Before you begin to put those first words down on the page, physically or digitally, there’s one important decision you need to make. Who is the narrator of the story? What perspective will the readers experience as they scour the pages?
The decision isn’t easy for everyone. New authors sometimes don’t know the difference, or shift perspectives in the middle of a paragraph.
It’s important for writers to remember that their audience experiences the story from the narrator’s perspective. Failing to maintain a consistent perspective is a literary form of whiplash. It leaves readers confused and questioning. Those feelings almost always lead to them setting down and pushing the story aside.
The difference between some points of view (POV) may seem minute, but it can completely change how the story flows. A first-person perspective will help your reader feel part of the story, while a third-person perspective gives you freedom to explore different characters. What you choose should depend entirely on how you want the reader to interact with the story.
As a quick side note, the explanations of perspective relate entirely to how they are used in writing fiction. Non-fiction perspective is a whole different brand with different pros and cons for choosing a POV.
If you want to make the reader feel like they are the main character, a first-person POV is the way to go. This means the narrator is using “I” and “me” pronouns.
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.” – Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games, along with many other Young Adult novels, uses first-person POV. The narrator is in the story, not just telling it.
Authors tend to choose first person for a few reasons. It’s a fairly easy perspective to write and maintain. It also keeps the audience closely involved in the events. As I mentioned, it helps them feel as if they are the main character.
You are not limited to only the main character’s perspective, though.
“I had neither kith nor kin in England, and was therefore as free as air–or as free as an income of eleven shillings and sixpence a day will permit a man to be. Under such circumstances I naturally gravitated to London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.” – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novel and Stories Volume I
Sir Doyle’s stories are written as if by Dr. John Watson, an observer or witness to the main character’s (Sherlock Holmes) antics. Watson is by no means a tertiary character, but he is not the focus. This is a different kind of first-person POV, and there are many more options when you also consider the tense (past, present, future) of the story.
First-person POV does provide a challenge if you wish to show broader events in the world with which the narrator is not involved. The limited POV means you only see what the character sees and experiences. This can be solved if you are writing in past tense.
This is where things start to get tricky. It is easy to maintain first person, but it can be difficult to maintain only one type of third-person POV in a story if you don’t know the difference.
There are three main kinds of third-person POV: close (sometimes called deep third-person), limited, and omniscient. Choose carefully based on the kind of information you want the reader to know while the story is being told.
Writing with this POV is almost like writing in first person, only using he/she/them and him/her/their pronouns. Everything is in the perspective of one person and the narrative should feel as if they are the ones thinking or writing it.
“Breaking the glass in the only window in the room would be impossible. Even if he somehow managed it, it would lead to yet another locked door and just a slightly larger cage. Ceiling tiles were always a good place to start, but the ones that capped this room were too far away, even if he jumped. Black could tell that just by looking.” – Ley Esses, Black & White
Ley Esses, the co-host of Writing Roots, prefers to write in this style. The narrative flow is seamless with the character’s thoughts.
This is usually used to show the perspective of only one character at a time. The first three Harry Potter books are written in this way. The reader knows nothing of the world outside of Harry’s perspective. We learned as he learned, saw only what he saw. This perspective is useful when writing a mystery (not just in the mystery genre), as it reveals the clues and breadcrumbs slowly. The reader becomes invested in the story by trying to solve the mystery along with the character.
You can also use first-person close with multiple characters, but be careful. Since the narration should be the character’s thoughts, there should be a distinct style change when you change the character POV. Just as the dialogue from each character should feel unique, so should the rest of the text if you choose this technique.
New authors almost always mix the close and limited perspectives, whether in style or simply believing they’re writing one while they’re actually writing the other. Limited is similar to close in that it uses the third-person pronouns and it follows one character at a time. It differs, though, because the narrator is independent from the characters.
Think of it like the camera view in a video game like World of Warcraft or Skyrim. First person is a virtual reality, like the one seen in Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Third-person close is like having the camera view zoomed all the way in and looking through the eyes of the avatar, but you’re still looking at the screen from a distance. Third-person limited is like having an over-the-shoulder camera view. The player sees from the perspective of an outsider, but focused solely on that avatar’s actions.
