
        Elizabeth’s last blog post ..800 Reasons to Submit Your Writing

    • Deliner Tan

      Hi Ali Luke, this is Deline Tan from Singapore. I’ve been following you and have been enriched by the info.
      I’m a novelist working on my current book on world evangelisation. I notice you write extensively on writing itself and you gave so many ideas.
      I look forward to reading again your posting. May you thrive well as you continue to encourage others to write.

      • Ali

        Thanks so much, Deline! I’m so glad you’re enjoying my blog. Best of luck with your book!

  2. Alexander

    Hi Ali. I have been following your posts for some time and purchased, but not yet used your book, on e publishing. The editors of our draft longer books and Calvin who checked the grammar, punctuation and spelling of our first book Ywnwab! – Autumn Story-book (published last Thursday), all say we jump around too much between tenses and points of view. Since reading John Braine’s book about writing and then reading his Room at the Top and living as Joe Lampton we have enjoyed writing in the first person present tense. We will now keep your post at hand when self editing to see if we can stray less … Best wishes Alexander.

    • Ali

      Thanks Alexander, and good luck with your future self-editing — a lot of writers struggle with keeping point of view and tenses consistent, so it’s definitely not just you!

  3. Joel D Canfield

    I realized now that I have 5 or 6 works of fiction in progress that some demand first person, and some demand third, and I’ve never chosen, it just is.

    Coming from a long (and broad) line of story tellers, I think that bit comes automatically.

    What I haven’t experimented with is point of view. The main character’s view stays throughout. I need to experiment with something akin to Watson narrating Holmes, or Scout telling her father’s story.
    Joel D Canfield’s last blog post ..Why Doesn’t “I’m Sorry” Mean “I’ll Fix It” ?

    • Ali

      For me, Joel, the choice seems to be automatic too … though it’s almost always third-person (probably because that’s what I like to read!) I want to try experimenting with first-person narrators with a strong voice, though — and Scout, of course, is another great example of that.

  4. jiche

    Hi,Ali…I stumbled upon your site today and so happy I did. I have so many questions about writing and resistance (or shall I say, procrastination). I haven’t written anything that’s worth publishing yet. I just want to write. Neither do I have background nor proper training in writing. Coming November I’m going to a Creative Writing class in Guildford,Surrey.

    I remember scribbling short stories at age of ten, but never showed it to anyone mainly for two reasons:
    first, I’m ashamed to let anyone know that I have this ideas going on in my mind, and secondly, I’m too afraid to be criticised.

    Couple of months ago I just turned 40 and out of the blue my passion was rekindled, and the idea of writing to leave legacy to my kids is what eats me up nowadays.
    Thank you so much for the informative articles you’re sharing. Please keep it up.

    English is my second language.

    • Ali

      Thanks for the comment! I’m so pleased you found Aliventures. Best of luck with the Creative Writing class — hope it’s a lot of fun. 🙂

      I think the fear of criticism puts off a lot of writers. A lot of people find it’s easier (at least at first) to share their work with a class or workshop group, rather than with friends — it can be a bit weird to let friends / family into what’s going on inside your head!

      Your English is excellent. 🙂

  5. Vicki

    I’ve recently been reading the Ruth Galloway mysteries by Elly Griffiths They are written in third person present tense and at first I found it strange, it being a new combination for me. But it’s very well done and before long I forgot about it.

  6. jordan

    What if you’ve settled on 3rd person POV, but aren’t sure how wide to cast your net? So far I’ve been telling the story as it follows my protagonist, without regard to other characters…almost like 1st Person in that the knowledge shared is limited to what my protag is experiencing and feeling, but told from an outside perspective.

    Am I limiting myself? Are there any good theories/thoughts on if I should do some experimental expanding?

