Being a Better Writer: Perspectives

Perspective. It’s important.

I’ll be honest, part of me right now simply wants to link that wonderful scene from Pixar’s Ratatouille wherein Anton Ego sits down for a meal and orders “perspective.” Mostly just because it’s a fun scene, and Anton is such a fun character. I mean, his nickname is “The Grim Eater,” what’s not to love about that?

But ultimately, we’re talking about a different type of perspective today. Well, different types, to be more specific. Today’s matter comes as consequence of a number of online posts in writer’s groups and the like I’ve seen where younger writers inquire after differences in perspective (some of them not even knowing much more other than that the different types exist) and what those perspectives are used best for. Along with that, I’ve seen misconceptions (such as there is a “magic-bullet” perspective for certain genre’s) and confusion (such as responses that only provide half answers).

So today? I’m diving into perspectives. Nothing fancy, we’re simply going to look at each perspective type and talk about it. What makes it tick, how it’s used, where you might have seen it or run across it before … the works.

Like I said, nothing fancy. Let’s get to it!

What is a Perspective?

All right, so, we’ll start at the beginning (usually the best place to start): What is a perspective?

I think that perhaps the best way to explain it is that the perspective of your story is akin to the lens that your reader will view the story through. In cinema, for example, when a director sits down to create a film, they must decide what will be needed to bring the story to life in the best possible way. Different movies can be shot in different aspects, or with different types of cameras, in order to give the film a different look and scope. For example, a film that is shot with a wide lens, one that would give it a cinematic aspect ratio, would be very different for the audience than one with a smaller aspect ratio (you can check this link for a visual comparison if you’re unfamiliar with this concept).

Now, obviously this isn’t a 1:1 comparison. Film relies on a number of different things to achieve those differences (film, lens, camera type, etc). But for our purposes, let us consider them one cohesive whole and call it the lens the audience sees the world through. The director has a choice of what “lens” to let the audience view the picture through. Clever and capable directors will often make sure they use this to their advantage, choosing the frame shots of the film or work so that the viewpoint given by their chosen lens amplifies or improves the audience’s perspective in the story.

In writing, the perspective that an author chooses performs in a similar manner. Each perspective is a “lens” for the reader to see the world through. Depending on which lens the author chooses to employ, different parts of the story may be more or less apparent for the reader. Focus may shift to different areas, follow different things. In a story, everything that is presented to the reader will be through the lens of the perspective … which means that a choice between the various types of perspective can have a strong impact indeed on your readers.

What is perspective? It is the viewpoint, the lens, through which all of your reader’s interaction with the story will occur. Everything that is presented to them, everything contained in your work, will pass through the lens of perspective before reaching the reader. Which is why making a perspective choice is so important: Whatever “lens” you choose to employ, you’re going to need to make sure that it is one that works for both you, the reader, and the story you want to present. Each perspective comes with its own narrative strengths and weaknesses … however, and I will stress this, this does not mean that one is inherently superior to the other. While different perspectives may bring different strengths and weaknesses to each story, this does not mean that a story cannot be written in another perspective, nor that the story couldn’t be done well in that perspective. It simply means that the lens will be different, and that as the writer, you’ll need to consider what each perspective will bring to your story.

Additionally, you are not confined to one perspective for the whole of the book. There are stories out there that jump between multiple perspective types between characters (not in the same scene or character, however) during the course of the story. Note, however, that this can be jarring for the reader, and is not often employed or recommended.

But now that we’ve said all this and established what purpose the perspective holds, let’s look at the perspectives themselves.

Third-Person Perspective

Most would agree, I think, that third-person, in its varied forms, is generally the most common perspective found in fiction. Third-person, so named for the act of placing the “lens” outside of the characters, in the shoes of an invisible “third-person” observing the action, is an incredibly common perspective in writing. A good way to think of this form of writing is to—once again—compare it to cinema. Most film is third-person: The camera exists outside of the character’s viewpoints, panning around the scene rather than just showing us what happens from the eyes of the primary character. A third-person perspective is going to be similar in that it will followthe characters as that “external view.” For example, a third-person account of an event will read like this:

Sam let out a shout, tugging her hand back from the hot metal.

Rather than like this:

I let out a shout of pain as I tugged my hand back, away from the burning hot surface.

That second one is first-person perspective, by the way. We’ll get to that in a minute. But do you see the difference, there, even in how you experienced the scene? With a third-person narrative, we’re “watching” the action from an outside view, while the other narrative experiences it directly.

Is one better than the other? No. But third-person narrative does bring some strong strengths to it. Because your “lens” is an invisible camera that is (relatively) unconstrained, use of a third-person perspective can allow an author to present more of a world than another perspective type would. For example, in a third-person story, the “camera” can be aimed somewhere other than your title characters, lingering on an element of scenery or focusing on something behind the hero, for example.

