A matter of perspective
By J. Paul Dyson
Managing Editor, firstwriter.com
firstwriter.com – Friday June 26, 2009
Any time you begin to write a piece of fiction there’s a decision you have to make before you can even write the first sentence. It’s a decision which will determine the complexion of the entire story, and which you will have to stick with from its very start to its very end; it’s a decision which has repercussions that will reach into almost every sentence you write, and as such it’s one of the hardest things to alter if you change your mind later. The decision is your choice of perspective.
You have three options: first person, second person, and third person. The first person perspective is where you write the story from the point of view of someone involved with it: “I did this … I did that”. Second person is very unusual in fiction and is where you write as if the reader was involved in the story: “you go to the bedroom, look out of the window…”. Finally, third person perspective is where you adopt an omniscient, “god-like” perspective, writing about the characters and events from the point of view of an outside observer: “he did this … she did that”.
All these perspectives have their own strengths and limitations, making them suited to different types of stories. Picking the right one can be the difference between your story being a success and a failure.
Most pieces of fiction are written in the first or third person. That’s because the second person perspective is not very well suited to fiction. One of its major limitations is that you are limited as to the tense you can effectively use, because past tense (the most common tense used in fiction writing) is pretty much out of the window. You can just about get away with writing things like “you’re lying on a beach and you can hear the sound of the sea” because we’re familiar with this form being used in anything from self-help motivational videos to sales pitches that start with “Imagine this…”. This use of the present tense probably works because the writer / speaker has the attention of the reader / listener at that moment, and can, in a sense, control their perceptions through language and suggestion.
Trying to use the past tense in the second person is, however, another matter. If you open your story by trying to tell the reader that last year they went on holiday and witnessed a gruesome murder then there will inevitably be a subconscious response of “no I didn’t”. You immediately create a fracture between the story and the reader which will be difficult to bridge. Even if you use the present (or even future) tense this is a constant danger with the second person perspective. You can’t specify the gender of “you”; or the age, race, or nationality – at least not without pushing away significant proportions of your audience. Second person can have its advantages – it can create greater immediacy and invites readers to experience the story more directly (hence its use in self-help, motivation, and even hypnosis), but the inability to be specific about “you” makes the scope of its application limited.
Your choice of perspective is therefore almost always between third person and first person. As we have become a more film / TV orientated society we have become accustomed to being the silent observer – the omniscient all-seeing eye – and correspondingly the third person perspective has become more common, as opposed to the first person narrative more at home in a time when tales tended to be told orally by people relating their experiences directly, rather than being documented through a camera.
If you are setting out to write a cinematic story (as many of us tend to, these days) then a third person perspective is probably the best choice, particularly if you need to rove between different sets of characters, different locations, and different points of view. This is a perspective particularly suited to action, thrillers, and other cinematic genres.
However, it would be a mistake to think that being cinematic and more flexible makes the third person the best choice of perspective in all instances. Don’t forget that if someone wants something cinematic then they’re likely to go to the cinema – a book or story which just attempts to put a film onto the printed page is likely to be a pale imitation. The strength of the first person perspective is that it allows the writer to do with words what cannot be very readily done on screen with images: it allows you to enter a person’s thoughts, not just view their actions, and to perceive the world through someone else’s world view. It plays to the strengths of the printed word, and allows the writer to employ more complicated and perhaps ultimately more rewarding techniques.
Adopting the first person allows the narrator to speak like a human being, organising and structuring stories thematically, rather than by the strict chronology that tends to be the case in third person narratives. This is more like the way in which people really communicate. When talking about a person, people rarely do the “David Copperfield” thing: they don’t start at the point of their birth and then run through the major events of their life – they usually have some point to make – some agenda, or observation. They will probably want to tell you about some particular trait of person X (more often than not, something that annoys them!), and will then recount various examples of this from various different points in time, either in no particular order, or in a thematic rather than chronological order. This can be particularly useful in short stories, as it allows a much broader scope to be covered than would normally be possible through a chronological account.
