[Note: the text in brackets will disappear in a few days.
The Mailbox I'm planning on writing on Thursday (or next Thursday if my plan to answer two questions is too ambitious) is going to require at least a fundamental breakdown of points of view. So the "Very Basics" menu that I started some years ago is finally going to get its first, long (oh so very long) overdue entry.]
While there are some pieces of experimental fiction that play around with having no narrative, most fiction has a narrative and comes from a point of view–whether it is a particular person or an omniscient "god". It's the voice telling the reader what happens and often the filter through which the events are interpreted (sometimes so badly that it can't fully be trusted). Though many books have shifts in their point of view, particularly books in the first person shifting to third person to describe events the focalizer couldn't have witnessed, most stick primarily (if not exclusively) with a single point of view.
There are a couple of terms that are going to pop up again and again, so let's define them before we get into this up to our elbows.
The focalizer is the person (or animal or thing) who the action centers on. The reader may or may not get into the thoughts or feelings of the focalizer. In a film medium this would be the person (or animal or thing) that the camera follows. Some stories shift focalizers constantly or have none, but most follow a character at least for a time. The primary consciousness of a story. The focalizer is not the point of view, but rather it is the focus of the story–a distinction that becomes important in the third person. Les Miserable has an unusual structure as the focalizer character changes with each new section.
Many narrative points of view employ a "filter" through which the action of the story is interpreted. The most obvious example of this is first person where the narrator can't always even be trusted to be a reliable lens to the events. As point of view becomes more distant and objective, the filter usually (though not always) becomes disinterested and unbiased.
The apex of filter is, of course, an unreliable narrator–a mode used by a writer to give the audience a sense that the narrator's interpretation of events cannot be fully trusted (and in good writing also comes with "clues" to what a more objective truth might be.
The narrative distance should be considered almost a separate "axis" from the literal point of view, but it provides crucial additional information about the narrative, and is directly antithetical to the conventional wisdom that first person is always subjective and third is always more objective. The "distance" is how removed from the event the narrative voice is and it may have nothing to do with whether the writing is in first, second, or third person. In The Hunger Games the distance is so close that the author chose to write in present tense, but in Never Let Me Go the narrator recalling events from years before and several times admits not being able to trust her own interpretation. She never discusses feelings–only relays actions. While certain points of view lend themselves to certain distances, they don't determine them. A third person objective narrator can still be deep in the thoughts and feelings of a character, and a first person narration could just focus on actions and events.
The "always an exception" clause:
Artists love to play with "the rules" and writers are no different. For every generalization I make, there is at least one piece of good writing out there that defies the convention. Writers are particularly fond of "combo moves" that weave two or more different points of view through a narrative to add characterization to the richness of a simple story.
Narrative Points of view
1st Person (The "I/me" form)
"I walked up to Jeff. Jeff told me that there was a problem with my payment. I reached into my pocket and felt the cold cellulose of the sharpened asparagus stalk against my fingers. Its vegetative heft comforted me. I knew that Jeff's slimy dealings were about to come to an asparagusian end."
First person provides a clear filter for the narration that can help with character, a close distance that establishes a more immediate connection between reader and character, a more straightforward way to show motivations and feelings, and a believability that humans tend to ascribe to first hand accounts. It is considered to be a little "easier" for newer writers, though it certainly has enough complexity to be a favorite of long time vets as well.
In this most common first person point of view the narrator is the protagonist and also the focalizer. The story takes place through the character's point of view which they then relate to the reader.
In this form of first person, much less common, the narrator is not the main character, but rather relays the main character's story. Along with greater distance, the actions of the main character happen through a filter that may not always be sympathetic. The Great Gatsby is perhaps the most famous American example of such a narrative. Nick Carraway is the focalizer and is telling the story, but the story itself is about Gatsby.
This form of first person, also with much greater distance, is a narrative voice that is relaying another person's story. This is often done as a story within a story or in conjunction with "I protagonist" as a story that relates to the main narrative. Think about how Leonard relayed Sammy Jankis's story (but through his own point of view) in Memento.
2nd Person (The "you/you" form)
"You walked up to Jeff. Jeff told you that there was a problem with your payment. You reached into your pocket and felt the cold cellulose of the sharpened asparagus stalk against your fingers. Its vegetative heft comforted you. You knew that Jeff's slimy dealings were about to come to an asparagusian end."
Second person is a very rare point of view for a writer to work from and even rarer for anything longer than a short story. It arguably has the least intrinsic narrative distance of any point of view though, and is often used to make the reader feel as if they are really part of the story. Second person can be combined with a present tense narrative to create a further sense of immediate immersion. Beware of how much it draws attention to itself, can feel gimmicky if not done well, and that it's biggest advantage (total reader immersion) is also exactly the reason it can be difficult to pull off.
It's important to note that second person is written as if the narrator and the reader are the same person (even in the examples below where it's clear that's not the case). In both third and first person the narrative voice can break the fourth wall and address the reader, even bring the reader in as a character, but that's not the same thing as the point of view being second person. The presence of a "you" in imperative voice or a plural "you," is still not making the second person the point of view. Many writers address the reader in first and third person.