Now, I must admit I’ve lied slightly. Earlier I said we could compare a third-person narrative to cinema … and that’s not entirely accurate. It can be, but that actually is only similar to one kind of third-person narrative: The omniscient third-person narrator. An omniscient third-person narrative is one that has no restrictions on where that camera can go. It can zip up close to a character and snoop at their thoughts, or it can pull back and view an entire scene. An omniscient narrator can be likened to a documentary or a hollywood movie: actual narration is not restricted in any way. It can present character’s thoughts and ideas. It can inform of what someone is feeling. It also isn’t constrained by any one character’s surroundings or perspective.

Omniscient third-person, at least in my own experience, used to be much more popular than it is today. It’s generally a common starting point for a lot of young writers, as it allows them to present a story in a manner similar to a film: Here’s the establishing shot, here’s a full view of the entire combat arena where all the action is taking place, here’s what the characters are thinking as they have a giant battle … The camera is free to move all around, which makes things easy on the writer, at least, since they can simply move from spot to spot and scene to scene without too much worry. You want to know what happened here? The author will take you there.

But it does come with drawbacks. It’s hard to make an omniscient third-person narrative where there is mystery involved, for example, which is why many omniscient narratives tend to limit themselves in a few select ways. Omniscience allows the author to tell the reader anything, but when the reader can know anything, it can sometimes be hard to construct certain narratives or keep the reader in the dark. Omission of vital information, for example, becomes quite obvious in an omniscient story.

Additionally, omniscient narratives also have the ability to get into anyone’s mind … but at the cost of sometimes making the interactions feel a little … impersonal. Which is why some omniscient third-person viewpoints can read a bit like a documentary, slightly clinical of their subjects and material.

Anyway, like I said, the omniscient third-person seems to be less popular these days than it’s successor, the limited third-personnarrative. Where the omniscient third-person is like a Hollywood production, the camera zipping around the action to show as much as possible, the limited third-person perspective is more akin to the similarly described third-person video game. Where before the “lens” could move where it chose, a limited third-person is tied to one character at a time. The “view” can move around, but only in a limited space around that character. The reader can see the character’s thoughts and ideas, but only for the current viewpoint character.

Like omniscient, this has advantages and disadvantages in storytelling. Don’t be fooled into thinking that “limited” means the tools it gives you are restricted in some manner, limited third-person can be a very powerful tool that allows one to counteract the weaknesses of omniscient. First of all, the information offered by the narrative is much more restricted, as it is focused on one specific area. This can be a very good thing, as it can serve the reader and create a more tense or expectant narrative. It’s also more personal. In an omniscient narrative, a large battle in which one of the main characters sees a dropship with a friend onboard crash may not pack the same punch, as an omniscient narrative has little reason to hesitate for more than a few moments before running the camera to the site of the crash. A limited viewpoint, however, forces the camera to stay with the character who witnessed the crash and follow them as they work their way to the crash site.

Is that good? Well, for some stories yes, for others, no. However, as I said earlier, third-person limited is by far and above the current popular choice of narratives. It gives us a closer view of the action, allows readers to be more personable with a character or small set of characters. It doesn’t jump between heads, but limits itself to one character at a time. For example, in Colony the three primary characters each have chapters where one of them is the focal point of the third-person limited camera. During their chapters, everything is from that perspective: Only their thoughts are directly in the text, show comes from their perspective, etc. An omniscient form of Colony wouldn’t have that, but instead mix all their thoughts and access everything at the same time.

Right, now, there’s one more form of third-person narrative to discuss: Third-Person Objective, or as I like to think of it, third-person retelling. I don’t have as much to say about this one, since it isn’t seen quite as often as the other two, but the easiest way to think of it is as third-person narrative that is being told to you by an outside party (or an involved party some time later). This is the kind of story you could, once again, get with a documentary or a news report, sort of like in omniscient, but unlike omniscient, may only follow the tellers knowledge and understanding.

Where this differs from limited is that the one telling the story is not, at the moment of the telling, involved in the events. Think of, if it helps, as an older character (say a background character) retelling the sequence of events. They since might have found additional information to supplement their story, allowing them to jump between characters and scenes, but the story still comes from them as the primary source.

First-Person Perspective

Where third-person relies on an external “lens” to show the reader the world, a first-person narration is, as expected, confined to a single viewpoint: The direct viewpoint of a character.This is the type of story where you see a scene from one character’s eyes, and that character’s eyes only. The reader gets to read that character’s thoughts, sensations, feelings … everything … but only for that viewpoint character. The only impressions of other characters come from the viewpoint, the only things they see they have to be looking at, etc. Going back to games, it may help to think of this perspective as the same lens/camera a first-person game might offer. Your reader is going to see the world through the eyes of the character, and only through those eyes.

