Perspective, also known as point of view (POV) or narrative mode, is a method by which a writer conveys the story’s plot to the reader. It is, in essence, the voice of the story’s narrator. In photographic terms, perspective can refer to the positioning of the camera when describing the scene. Point of view and tense go hand-in-hand; each as important as the other.
During the course of writing A Dictionary of Tales, I have been exploring alternative perspectives beyond the ones that I’m comfortable with. I have learnt that not all points of view are suitable for each story and also that some stories cannot be told by any narrator other than the one you’ve chosen.
Types of Perspective
There are many different types of perspective, but for this I will concentrate on the main five: first person singular, first person collective, second person, third person singular and third person collective. I have also stumbled across a perspective that is purely interrogative (narrated in a series of questions addressed to the reader), but it’s beyond the scope of my fraying brain and so I’ll only mention it in passing.
In first-person, the story is told by a narrator who is a character within the tale. They don’t necessarily have to be the protagonist (Sherlock Holmes’ adventures are narrated by his friend and companion, Dr Watson) but they should be within close proximity to them, privy to their thoughts and actions. First-person perspective typically makes use of the singular pronoun “I”, but there are rare occasions when the plural form “We” is used to good effect (The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, for example). A group narrator in this instance can be referred to as first person collective.
“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name.”
– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Scandal in Bohemia
Pros: easy to use, intimate, allows for greater development of the character’s voice, allows the reader access to the character’s thoughts and reasoning.
Cons: lacks the flexibility of voice and “camera angle” that other perspectives have, limits the narrative cast.
Much rarer than first and third person perspectives, second-person makes use of the pronoun “You” to immerse and involve the reader in the narrative. It’s most prevalent use is in “Choose Your Own Adventure” and “Fighting Fantasy” books where reader’s decisions will shape the story’s ending. Although still in a fledgling stage, second-person perspective has made headways into literary fiction used by Jay McInerney in his novel Bright Lights, Big City and in selected chapters of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.
“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.”
– Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City
Pros: Immersive, intimate and involves the reader in every step of the narrative.
Cons: incredibly difficult to use and harder still to read: not all readers like to be told what they’re thinking and feeling.
Alongside first-person, third-person is the most common narrative mode used in literary fiction. In its singular form, it makes use of the pronouns “He”, “She” and “it”. The plural (collective) form is “They” and is often used adjacent to the singular when differentiating between single characters and groups. The narrators of third-person stories fall into one of two categories: omnipresent and limited. Omnipresent narrators have the ability to switch between the entire cast, moving from inside the character’s mind to far outside their bodies. They know all, see all, and understand all. Limited third-person is, as the name suggests, limited to one character or group and often takes the form of the narrator “watching from the wings”.
“Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.
He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror.”
– Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Pros: allows for flexibility in voice, easy to switch between multiple narrators, allows the reader to experience events the protagonist has no awareness of.
Cons: lacks the intimacy of first-person, switching narrators can leave the reader disorientated and confused.
Tips when using Perspective
1. Identify the narrator
Before you can decide which point of view best serves your story, you first need to identify its narrator. Are they a character embroiled in the story or someone (or something) on the outside looking in? Is your story one of internal soul searching or a multifaceted adventure with a cast of thousands (Game of Thrones, I’m looking at you)? Not all perspectives work for all stories and often the best judge of narrative mode is the story itself.
2. Keep it consistent
Perspective changes can be quite difficult to follow unless each narrative character has a unique and readily identifiable voice. Keep the narrator consistent throughout, changing only at chapter ends or natural break points.
Rules are made to be broken. If we weren’t constantly testing the boundaries and experimenting then many of our favourite works wouldn’t exist. If your story isn’t flowing, give some consideration to an alternative narrator. Don’t be quick to dismiss a point of view that you’re unfamiliar with. It may be just the thing your story needs.