Your novel might have a great plot. You might have great characters. You might have a great setting. But if you don’t know your novel’s perspective? It can sink everything you’ve worked so hard to accomplish.
Perspective is everything in a novel. And yet too often when I’m editing authors’ manuscripts I see a mishmash of perspectives that confuses the reader and deadens our emotional connection to the novel. Many writers set forth writing a novel without giving adequate thought to perspective.
In this post I’ll talk about:
- Why it’s so important to have a consistent perspective
- An overview of the different perspectives you can employ
- How to choose your perspective
- The pros and cons of the different perspectives
- Tips for each type of perspective
- Tips for changing perspective within a novel
Consistency is key
Let’s be honest: the perspective in novels is weird.
In real life we don’t have the ability to see the world through another person’s eyes, or over one person’s shoulder while being able to read their mind, or from up above with the ability to divine what everyone in a room is thinking.
And yet for something that is so inherently weird and devoid of real life analogues, there are some surprisingly basic things that you really need to get right about a novel’s perspective.
Namely: A novel’s perspective needs to be consistent so a reader knows where to situate themselves within a scene.
Think about how confusing it is to start a novel. You’re essentially starting in a completely dark room and the writer then starts to fill in details and slowly and steadily bring the world to life.
It’s much easier to contextualize what you’re seeing if you know where to situate your consciousness within the novel. Are we in one person’s head? Looking down on the scene from above? Looking over someone’s shoulder with the ability to read their thoughts?
It can be any of these approaches, it just can’t be this one: It’s completely disorienting to head jump from one character to another.
Head jumping means you have to constantly re-contextualize whose perspective you’re seeing the events from and constantly re-evaluate your understanding of a scene. It’s exhausting, confusing mental labor. Don’t make the reader do it.
Instead: choose a perspective and stick with it. The reader will settle in like a happy passenger.
An overview of perspectives in novels
First, there are two main tenses you’ll need to choose between.
The two tenses
- Past tense
- Present tense
Past tense (He said, I said) is the more “classic” approach, whereas present tense (He says, I say) can feel more modern and convey a bit more immediacy. Whichever one you choose is up to you, but there’s really only one rule: stick with the one you choose.
When writers jump around with timelines, they sometime use present tense to denote the present timeline and past tense to denote the past timelines. Anything can be made to work, but this usually ends up being pretty confusing. Just stick to one tense.
Types of novel perspectives
Next, you’ll need to choose your overall perspective. Here are your choices:
- First person: Told from a specific narrator’s perspective. “I did this, I did that.”
- Second person: Written as if the narrative happens from the reader’s perspective, or as if it’s a conversation with an invisible character. “You did this, you did that.”
- Third person limited: Tied to one character’s thoughts and perspective at a time. If the perspective shifts, it’s almost as if the camera is handed to another character. “He did this, she did that, but he wasn’t sure why she did what she did.”
- Third person omniscient: Kind of like a god’s-eye perspective. Sometimes this means an all-seeing narrator who is almost another character, other times it’s just a dispassionate voice describing thoughts and actions. “He did this, she did that, he was thinking this, she was thinking that.”
How to choose your perspective
You may be starting the whole novel writing process with a strong preference for which type of perspective you want to employ, in which case congrats! Move straight on to the tips below.
If you’re having a hard time choosing, here are some tips:
- Consider the constraints of the different perspectives: With first person and third person limited, it’s difficult to show things happening outside of your character’s eyesight. With third person omniscient, it’s sometimes tricky to build a sense of deep connection with a particular character. Think through these limitations.
- Think about how many characters you want to anchor to: If you want to show events through more than two or three characters, you probably want to go third person rather than first. It starts to feel unwieldy and confusing to have too many first person narrators thrown into the mix.
- See what feels natural: Try out a few scenes in a few different ways and see what feels right to you. Chances are one approaching is just going to feel like the right one.
For further reading:
Still having trouble deciding? Keep reading to see out pros, cons, and tips for the different types.
- Inspires a sense of intimacy with the narrator
- Interesting to see the world through one character’s POV
- Easier to make difficult-to-believe plots feel realistic (e.g. Never Let Me Go)
- Constrained. We only see what the narrator sees. Difficult to show things happening out of their view.