  7. Steve Eggleston

    I enjoyed your post, as I’ve found – and still find – tense and pov to be tricky. It seems that to analyze it while writing a book is to over-analyze it. Every time I start, I find myself entangled in words with a neck ache. My first fiction novel, “Conflicted,” will soon be published (10/1/14 if all goes as planned), and I wrote it in three different tenses and povs before I settled on the one that clearly worked better. I wrote my first draft without thinking about tense and pov in third person past tense; it was the natural way. But the story, a legal thriller set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, seemed slow and dull, like an book written for a prior generation who had quiet nights and time on their hands. So I re-wrote it in third person present tense, and still, it felt flat. Finally I wrote it in first person present tense progressive. Voila! It worked, or so I hope. The story is primarily about a main character, the detective, not the attorney, and his role and pov in the defense of the lawyer’s brother for killing his own law partner. Ergo, “Conflicted.” But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Now I’m working on my second book, and I feel third person past tense is the natural route for its story. But that’s what I felt last time. In the end, the right tense will be what it is in the end. It’s a little like Carlos Castaneda looking for the right spot in the room on which to sit. He does not find the spot. The spot finds him. Or so it seems.

  8. darkocean

    Third person, with the deep pov going into first person. 🙂 Thank you for these tips.

  9. TBellen

    Thank you for your site. As a screenplay writer I find third person/present tense a natural. Now that I’m adapting a sceenplay to a novel I’m constantly struggling with tense – as they both sound correct.
    I’m trying a combination as my main character does a lot of story telling. My idea has been to keep the framing story in past tense and the story “inside” in “present”.

    • Ali

      I can see how that would be a tricky adaptational choice — and it sounds like you’ve found a good compromise! Best of luck with it.

  10. Cross Roads

    I am confused as to what to choose. Right now I’m writing a book in first person POV, and I don’t know whether to chose past tense or present tense. The story is about a boy who gets sent through a portal to a parallel dimension.

    • Ali

      Tricky! I’d suggest writing a whole chapter in past tense then rewriting it in present tense, to see which seems to fit with your story, narrative voice and writing style best. Good luck!

  11. Mike

    Future tense – The Book of Revelation in the Bible.

    • Ali

      Ooh, good suggestion! But I think the majority of it is actually past tense — John narrating his vision/dream. He’s talking about events to take place in the future, but he’s talking about what he has already seen. (e.g. “I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals.” — future tense would be something more along the lines of “And I will see in the right hand of him that will sit on the throne a book that will be written…”)

  12. Travis

    I hope you can help me with an issue I’m having. I’m starting on a novel, this is a horror fiction novel from the point of view of the main character. So I know that I am going to do 1st person POV. However, I’m stuck between past and present. While telling it from past tense would be easier, I’m afraid it will be less engrossing than if I use present POV. I don’t want to lose the feeling of being enveloped in the story by knowing that it’s already happened to the character.

    • Ali

      I’d suggest writing the first chapter both ways — and see which seems to work best for the story. (You may find that present tense is just as easy to write as past, once you get into it.) If you have a writers’ group, you might want to run a couple of different versions past them … but ultimately, the choice is yours!

  13. John Haas

    I’m working on a novel that is 3rd person and past tense. However, there are a few paragraphs where I’m describing a recurring dream that a character is having. I’m unsure whether to use present tense or past tense for the dream description. It seems strange (to me) to briefly switch to present tense. I’ve written it both ways (past and present) and both seem to work. Is a temporary switch to present tense bad practice or is it merely personal preference? Thanks and regards.

    • Steve Eggleston

      Hey John! Steve Martini is a master of using two tenses. Typically, the protagonist is in present tense and everything else is in past tense. I recently finished a thriller with a story within a story. Current events were in the present tense, and the story being told was in the past tense. Butttt… I also had a shadow man, an evil arm of the antagonist, like the guy in the X Files. When I covered his actions, I used past tense, third person, even if it was present day… The most important trick is consistency and readability. I’d suggest trying present tense for the dream sequences and then see how it reads after setting the manuscript down for a few days. In the end, that’s the only thing that matters: do it make sense to the reader. Good luck!
      Steve Eggleston’s last blog post ..Eggman Global Launches Eggman Global UK — Ecology

      • Ali

        Note from Ali: Steve also sent me a link to his writing portfolio, explaining: “In my Writing Portfolio, see The Food Mafia section. That uses both tenses, past and present, third person and first person… and then Conflicted employs present tense progressive, first person only. Steve”

        You can download the portfolio from the end of his post here:

  14. Barbara

    I loathe ‘present tense’ (pretentious) the only one I’ve persevered with was as you have mentioned was “The Help” but was not a pleasure to read. Often the synopsis sounds promising and when I’ve collected it from the library and found it in PT- i.e. unreadable – I am disappointed. Why do some writers write this way? It must be difficult?

