Choice of Perspectives

How many different perspectives are there to write from? Most novels are written in ‘first’ or ‘third person’ narrative, with a split of the third person narrative between third person omniscient and third person limited. It is of course possible to write in variations of and, or combinations of each of these points of view in the same book and, although some do it quite successfully, I would suggest that it takes an author who is relatively skilled and confident in their craft.

Second person narrative is another option that, although not generally used in fictional prose, can be used and quite successfully by a skilled author for a specific effect in part of a novel, or in a short story. I use second person narrative in the prologue of my ‘Surviving the Battleground of Childhood’:

I attempt through this book to paint a picture of myself, taking you, the reader, through with every stroke of the brush, and in effect share with you as I examine the construction of my own personality.

In second person narrative, that second person is ‘you’, the reader, who the narrator addresses using words and phrases involving ‘you’, taking you into his or her confidence, and it is usually in present tense. There are not many novels written in second person but probably one of the better known and more successful is ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ by Jay McInerney. Second person narrative however is more often used in nonfiction prose, such as do-it-yourself, self-help, guide books, cook books and articles like this.

Each of the specific points of view has certain advantages and it pretty much depends on which of these perspectives you want to take advantage. For instance, first person is an excellent perspective to get you, the reader, personally involved and to share in the experience:

By the time we landed the reality of the situation was beginning to dawn on me; as they ushered us impatiently from our craft I was so terrified I couldn’t stop shaking and I desperately needed to relieve myself. One of the dour faced terrorists blindfolded me, bound my hands, and as he started binding my ankles, suddenly, there were two successive gun shots! Jumping with fright I nearly wet myself.

As in this example of first person narrative from my book, ‘Heather Skye Wilson is The Psychic Warrior’, the narrator will refer to themself using words and phrases involving ‘I’. This will generally be in past tense: ‘I was’. Present tense can also be used in first person commentary:

“Up! Up! Up!” someone’s shouting; I’m still half in my dream-state… Bang! Bang! Bang! There’s a loud thumping on the wooden walls of the billet. As I attempt to physically orientate, the double doors at the end of the barrack room burst open with such a force I am sure they will fly from their hinges.

In this example from my book, ‘I was a Teenage Devil – But I’m Alright Now’, the narrator again identifies himself using the pronoun ‘I’, but this time in present tense: ‘I am’. Personally, I feel that it draws the reader in still further, sharing the story as it unfolds, making it even more immediate. However it is not an easy perspective to maintain; I use it successfully, I feel, for effect when highlighting a memory or a vivid scene, as in the above example. Relatively few novels are written completely in present tense, but three that spring to mind are ‘Fight Club’ by Chuck Palahniuk, which I thought worked quite well, ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ by Audrey Niffenegger, loved the concept, but something about the execution in this novel didn’t work for me, and ‘Book of Days’ by Stephen J. Rivelle, which I loved.

I actually used first person present narrative in my book, ‘John Farrell is Utrinque Paratus’, for about two thirds of the book; the other third of the book is told in past tense, as in flashback. It was an idea I was playing with and, from the feedback, I believe it worked. It was a bit of a task though and it may be a while before I repeat the exercise, unless the right project pops up in the meantime.

Third person narrative is denoted by the use of the pronouns ‘he and she’. Third person omniscient is a method of storytelling in which the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all the characters; therefore, so does the reader, as in the following example from my book, ‘Terra Nullius’:

Eventually, as naturally and seamless as their whole communication had been, they made love. Gently at first; Trucannini had never experienced such gentle, caring lovemaking. And then passionately; Iain MacFadden had never known such passion existed.

This perspective is good for large casts of characters, with lots of different scenarios, but it does need some skill to build tension. Three books come to mind that do it quite successfully: ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ by Stieg Larsson, ‘No Country for Old Men’ by Cormac McCarthy, and ‘Joe Café’ by JD Mader.

Third person limited is when the narrator knows only the thoughts and feelings of a single character; the other characters in the book are seen only from an observer’s point of view, as in first person. It can be almost as personal as first person but with a little more scope, and with more opportunity to build tension than third person omniscient. A couple of examples of this point of view are ‘Harry Potter’ by J.K.Rowling, although she does break with traditional third person narrative at times, but an excellent example of third person is ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ by Ernest Hemingway.

I would just like to add that I do believe, as writers, we should experiment a little with different ways of telling our stories. We – each and every one of us – are different and, in our differences, view the world from our own unique perspective. As independent authors, we have a better chance of telling our stories in our different voices and, as Indies, I believe we have an obligation to stretch the boundaries. High Five Indies!

Author: T.D. McKinnon

Scottish author T.D.McKinnon ‘Survived the Battleground of Childhood’ in the coal mining communities of Scotland and England before joining the British Parachute Regiment at fifteen where he remained for five years. He has trained in the martial arts for most of his life and had five Karate schools in Scotland before immigrating to Australia. He writes across several genres and has completed five books that are all available as eBooks. He lives in Tasmania, Australia with his wife. Learn more about T.D.McKinnon at his website and Amazon author page.

27 thoughts on “Choice of Perspectives”

  1. Excellent examples, T.D. Point of view or as you call it, perspective, is a difficult concept to grasp. I have to keep asking myself “could that person really know his at this time?” I have experimented with all but second person. I do know that Morgen Bailey likes it, though.