“Maybe they hadn’t seen the spren. Many of the larger ones were invisible except to the person they were tormenting. Kaladin sat back down to the floor of the wagon, hanging his legs outside. The windspren had said his name, but undoubtedly she’d just repeated what she’d heard before. But . . . none of the men in the cage knew his name. Maybe I’m going mad, Kaladin thought. Seeing things that aren’t there. Hearing voices.” – Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings
Notice how instead of the thoughts being part of the narration they are listed independently in italics. This is one indication of a limited POV. It allows the narrator to maintain the same sound throughout the entire book.
Having a limited POV allows authors to more easily include perspectives of multiple characters. This is especially helpful if you are trying to build a world or have a complex plot that needs to be seen from different angles, such as Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. As I’m sure you can guess, this perspective is most common in fantasy novels, especially epic fantasy.
A quick word of caution, especially for new authors. I know we are inspired by the big, complex books by authors like Tolkein, Sanderson, and Martin. It’s one thing to pull inspiration, and another to take a bit bigger than you can chew. Such works take a lot of time and dedication to pull off correctly. Adding multiple character perspectives tends to overwhelm new authors. As a friend of mine put it, “the complexity of a novel compounds with every additional viewpoint.”
If you are unsure of your abilities, start with one. If you find the story needs a little more to really fill in the plot, add one more. Don’t go into your first novel expecting to write from five different POVs.
An omniscient narrator is a possible way to fix the problem of complex POVs. When you use this POV, the narrator knows everything. To the reader, it seems the narrator is telling the story long after it happened (if written in past tense) or is a god looking down on the machinations of the world (if present tense).
“In fact, very few people on the face of the planet know that the very shape of the M25 forms the sigil odegra in the language of the Black Priesthood of Ancient Mu, and means ’Hail the Great Beast, Devourer of Worlds.’ The thousands of motorists who daily fume their way around its serpentine lengths have the same effect as water on a prayer wheel, grinding out an endless fog of low-grade evil to pollute the metaphysical atmosphere for scores of miles around.” – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens
As represented in Good Omens by Pratchett and Gaiman, an omniscient perspective allows the narrator to offer bits of information that the characters would not know. It also allows for the author to describe characters more easily (though this should be done with caution and not like you are a police officer taking a suspect description) and point out small details the character didn’t see.
Phrases such as “they did not know at that time” may be common in this point of view. This is used in the film Stardust, based on the book written by Gaiman. The narrator can transport the perspective in an instant from Wall to the magical land beyond the wall of Wall with a simple phrase of “at that very moment.”
This perspective is not all good, though. It can make the reader feel more disconnected from the story, as if they are listening to a storybook rather than living one. It can stray into a sterile, emotionless land if not done correctly. Readers can also get confused if the narrator relays too much information about different places at the same time.
Think of it like a movie. You don’t want to watch concurrent scenes on the screen together. You understand that one scene shown after the other, like the example in Stardust, is actually happening at the same time. Don’t try to tell everything at once.
As I’ve said before, a little goes a long way in writing.
How to Use POVs
Once you’ve decided on the best viewpoint for your story, stick with it. Consistency is everything. A sudden switch from a close POV to an omniscient POV is jarring and usually doesn’t make sense. Some readers may shrug it off, but others may set the book down for good.
If you are telling the story from the viewpoint of multiple characters, you must make the change obvious. Never change mid-paragraph. Definitely never change mid-sentence. You should always have a scene or chapter break between character perspectives.
By the way, a scene break is not changing scenes entirely. For example, you can write a death scene from one viewpoint, then switch to another who is witnessing the same event. The difference is you need an extra space between paragraphs. That’s a clear sign to readers that something has changed, whether it’s the scene or the perspective.
Another thing to know when changing perspectives is the importance of making the character clear. Within the first few sentences, if not the first few words, the reader should know whose eyes they’re now looking through to witness the events of the story. This can be done by mentioning the character’s name, or even better, with a clear voice change that matches the character. However long it takes, the first name you read should belong to that of the POV character.
This can all seem daunting to those who are new to writing (or returning after a long absence). The best thing you can do is just write. Try your best, accept it may not be perfect, and keep going.