    • Ali

      It’s not a natural fit for me as a writer, I have to admit! But it doesn’t particularly bother me as a reader. It is sometimes considered a more “literary” form, which is perhaps why it does seem a bit pretentious at times — and I think, like any slightly unconventional writing choice — it does require the writer to be very good at what they’re doing to make it work!

  15. Maya

    This is really interesting. Coming from someone with a screenwriting background, third person present has become my most natural structure of storytelling. I recently read the beginning of a non-screenplay story I wrote in third person past and it seemed so ‘off’ to me. To the point that I might change the tense in a re-write. Good info though!

    • Ali

      Thanks Maya! I think third person present works very well for some stories: definitely work with what feels comfortable for you and your fiction.

  16. Shreya

    Hi, so I’m currently writing a novel. In it there is a scene in which my character is dreaming. How should I go about writing this? I don’t want the character reciting what happened in the dream (I want the dream to actually happen), but also I want the entire story in the past tense.

    • Ali

      When I have dream sequences, I just include them as part of the narrative. Normally, it’s clear that it’s a dream based on what’s gone before (e.g. the character went to bed, or I outright say that they’re dreaming).

      Here’s an example from my novel Lycopolis:


      When [Kay] finally managed to sleep, she tumbled straight into dreams. There were black trees all around her, close together, branches grasping at one another. She backed away from them. The ground was slippery underfoot, sodden leaves sliding on mud.

      She began to walk, lifting her feet carefully, setting them down slowly, the thud of her heartbeat echoing in her ears. The trunks rose like thin spines to tangled balls of branches and dying leaves. A leaf fluttered down into her hair: she grabbed it, and it crumbled to ash. There was a black stain across her hand.


      She didn’t know where the voice came from. It seemed to be part of the forest, pressing in like the trees.


      There was something both compelling and terrible about it. She couldn’t move. She tried to answer, but her mouth made no sound. The mud was oozing up around her ankles, gripping tight.


      (It goes on a bit from there, but that’s hopefully enough to give you an idea of how I approach it in terms of narrative and tense.)

  17. d


  18. Gina

    I like reading first person POV the best because it just feels right to me. Though there are a few books in third person POV that I love.
    When I started writing fiction, I automatically wrote in first person, present tense. I’m not sure why, I just did. I guess that seemed easiest to me, and it flowed more easily for me. Whenever I try to write in third person, it doesn’t come out right, and I find that I can’t make it work with what I want to write. As for tense, I’ve tried to write in past tense before, but I always end up switching to present tense without realizing it.

    • Ali

      I think if you love reading first person POV, it makes sense you love writing it! A lot of first person novels are present tense — it has that sense of immediacy, like someone talking to you, and it can preserve more sense of suspense (in past tense, you can be reasonably sure that the narrator survives to tell their tale).

  19. Lexi Revellian

    What you don’t mention, Ali, is the option of using both first and third person in the same book (Dickens did this in Bleak House). In my novel Replica, the heroine is accidentally duplicated, and alternating chapters deal with the experiences of Beth 1 and Beth 2. So you can tell them apart, Beth 2 is written in first person, Beth 1 and all other characters in third.

    Encouraged by the fact that no readers were confused by this, in my latest novel I did it again with reckless abandon, switching mid-chapter between the heroine’s first person and the hero’s third person narrative. Again, no complaints.
    Lexi Revellian’s last blog post ..When editing escapes into the wild…

    • Ali

      That’s a great addition — thank you, Lexi! Yes, combining first and third is definitely an option. The way you do it sounds really effective, for distinguishing between two characters.


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