While this might seem very limiting, many great stories make use of first-person perspective. Mysteries, for example, especially Detective Noir works, benefit greatly for a first-person perspective, as they allow the reader to be in the mind of the detective, experiencing the world through their shoes. Other types of stories with heavy visceral elements (survival, struggle, etc) can also benefit from the personal perspective that first-person brings.

Now, you actually do have a choice as to what kind of first-person narrative. You can, for example, roll with first-person limited, which is what most do. This is the classic first-person narrative, and it’s exactly like it sounds: first-person, real-time-in-their-head, and that’s all you get. Only what they know at the moment (and from before) and what’s happening around them.

A good way to think of this one could also be to consider it first-person present (regardless of written in present or past tense) as it covers a story happening as the reader reads. The perspective only shows what the character knows, sees, and experiences through the story.

However, there is another type of first-person perspective, that of first-person objective. Which, as you might guess from the name, is a lot like third-person objective. It shares the same similar mechanic in that it is sort of a retelling, so again, you could call it that instead of objective.

Regardless, it isn’t going to be too dissimilar from a first-person limited with the exception that the one doing the retelling and narration may have outside information. This information will still be presented in first-person, but will step outside the limited scope. For example, where a first-person limited story could have this scenario—

Mr. Harris shut the door in my face, ending the discussion. I heard the porch creak as he shifted his weight, and then the heavy sound of his footsteps moving across the aged planks.

—a first-person objective could be like this:

Mr. Harris shut the door in my face, ending the discussion. From my perspective inside at the time, I couldn’t see the look on his face, but my neighbor later told me that he had waited for a moment, shifting his weight and lighting a cigarette right on my porch before turning and leaving. And Mr. Harris never smoked unless he was nervous.

Subtle, but at the same time, distinct from one another.

Second-Person Perspective

The last and final perspective, and without a doubt the least used. In fact, an author can go their entire life and never use this perspective. Why? Well, because it just isn’t that useful most of the time.

Simply put, second-person perspective is similar to first-person, except that it directly places the reader in the story by substituting “you” for “I.” And that’s just about it. It’s a story that informs the reader that they are the primary character, and then moves them through said story.

Now, of all the perspectives we’ve talked about today, second-person is perhaps the most hit-or-miss. This perspective saw its greatest success with the classic Choose Your Own Adventure style of book, which placed the reader in the shoes of the main character on a quest of one kind or another. Occasionally you will also see it in a short story. But other than that? You won’t see much of this perspective, nor will you likely use it often. Because a second-person perspective invariably runs afoul of problems outside of either a short work or the choose-your-own-adventure style story, the largest of which is that you, the author, need to predict what your reader will think, how they will react, and what they will do. And while some short stories can pull this off for common elements, doing so in a full work is hard. Even harder when you consider everything that a character needs to experience. For example, what sex is that main character going to be? Is that important to the story? Will you have to specify it? Or will you leave it to the reader (as it is “them”)? But what happens when those two things come into conflict?

Second-person perspective, as a result, is a neat trick … but generally doesn’t amount to much more. There are too many hurdles, too many pitfalls. Even savvy, experienced writers avoid the second-person perspective, and with good reason. While it’s nice to know it is there, you probably won’t find yourself using it often.

Last Thoughts and Advice

So, those are the different types of perspective authors and writers will choose from when putting together their work. But there’s one last question that I feel deserves an answer, one asked by a lot of young writers: how?

First of all, practice makes the difference. This is why writing classes can be so helpful. They’ll force you outside of your comfort zone and push you to write in different styles and perspectives. If you want to learn how to write a specific style, start doing it! Sit down and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, and see what you bring to it!

Second, when it comes to your story, do consider what kind of perspective will be most valuable for the type of story you want to tell. What “lens” will best focus on the themes, ideas, and elements you want to present? What will different perspectives do for the reader?

Last, and this is more for the act of writing itself, think of your characters. If you’re going to be doing first or third-person limited, you’re going to be inside their lives. Show their experiences, and give the reader a taste of their experience.

So …

… let’s summarize. Perspective choice is the choosing of a “lens” that your readers will view the story you create through. Each comes with advantages and disadvantages. Third-person perspectives follow characters externally, while first-person perspectives do so with an internal perspective. Second-person puts the reader themselves in the shoes of an internal perspective.

So, now you know. The only thing left to do? Practice, and polish that lens.

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