- Challenging to filter everything believably through one character’s POV
- Narrator needs to be compelling
- Notable examples
- Your reader only knows what your narrator knows and only sees what your narrator sees. It’s really hard to show the reader things that are happening “offstage” that the reader doesn’t know about. You’ll need to shift the plot accordingly.
- The narrator doesn’t have to be a good person, but they have to pass the “stuck in an elevator” test. Would you want to be stuck in an elevator with this person for six hours? Nothing kills a first person narrative quicker than an annoying narrator.
- Go easy on slang, exhortations, and flippancy or you’ll exhaust the reader. Again, would you want to be stuck in an elevator with someone who is saying “Ugh!” every few seconds and is VERY EXCITABLE?
- You can get away with some omniscience in a first person narrative. (Herman Melville does this in Moby-Dick). The key here is just to make it credible that the narrator would know the things they’re narrating.
- Uh. It’s different?
- Yeah that’s all I got.
- It’s extremely disorienting.
- Notable examples
- Think twice before writing a novel this way, or at least use it sparingly. It can quickly get exhausting for the reader.
- If you’re going to write a novel this way, at least make it more like a one-sided conversation with an absent other character than making the reader literally a character. Otherwise the reader will keep saying, “Huh? I’m doing what?”
Third person limited
- Inspires a sense of closeness with certain characters while retaining some flexibility.
- Able to show what a character is thinking and feeling while still retaining some objectivity and distance.
- Similar constraints to first person. We only see what the anchoring character sees. Difficult to show things happening out of their view.
- It can be tricky to get the voice right. The descriptions need to “sound” like the character even as you’re not literally describing things from within their head.
- Notable examples
- Stick with the anchoring character. Even though it’s third person, the reader should be seeing the world through their eyes and only dipping into their head to see their thoughts.
- Do not confuse third person limited and third person omniscient and do not mix them. They are two separate beasts.
- Don’t head jump into another character when you’re writing in third person limited. Again, stick with the anchoring character. If you want to let the reader know what a character is thinking, show this through action or have the anchoring character observe the emotion in the other person.
- You can get away with some cheating with third person limited. If you want the anchoring character to leave but keep the scene going, think of it as keeping a camera in place and ease the reader into the new perspective.
Third person omniscient
- Maximum flexibility. You can show the reader anything you want, within reason.
- It can be tricky to make it a seamless experience for the reader and avoid disorienting head jumping.
- It’s harder to build a sense of connection between the reader and any one character.
- Notable examples
- The key to a good third person omniscient narrative is a unifying voice. Whether the novel is being narrated by a literal character or just by an unnamed narrator, we should be seeing the scene from one perspective rather than amalgam of the different characters.
- Think of a third person omniscience narrator as a clairvoyant fly on the wall or someone looking down from above but not as a combination of the characters in the room.
- Try to dip into characters’ heads a bit more sparingly in third person omniscience and remember that we’re only doing this because the unifying voice wants us to know those thoughts in order to understand what’s happening.
How to change perspectives within a novel
Keen-eyed readers will notice that all four types of perspectives have one thing at in common: They comprise one perspective at a time.
Even the omniscient perspective, which may well dip into a few different heads, represents a singular perspective rather than combining multiple.
That said, you may want to combine a few different perspectives in your novel.
Here are some tips for making that work:
- If you want to shift the perspective to another character, denote the shift with a section break or a chapter break and clearly signal to the reader that they’re with a new character. It’s good to let the reader have a mental break before you change the perspective.
- If you are inserting an interlude from another POV or a wildly different perspective (like a brief passage of first person in an otherwise third person narrative), make it stylistically different than the rest of the novel, like using italics or a markedly different prose style, so the reader recognizes it as an interlude or something different rather than as a continuation of what came before.
- You can get away with some cheating with these perspectives, but be very careful. Always think of it like leaving a camera rolling in one place even if the narrator happens to leave for a bit. The reader shouldn’t have to completely readjust their perspective within a scene.
Perspective is so, so important to get right, and you should give it a great deal of thought and care. If you’re able to get it just right, the reader will never even notice because the illusion will be so perfect that they’ll lose themselves in your world.
See anything I missed? Any tips or tricks? Let me know in the comments!
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Art: Stilleben mit Bordeuauxflasche by Juan Gris