You (but really me):
In the most common form of second person, the narrative is actually a first person narrative in "disguise." The reader is not actually in the story. The character is simply using the second person to tell the story. This is a very difficult point of view to pull off. It tends to be taxing to the reader and is hard to earn. Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City is probably the best known example of a writer pulling this off for an entire book. It is much more popular in short stories (Lorrie Moore for example).
You (but really past me):
This common form of second person is really the narrator talking to their past self. It includes a lot more distance (usually ironic distance) and the filter of insight or wisdom is often used to illustrate the contrast in the younger self.
A brief nod here to a genre of literature that hasn't gotten enough credit for its cultural impact. Most stories where the reader will be making decisions as to where the story goes. (In my day they were still in book form–"Choose Your Own Adventure"–and the book told you which page to turn to for a given decision. These days most of them are in mixed media–like apps for tablets.) These stories are almost always written in the second person as it was supposed to be the reader themselves who was taking part in the action.
Note: It is very, very, very rare to have a non-interactive second person narration where the reader themselves is supposed to be the narrative voice. Some forms of fiction use the imperative voice (like creative recipes for example or directions), but they are both rare and virtually impossible to maintain into a longer work.
3rd Person (The "he/she/they/him/her/them" form)
"Candice walked up to Jeff. He told her that there was a problem with her payment. She reached into her pocket and felt the cold cellulose of the sharpened asparagus stalk against her fingers. Its vegitative heft comforted her. She knew that Jeff's slimy dealings were about to come to an asparagusian end."
Third person is the point of view of view employs an "external" narrator
While terms like "subjective" and "limited" often get conflated when listing out third person narrative, the read descriptions of a third person narration should be thought of as a four square grid with subjective vs objective on one side and omniscient vs. limited on the other. Or in other words what the point of view knows and what it thinks about that. (Distance would be the z axis on such a graph.)
Historically omniscient narrators have been the most common in literature. The narrative voice knows what was going on anywhere at any time and what is in the heads of any character.
A limited narrator is only capable of seeing certain things. Often the limitation is what is in the head or directly witnessed by the focalizer character.
In subjective voice the narrative is usually closely coupled with the focalizer(s) filter, although it may have its own voice.
An objective narrator relays the truth in an unbiased manner. Objective narration will always reveal the biases of the writer, but the goal is to eliminate as much of that as possible (or not be objective).
Omniscient/Objective and Limited/Subjective are the usual voices for a third person narrative and account for perhaps 95% of most third person stories. In most narratives, the voice is either an unbiased observer to the world or takes on the job of seeing the world through the lens of the focalizer, sometimes even adopting the focalizer's opinion of things. Snow Crash is a clear example of a third person narrative that shifts its own third person voice depending on which focalizer character it's following. It is possible (though unusual) for a narrative voice to have a different subjective lens than the focalizer, however, the reader will undoubtedly wonder who the narrator IS if they and the focalizer aren't getting along.
Somewhat less common is Objective/Limited–usually following a single focalizer (or a few but not able to see ANYTHING) and possibly relaying the information of their feelings or thoughts, but doing so in a very objective way. ("Think the difference between. "Chris felt sad." and "Chris cried. The world simply had no joy left in it anymore.") Objective limited tends be focused on action though it could dispassionately relay thoughts as well in a close narrative distance.
The least common third person narration (today) would be a Subjective/Omniscient voice. This narrative voice has some kind of opinion on what's going on. It's not necessarily the focalizer's opinion, but may the narrative voice has their own opinion, and may even disagree with the focalizer. This point of view is a tough sell because the reader will immediately wonder whose subjective lens the narration is going through and whether they can trust it. Very out of vogue in modern fiction, it was, however, arguably the most common point of view in pre-20th century British and American literature as the omniscient narrator would then moralize, usually in a Christian and/or colonialist way about the events it was relaying.
Very often writers will play with narrative voices that are sort of "combinations" of different voices. Like having a third person narrative talk to the reader for so long about events that it almost takes on a second person narration for a while. Or a third person narrative may actually be a first person narrative that forgets itself for huge stretches of time. (The Canterbury Tales is an example of this. Saving Fish From drowning is a modern example as it is technically a story told posthumously by the ghost of a character that should have been with the group.)
A very popular "combo move" is to have a dispassionate objective third person narrator who lets drop a single word choice or detail once in a while that almost "slips in" a bit of judgement.
Switching back and forth between first and third is very popular.
There is technically another point of view that is occasionally used in fiction, and that is through the use of "newspapers," "letters," and other "documents." While the epistolary voice might exclusively be first person letters (and therefore really a narrative in first person), it is usually used to describe a story told through a number of fictional "documents" that weave together to tell a story. And while these bits of the story could be analyzed piecemeal for their given narrators, the technique overall is considered to have no set narrator, or so many to be worthy of its own mention.