Perspective is critical to story. It provides the narrative voice your readers follow, gives us crucial insights and privileged information about characters and events; it even dictates (to a certain degree) how the plot unfolds. Fundamentally, it is the mechanism by which we understand and engage with the narrative. Get it right and you have a good chance of hooking your readers, heart and soul. Muck it up though, and your trusty editor might ask you to do some hefty rewrites.
It certainly bears some thought, so thanks to Stewart for suggesting it as this month’s topic.
You will, I’m sure, be familiar with the different modes of perspective even if the terminology escapes you, but for the benefit of anyone wanting to get things straight, here’s a brief reminder:
1st person perspective (I/we)
The narrator tells their own story to the reader.
This might exist purely in the mind of the narrator, it might be a confessional, or it could be documentary in nature e.g. a journal or collection of records.
Gives a visceral sense of immediacy, and enables the narrator to be surprised by events.
‘I tried to shake my head again, tried desperately. It weighed a ton, and would barely move…’
Dashiell Hammett – The Dain Curse
2nd person perspective (you)
The narrator tells the story as though the reader is the protagonist.
This is typically to be found in adventure game books or role-playing materials, though it is occasionally used in diaries and fiction.
Exceedingly personal, occasionally claustrophobic
‘You see dark, slimy walls with pools of water on the stone floor in front of you. The air is cold and dank.’
Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone – The Warlock of Firetop Mountain
3rd person perspective (they/she/he/named individual)
The narrator tells the reader a story about other people.
Arguably the most popular perspective, found in factual books and fiction of all kinds.
Gives us the freedom to see and learn anything in a story by virtue of being distanced from the action. Often, though not exclusively told in past tense.
‘Cushing tugged on his white cotton glove and pulled down each finger in turn, then lit a cigarette and smoked it, eyes slitting.’
Stephen Volk – Whitstable
Suffice it to say they each represent locations from which we perceive story. However, if we think of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd person perspectives as kind of meta-Spatial coordinates, let us not forget the 4th dimension of Time.
Any one of these narrators could be talking in the Past tense or the Present when relaying their tales – or even slipping into Future tense for prophetic passages. Consider the difference in a reader’s experience between a story that surprises the narrator even as they tell it compared to a narrator who recalls the whole story as a past event.
Fancy a bit more nuance? Let’s spin that last thought into a 5th dimension: Knowledge. Stories don’t take place in a vacuum after all; they are relayed to us by the narrator, but how much does your narrator actually know?
3rd person narrators often act as omniscient proxies for the author, plucking truths from thin air about any number of in-character thoughts and feelings, distant events, lost histories and eventual destinies. It’s all fair game – whatever helps them best tell the story. By contrast, 1st person narrators usually have a very narrow band of knowledge, confined to experience and deduction perhaps, or drummed into them by their society and culture. Narrators need not be bland relaters of fact, they can become characters in their own right. Real personalities.
And once we think of them in those terms, we can start playing with their Reliability, contrasting what the readers are told with what is shown and heard through action and dialogue. Such capricious narrators may attempt to persuade, they may attempt to conceal, they may attempt to steer the reader with self-serving or malevolent intent… or simply be shown to be fallible and foolish. You get the point.
But none of these elements are happenstance; they are deliberate stylistic choices, tools in the hands of a story-teller that can be adjusted and applied to create specific desired impacts on your readers.
So what’s the editorial take on all of this?
As with all things creative, there is no single right way to do things. Indeed, you will find some authors utilising multiple techniques within the same book. A killer, for instance, might be described in the 3rd person, while the detective hunting him does so in the 1st—or vice-versa, depending on whom you wish most firmly to anchor your readers. Want to show multiple sides of a difficult moral or political plot point? You could choose to jump between the 1st person perspectives of conflicting characters in some chapters, using an omniscient narrator to conduct and connect the action which entwines them. Hell, you could even throw some 2nd person sections in to really put the reader on the spot.
The point is not what is ‘right’, but what is right for that story and that author in that particular context.
Rules grow and change and develop over time, and – as with every other thing that evolves on this planet – there are some traits (rules) which survive and are passed on simply because their existence does not damage the whole – even when they serve no real benefit. Don’t waste your time and your energy on them. A writer cannot hope to learn every single rule of writing, nor imagine that such an accomplishment would make them a Master in their field. The letter of the law is not the same as its spirit, and the spirit of great writing is powerful communication.
That can involve the breaking of rules just as much as in their diligent use.
As an editor, I look at what is in front of me in the moment and I respond accordingly. Now, writers are protective of their words. Merely quoting a rule is rarely enough to convince them to make changes, so if my reading experience is sub-optimal, I try to pin down the cause and explain it in layman’s terms. For instance, I might talk about how it is hard to empathise with x character because we have no access to their inner life; I might explain that the lack of dialogue tags in the conversation makes it hard to know whether x or y character feels a certain way, which leads to apparent inconsistency. Sure, I may pull out a rule to back it up, or as a way to help them remember, but my first thought is always on what works for the story.
Ahem. I may have wandered off track here, so let me just reorient myself.
So when this topic was raised, I was asked about the use of the vernacular – and grammatical rules in general – with particular reference to different perspectives. I’ve half grazed it, but let’s try to tackle it head on and somehow draw together… all of the above. You can kick my arse in the comments if you like.
There is a general convention that characters are permitted to break the rules of grammar in their speech because human beings do so all the time. It would sound strange, robotic, flavourless if all of our characters used ‘perfect’ English. Hell, we’d find it hard to differentiate between them. So we might expect (or even prefer) a 1st person narrator to use slang terms and informal language patterns as they tell us their story.
Perhaps, as my friend suggests, it is a matter of how close or how distant from the protagonist our perspective lies?
Our literary tradition seems to prefer that omniscient 3rd person narrators should adhere perfectly to our rules of grammar, though I’m not entirely sure why. They seem capable of breaking every natural law of physics while rooting out and relaying their tale to us. Why should the rules of grammar confine them?
Okay, let’s think of the 3rd person narrator who is speaking of the past. They could be characters within the tale who have observed the protagonist directly or they could just as easily be strangers, relaying a tale they have heard. These are humans, not god-like beings—though they can appear to be omniscient by virtue of their perspective in Time. Distance (physical or temporal) need not negate personality, need not negate the vernacular or necessitate a bland interlocutor to lay out simple facts.
I suspect the convention arises from our desire to preserve our illusions.
When it comes to ‘real’ narrators looking back at past events, we can credit them with learning or intuiting details afterwards, collating the information and presenting it to us in the form of a story. It is within the bounds of reason. However, the more personality poured into a more nebulous narrator, the more we come to think of them as a real person talking to us – and thus the harder it is to hand-wave their omniscient abilities. Could it be this simple? Do we just like to feel that it… makes sense? Do we depersonalise omniscient narrators to allow them to sink into the background unnoticed?
I think so.
It comes down to the style of the writer of course, the choices they make, the way in which they feel comfortable communicating but – from the editorial perspective – that style must match the story, the characters, the emotion and the drama being presented. It needs to fit, to feel right, to carry us along in the flow without jarring us out of the journey. (That’s not everything in writing, not by a long chalk, but it’s an important aspect.)
I’ve burbled on about this for far too long, so I’d better be off now. If you want to explore the topic further, if you just want to add your own observations, or if you want to suggest a topic for me to tackle next month, you can do so in the Comments section below. I’ll be happy to chat.
Later gators xxx