Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Matter of Perspective

As a storyteller, I can spin a yarn about myself in any given conversation with little trouble. However, when it comes to writing, I've recently been locked into a third person perspective. And, you know what? It's all right.

Before I get to the heart of the matter, let's just review our options here. The narrative mode can have a great effect on how a reader perceives your writing. There are three major points of view: First, Second, and Third. (Third is special because it can be further broken down into limited, subjective multiple viewpoints, or omniscient.)

First person is told as if you are the character. "I open the door and walk out into the light." A good example of this is the book I recently gave opinion on, Suzanne Collins', Mockingjay. The entire Hunger Games series was written from the perspective of the main character. This is as close and personal as story telling gets. You are the protagonist, usually hearing, feeling, thinking, seeing, and reacting to everything as the character is exposed to it.

Second person is told as if the events are happening to you. "You open the door and walk out into the light." Remember the old choose-your-own-adventure books? That's what this perspective reminds me of. I must admit that I've never written more than a couple of pages in this manner. It just doesn't suit me. Joyce Carol Oates has been known to use second person for certain characters in a book.

Third person is perhaps the most common. It's used to tell a story that has happened to others. "He (she/it?) opens the door and walks out into the light." Of course, the examples given are all written in the present tense. Tense can throw a whole new set of characteristics into your writing, but I'm not planning on going into that very much. I will, however, touch on the three major variations of the third person perspective (limited, subjective multiple viewpoints, or omniscient) and why I choose to write as I do.

Let's start with the most easily understood; omniscient third person. What does it mean to be omniscient? Well, Merriam-Webster's has two definitions: 1. having infinite awareness, understanding, and insight, and 2. possessed of universal or complete knowledge. Wow! That's some heady stuff! When applied to writing, though, it simply represents the narrative view point. Is the voice that's telling the story aware of everything that is happening? Is it completely objective and all knowing (no secrets) of every characters feelings and emotions? Then you have an omniscient narrative. Anything less than all-knowing falls into one of the remaining two categories. Stephen King writes most of his novels from this perspective.

Limited third person is just that...limited. Limited omniscience from the perspective of a single character. You know only what that character experiences. Everything that happens is filtered through the perspective of that specific character.

Subjective multiple viewpoint third person is the same idea as limited, but with the ability to jump from character to character depending on the situation. It still limits the reader to one viewpoint at a time, but it provide the ability for the author to change the perspective of the story. Thrillers can utilize this effectively by jumping back and forth from the killer to the victim and back.

Ok, enough of the refresher. I imagine that part of finding one's voice is associated with finding the perspective we're most comfortable with. For me, at least for the moment, it's third person. My current project is primarily limited to the main character, though I've allowed a deviation in the form of an omniscient epilogue and prologue. And, the thriller I finished last year was third subjective multiple viewpoints (everyone who died got their moment in the spotlight...I figure it was the least I could do if I was offing them). But, looking back, I've written a lot of third person. Some of the first long pieces I ever wrote were third person limited. For some reason, placing myself in the role of the lead character has never come as naturally as telling a story about someone else and what they've done. I'm sure there's some sort of deep-seeded psychoanalysis that could probably be applied to that, but let's not go there.

But, I think it also comes down to how we see (or hear) the story in our mind. For me, the story plays out like a movie that I'm watching. Therefore, it makes the most sense for me to describe what I'm seeing...as if it has already all happened. For others, I imagine, they see themselves as the lead character they've created. Then there's those weirdoes who like telling you what you're doing (ie, second person perspective). Next time you start a story/novel, take a good look at where you are after a couple of chapters. If you're struggling, you might want to go back and check your perspective. If you've started something in third person, but you're struggling, consider going back and rewriting the first chapter in first person or vice versa (start first, rewrite third). It may not always be the answer, but it's something to keep in mind, especially early on. Definitely not something you want to find out after 50,000 words. And, if you've never tried one of these, and you're between projects, take some time to plunge into one. It may end up being just an exercise, or it may give you a...wait for it...whole new perspective.


  1. wait for it...Sarah nods her head (now is that second person because it's me or third because it's me naming me?)
    I write in third person too because while I can identify with my MC, I also like to be able to identify with each character. I like being the puppeteer with voices and sound effects. Call me crazy!

  2. I usually write in first person but never see myself as the MC. I am just the vehicle through which the character tells the story. lol. I tried writing from the second person POV and that was just too weird. For me it's all about the "I".

  3. @Sarah - I think you might have hit on a new person...1/3rd (1st person narrative that speaks of the present with third person voice). "Sarah was confused," I say. ;)

    @Chasing - You just reminded me of a post I saw over on Slush Pile Hell a few weeks back. According to that, I wouldn't mention that whole "vehicle" thing in any query letters. ;)