This week’s writing class was all about perspective – first/third person vs. omniscient. It’s a challenging issue and one which will massively affect the whole book. The tone of the story will change dramatically depending on how you decide to narrate it. Do you go with first/third person and get the close internal view of what that character knows, or do you widen it out to get a view of everything?
The trouble with first/third is that, whilst it’s very personal and intimate, it’s also blinkered. You can only share what your narrator knows, and you HAVE to share that because otherwise you lose aspects of the character. That in turn leads to issues over plot tension – you can’t both sink into the narrator’s character and withhold information from the reader, which means that dramatic twists need to come from somewhere else. Finally, it can lead to an unreliable narrator, since the narrator doesn’t know everything that’s going on.
Omniscient lets you share and withhold as much information as you like. The challenges there are very different. First, you have to make sure that you aren’t confusing your reader by switching back and forth. Second, you lose that close personal connection and internal monologue with the close narrator (unless you slip back into third person perspective, which is easy to do but means you’re not doing omniscient any more).
I always prefer first/third person perspective. The challenges of trying to get information across that the narrator wouldn’t necessarily have is part of the fun, and there are a number of handy techniques:
- Dialogue (direct/overheard/reported/gossip)
- Literature (letters/diaries/official reports/newspapers)
- Character clues (body language/reactions/personal environment)
Most of those are pretty obvious, but the last one needs a little explaining. It’s where the narrator draws their own conclusions about what other characters are thinking, going into their heads on the reader’s behalf. Personally I think this is a tricky one to pull off, since it’s easy to slip into a completely different feel of perspective and that can be confusing for the reader. W Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge is an example where first person conjecture leads into omniscient in places and, for me, is unnecessarily complex as a result.
I actually disagreed with the course teacher on this one – she was encouraging people to try using the approach, whereas I feel people generally have enough problem not straying from their primary perspective by accident and should therefore really be concentrating on practising sticking to one. I see the point of playing but for me the challenge of working around a first/third person perspective’s restrictions is part of the skill, and switching is the lazy solution. What do you think?