    1. Good to see you’re experimenting, Yvonne, and I wouldn’t worry about second person, you use it in your blogs quite admirably. I believe it can work in certain genres better than others, or as a device to create a certain effect.

      Thank you so much for dropping by, Yvonne.

  2. That is a good discussion on perspectives, and it is a fine thing that we have more than one to choose from as writers. In my current novel I employ limited third person but use the POV of four characters (with appropriate breaks to avoid reader confusion). The main POV is the chief protagonist. The other three serve to provide various views of the protagonist. My chief experiment in this novel is to write in present tense. So between a choice of perspectives and tenses, we have many arrows in the quiver.

    1. Yes, it certainly is good to have the choices, Shaun; it sounds like an interesting little exercise you’re doing with your current novel in progress. I’ve only used present tense in first person, and then not for the entire novel. I’ll be interested to see how you handle it.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and sharing, Shaun.

    1. Thank you Laurie, nothing new in the zoo here I know, but it’s something that I would have found helpful when I was getting started.

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Laurie.

  3. Great post. I find it difficult to write in first person so tend to use limited third person POV -usually with only one character, but in my current novel I’ve extended that to two (with the appropriate breaks mentioned above). When I try to write in first person I feel stilted because while I can easily get into the minds of my characters, I don’t feel comfortable letting them into mine – they do and say things I would never do!
    For a long time, I never felt that comfortable reading books written in the first person either, but I seem to have got over that.

    1. Everyone’s different, Mel, and I know that when I began writing my first book, which was a memoir, I was writing it in third person limited. Now I know that I was writing it that way to distance myself from the traumatic scenes and events (I didn’t particularly want to revisit them, viscerally!); especially as I felt I was such a different person from the tortured little soul I had once been. However, I eventually realised that first person was the only way to go with a memoir and, although quite distressing at times, I found it wasn’t until I did that that I was truly a survivor.

      Thank you so much for dropping by, Mel.

  4. I usually write in the third person, but I found the first person more useful in my murder mystery.

    1. I think that’s because in first person it’s easier to build tension. Like I said, every different perspective has advantages (and disadvantages of course).

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting today, Tessa.

  5. I’ve done both: first person for Kate Jones and third for the Leine Basso novels. Each have their pluses and minuses. I’ve found that after a book or two in one POV, I really like having the other to work with. Great post, TD!

    1. Exactly so, DV, isn’t it good to be able to experiment with the pro et contra of each.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and sharing, DV.

    1. I used present tense and past tense, but in first person, in my ‘John Farrell is Utrinque Paratus’ thriller, to help separate the current story from the flashback story, but I’ve seen it used in third person too. That’s the beauty of choice, Lee; whatever works for you.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and sharing, Lee.

  6. Great post and I appreciate the kind words. I find that in flash fiction, I really enjoy the immediacy and challenge of the 2nd – that’s a relatively new thing, however.

    1. My pleasure entirely, Dan, credit where credit’s due. I’ve had ‘Joe Café’ for a while but, you know how life is, I only started it the other day and, when I get a minute, I’m enjoying it immensely: excellent writing my friend. And you are so right about second person and flash fiction, it’s a great device.

  7. Enjoyed this post immensely TD, and I’ve learned something too – literally didn’t know what 2nd person narrative was until today. I’ve never used 2nd person pov in fiction, but as I’ve relaxed with my blog, I now use it most of the time because I feel I’m ‘speaking’ with friends rather than faceless strangers. Okay, they’re still faceless but they /are/ friends.

    1. So glad to have been of service, Meeks; like you, having written articles before, I had written in second person perspective many times but for the longest time I didn’t realise that’s what it was.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and sharing, AC.

  8. Good stuff, T.D. I’ve almost always used 3rd person. But the Pipe Woman Chronicles books are written in 1st person, and I found I liked it a lot. Still, I’m back to 3rd with the new series because I have three protagonists.

    I used 2nd person for the beginning and ending sections of a short story, “Best in Show,” and it worked pretty well. But I think it would drive me crazy to sustain that for a whole novel.

    1. It’s good to take advantage of the various perspectives isn’t it, Lynne? And I agree, the thought of doing a whole novel in second person is a scary prospect; however, like anything different, it’s only a mindset thing, and I just might consider it for the right project.

      Thank you so much for dropping by, Lynne.

  9. Good post, T.D. I have found that the story itself decides on and demands the voice that works best for it. Like Lynne, I go for 3rd person mostly, sometimes 1st person, but have never played around with 2nd person. Interesting idea; thanks!

    1. I agree, Melissa, you just have to be bold enough to take it up, especially if it’s a bit out of the box. If you listen, the muse will tell you at the inception of the story how it should be told:

      ‘Sitting here in my cell, staring at the walls, I can’t help wonder how the hell I came to this? What quirk of fate? What set of unfortunate circumstances brought me to this juncture?’

      That was the first line I wrote for ‘John Farrell is Utrinque Paratus’; it ended up being the last line in the first chapter but it left me in no doubt as to how the story should be told.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting, Melissa.

  10. I totally agree. I never want my readers to get bored with reading the same type of stories from me. I don’t want to get caught in a writing rut and I think experimenting with things like POV is a great way to go. I’m doing it with my next project and I’m really excited. It’ll be a fun challenge.
    Excellent post 🙂

  11. That’s the way, Melissa; go Indies are trail blazers! That’s one of the great things about being an Indie: no one to keep us in a box.

    Thank you so much for dropping by, Melissa.

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