Let’s differentiate point-of-view (POV) in the simplest, most direct manner possible.
The first distinction to be made is to identify what perspective your story is being told from: first-person, second-person or third-person. Examples:
First-person: “I walked into the bank . . .”
Second-person: “You walked into the bank . . .”
Third-person: “He walked into the bank . . .”
First- and second-person POVs are fairly self-explanatory, but there are sub-categories within third-person POV that need to be elaborated on for purposes of clarity.
The secondary distinction to be made in third-person POV is along the “subjectivity/objectivity axis”: whether or not the writer gets inside the head (or heads) of the characters he or she is describing.
If the writer confines himself to describing the behavior, emotional reactions and thoughts of one single character at a time while other character’s observed emotions and conjectured thoughts are only described as externally-perceived phenomena, you are writing in third-person limited POV.
If the writer confines herself to describing only the actions and sounds of a scene, you are writing in the third-person objective POV. You are chronicling the scene as if you had a good camera and recording device trained on the action. No character thoughts or emotions are directly revealed or described.
If your narrative has a single, god-like viewpoint from which we view all other characters and perspectives—or you talk directly to the reader—or your narrator travels freely backward and forward in time—or the narrator can transfer their all-knowing perspective into animals or inanimate objects—you are writing in the third-person omniscient POV. (Much frowned upon today, though a very popular POV in 19th-century novels.)
—Sharon was angry and confused. (You are making a flat declaration of fact about Sharon’s interior emotional state, hence are writing in third-person omniscient POV.)
—Sharon looked (or seemed) angry and confused. (You are confining your description to only those facts an objective, not omniscient, narrator might observe or know; hence you are writing in third-person limited or third-person objective POV.)
Q: What if I describe the actions, conjectured thoughts and observed emotions of, say, five different characters in a scene. Isn’t that the omniscient POV?
A: Nope. You didn’t declare anyone’s emotional state as a flat declarative fact (hence talk directly to the reader), nor did you reveal anyone’s inner thoughts. You are still writing in a third-person POV, but now it’s a multiple third-person POV. If no one’s thoughts or emotions are directly shared or revealed, it would be an objective multiple third-person POV. If you reveal or share the focal character’s thoughts or emotions with the reader you are writing in the third-person limited POV.
Here’s where things can become muddled: You “head-hop” into another character within the same scene and directly reveal their emotions and/or thoughts to the reader. This does not mean that your narrative has necessarily shifted from third-person limited to a third-person omniscient viewpoint (remember: the omniscient viewpoint is an over-arching, unifying viewpoint that contains all characters and perspectives), but rather that the focal point character has shifted within the scene. A writer can use multiple viewpoints in a work of fiction, true—but it is strongly recommended that the text show a clearly-demarked line or chapter break when you switch amongst multiple points of view.
Q: My focal point character—the one I’m following most closely in this scene—reveals his inner thoughts and emotions to the reader. But the other four people in this scene do not. Since I’m only directly revealing the thoughts and emotions of one of the five people in this scene, I’m writing in third-person limited POV, correct?
A: Correct. If you didn’t directly reveal the thoughts and/or emotions of even one character in this scene, you’d be writing in the objective third-person POV. (Camera and sound recording device only, remember?)
Q: My reviewers are accusing me of head-hopping. So what? I’m writing in multiple third-person limited POV; what’s the big deal?
A: The big deal is that every time you jump into another character’s head to directly reveal the inner life of that character you steal focus from the scene’s focal point character, thus injecting emotional distance into your text by diffusing empathy and muddying the over-all clarity, dramatic pacing and concision of your scene. A clean line or chapter break when switching amongst POVs will help to keep your reader focused, involved and empathizing with the most important person in the narrated scene.
First-Person POV: allows for the closest reader identification with your narrator. Drawbacks include: (a) the narrator is strictly confined to discussing what he or she directly experiences or observes, (b) first-person voice can come across as comically narcissistic and melodramatic, and (c) first-person voice is not the easiest (or most credible) stylistic vehicle to use when describing the thoughts and motivations of others.
Second-Person POV: almost never used, for obvious reasons. (Who’s this joker telling me what I think and feel and do?!)
Third-Person POV: has the most credibility with the reader.
(a) The third person omniscient narrator can move backwards and forwards in time; talk directly to the reader; inhabit the bodies and psyches of animals, insects, toasters and toys—but this can come across as mightily contrived and corny to a contemporary reader.
(b) The third person limited narrator must confine his description of directly-revealed thoughts and/or emotions to only one character at a time in any given scene.
(c) The third person objective narrator mechanistically chronicles the scene like a camera and sound recording device, never entering his character’s emotional or cognitive lives.