The fact that the narrator becomes a person with an agenda and their own point of view also adds an extra dimension to the story being told. The reader has to question everything the narrator tells them, as it may be a result of the narrator’s own delusions and paranoias, rather than being empirically true. Just because the narrator tells us they were being stalked by a rapist who they had to kill in self-defence does not make it so – it may become apparent that the narrator is simply paranoid. A skilful writer can have the narrator tell us one thing, while conveying something quite different to the reader between the lines. As the story progresses, the reader can come to distrust the narrator, and re-assess the sympathies they may originally have had.
Techniques such as these can make the first person perspective far more interesting and rewarding for the reader than the third person perspective, but if you are going to use the first person perspective you need to bear in mind some of its limitations. For starters, the word “I” does not carry as much information as “he” or “she”. The gender of your main character is absolutely critical in order for readers to know how to respond to them, and in third person narratives this tends to be pinned down within the first few words through the use of “he”, “she”, or the character’s name. All too often in first person narratives, however, the story goes on for paragraph after paragraph without it being clear if you’re listening to a man or a woman. Either you end up reading half the story with all your judgments on hold pending further information, or half way through you find you have to go back and totally rewrite the story in your head: suddenly that drink with Jim loses any romantic connotations and that episode in the girls’ changing room takes on a whole new light!
So it’s imperative that you somehow work the information about your character into the narrative within the first few sentences. This is another limitation compared to the third person perspective. In a third person narrative you can simply open your story with the words “Walter was an elderly gentleman who had been living on his own now for five years” and you’ve immediately conveyed all the important basic information we need in order to visualise your main character. In the first person, this is far more difficult. There has to be some kind of reason for the narrator to be saying the things they do, but you still need to get this basic information across as quickly as possible. If you’re not careful, this can end up sounding awkward and contrived. People rarely state their name, gender, or age in the course of natural conversation, so these things have to be hinted at and implied:
“It’s five years now since she died, and I still don’t know how to use the washing machine. The walk down to the laundrette seems longer and longer these days, though, so I suppose I’ll have to learn.”
The opening above should imply most of the same information as the third person version, though without explicitly stating it. In just two sentences it should be fairly clear that the narrator is an elderly gentleman whose wife died five years previously. Technically, the narrator could just as easily be a teenage girl whose mother had died prematurely, but through understanding people’s assumptions and preconceptions you can guide them down the right path without explicitly stating it. Gender preconceptions have been used to imply the sex of the narrator, via his inability to operate a washing machine, and this also tends to suggest someone uncomfortable with the technology – so probably someone very young or very old. The phrase “these days” (particularly coupled with the walk seeming longer and longer) should be enough to suggest this is someone older, rather than younger.
In general, conveying information and descriptions in first person narratives is more of a challenge than in third person narratives, and has to be approached obliquely to be convincing. In a third person narrative there’s no problem in saying “Janice arrived to collect him in her battered old Ford, covered with dents and scrapes and rusting round the wheel arches”, but people wouldn’t naturally talk like that. Again, there has to be a reason for giving the information: “Janice picked me up to go shopping this afternoon. I don’t like getting in her car – it looks like a death trap – but it’s that or starve, so I don’t have much choice”. Again it’s the point that the narrator is trying to make that needs to be concentrated on – not just a scene-setting description of the kind you’d find in a film script.
As you can see, handling a first person perspective (and doing it well) can be a lot more demanding than handling a third person perspective, but it can also be more rewarding – both for the writer and reader. Ultimately, however, the perspective you choose will depend on the kind of story you are trying to tell – but whichever you choose, make sure you stick to it! All too often a story will crop up where half way through the “I” turns to “he” or the “she” turns to “I”, making the story completely unpublishable. In these cases, it looks like the writer has changed their mind about the perspective to use, and tried to change it after part or all of it is written. My advice: don’t. Not only will you inevitably miss some instances of “he” or “I” or “she” (making the story difficult or impossible to follow), but (as I’ve hopefully shown in this article) changing the perspective of a story is about far more than replacing every “I” with a “he”. It’s about fundamentally changing the type of story you’ve written; its texture, and its structure. If you do want to change the perspective, you really need to start from scratch; otherwise it suggests that you’re not fully exploiting the potential each perspective has to offer.