A Perspective Primer – Which is Best?

A Perspective Primer – Which is Best?

So far my editing guides have covered grammar rules like punctuation and passive voice. Aside from those, my most frequent notes center around perspective. But unlike the other guides I’ve written, perspective can’t be handled with a short paragraph of guidelines.

Perspective, or point of view, is a stylistic choice every writer must make in the early stages of a project’s development. Generally speaking, there are three perspectives from which most novels are written: First Person, Third Person Limited and Third Person Omniscient. Second Person also exists but is limited in scope (as we’ll cover later).

Choosing which perspective to use sets the tone for your narrative. It helps define who the narrator will be and how close the reader will get to their inner most thoughts. Everyone always asks which perspective is best. The truth is, each has their strengths and weaknesses. When wielded by a deft hand, each can be spectacular, but some are much harder to master than others.

First Person Perspective

We may as well start with first person perspective since first is right in the name. First person is written from the point of view of a single character. Statements are written as though they flow directly from the character’s head onto the page, which means that they primarily use I, me and my statements.

For example: This morning, I snuggled into my warm blankets after I woke. The crack of light that leaked through my heavy curtains didn’t bother me. I reveled in the sensation of warm sheets and a fluffy pillow and almost fell back to sleep.

The Pros

The strength of first person point of view is that it puts you directly into a character’s head. This allows you to get up close and personal, and to know exactly how they feel at any given moment. If you’re looking to create a strong connection between the narrator and the reader, first person perspective gives you the tools.

The Cons

Disclaimer: there’s a certain amount of bias in this post. It is my personal opinion that first person is among the harder perspectives to master. Filter words are a fatal mistake in first person perspective. It’s easy to fall into the I statement structure. Such as: I feel the rain trickling across my skin, forming icy claws as it moves. As opposed to the much stronger: Rain trickles across my skin, each drop scraping like an icy claw.

First person often limits the scope of narration to a single character. This presents challenges for the author involving how to present information they don’t want the narrator to know, or how to convey events that take place when they aren’t present. It is possible to switch perspectives between characters when you use first person. But it usually requires some kind of hard delineation at the start of a chapter (such as a name tag), and can be somewhat more jarring than transitions in other perspectives.

Exemplars

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.

Third Person Limited Perspective

I mentioned that a writer’s choice of perspective will determine how close the reader gets to the narrator. First person is as close as it’s possible to get. Third person limited takes one step backward.

I read a lot of guides while preparing to write this, but none of them described third person limited perspective to my satisfaction. Most consider it an offshoot of the third person omniscient perspective. But the two techniques should be treated individually. Third person limited perspective follows only one character at any given time, allowing that character to create a unique narrative voice. In fact, making certain each character sounds different is the key to a truly spectacular third person limited narrative.

Third person takes a step back from the narrator and uses she/her, he/him, or they/them statements to craft the narrative. For example: That morning, she snuggled into her blankets. They were warm and the crack of light leaking through her heavy curtains didn’t bother her. She reveled in the sensation of warm sheets and a fluffy pillow, letting them lull her back to sleep.

The Pros

It is my personal opinion that third person limited is the strongest and most versatile perspective. First, because an author can choose the point at which they zoom into a character’s head. David Eddings once gave a spectacular example of this in his Riven Codex. Using third person limited perspective, you can choose to move quickly through each of a character’s actions, or you can pause to have them reflect on their thoughts and feelings. In this way, third person limited can be as strong as first person without some of the fallbacks that make first person tricky to write. The key, of course, is to strike a balance between showing, telling and inner monologue.

The third person limited perspective also makes it easy to switch between character points of view at chapter breaks. In fact, readers usually expect it. This more easily allows a writer to show events where one main character may not be present, and also allows the reader to connect to many different characters by seeing the world from their perspective.

The Cons

The biggest con of third person perspective is head-hopping; a mistake even experienced writers make often. Head-hopping is when you jump from the perspective of one character into the perspective of another during the same scene. This is horribly jarring for the reader and usually causes them to lose focus on the narrative while they re-orient themselves on the new perspective. You should always switch perspectives at the beginning of a new chapter or after a chapter break, never within the same scene.

The other pitfall of writing third person limited perspective is developing a singular voice that causes all of your characters to sound the same.

Exemplars

C.S Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy
Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.

Third Person Omniscient Perspective

Like third person limited, third person omniscient is written from a distance, so it uses she/her, he/him, or they/them statements. Unlike the limited perspective, however, the omniscient perspective grants the author access to every character’s thoughts, feelings and experiences. This is why it is called ‘omniscient’ because the narrator is considered god-like in their knowledge of the story as it unfolds.

If I were to re-write my example from the third person omniscient perspective, it might look something like this: After her abrupt awakening, she snuggled deeper into the sheets. In the other room, her husband prepared for work, unaware that the buzzing of his electric razor had disturbed her.

The Pros

Third person omniscient perspective allows you to play with the narrative in ways that the other perspectives don’t. Because the characters aren’t telling the story, the author can provide information to the reader that the characters might not have. You also get a clearer and larger picture of what’s going on in the story as a result of knowing what everyone in the scene is doing at any given time. Third person omniscient perspective can be compared to watching live theater, where the reader sees everything happening at any given time.

The Cons

Of all the perspectives, third person omniscient is the most difficult to master. I have read perhaps a handful of books that used third person omniscient to good effect. Unfortunately, most people think writing from the omniscient point of view simply means hopping from head to head, letting each character take their turn at the wheel, before moving on to the next most convenient perspective. But all that does is confuse the reader.

The third person omniscient perspective requires the development of a strong narrative voice to tell the story. Usually, that voice needs some kind of personality or defining quality in order to unify the perspectives it borrows from. Few writers can master a disembodied voice that isn’t attached to one of their characters.

Exemplars

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (in which the Hitchhiker’s Guide narrates the story)
Stardust by Neil Gaiman (which is written like an old-style faerie tale)
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (in which the author is the narrator and the voice is uniquely distinctive)

Second Person Perspective

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention second person perspective. In terms of connection between the reader and the narrator, it is even closer than first person perspective. Since second person puts the reader directly into the story, using you statements to craft the narrative.

For example: You wake alone in bed. A single thin line of light permeates the heavy curtains blocking the room’s only window. For a moment you feel warm and comfortable, so you hesitate to rise.

Second person perspective is used almost exclusively for choose your own adventure novels – which are great! But if you aren’t writing a story that directly involves the reader, it really doesn’t serve any purpose. For most works of narrative fiction, it’s best avoided.

That’s it for perspective basics. Next week, I’ll delve a little deeper into how to avoid the pitfalls of writing in each perspective and how to narrow in on which works best for your story.

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