Getting Perspective

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 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)
  • Conjecture

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?

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2 responses »

  1. I’ve always preferred first/third person, I just find Omniscient a bit heartless. A story about everyone is really a story about no-one, you just can’t really give a focus to all players and expect to hold people’s interest.

    Omniscient seems pretty popular for people just starting out who want to let people know ‘everything’ that’s going on, but I don’t really want to know everything. I just want to know the important and interesting stuff and most of the time Omniscient gets in the way of that.

    It also makes suspense hard. An Omniscient voice could just tell you who did the murderous deeds right away, when an Omniscient voice is withholding that from you it feels like the author is cheating you a lot more than when they’re doing it through selective Third Person viewpoints or First Person thoughts.

    I’ve found you can get away with a lot more in First Person too. Oddly people will accept “I punched in the car window” a lot easier than “Daniel punched in the car window.”. People seem to doubt the third person a bit more, it just seems less plausible for some reason.

    The appeal of the Omniscient to me in the few times I’ve liked it is when the Author themselves is a character. I quite like Omniscient authors who poke fun at the story or the characters poor choices, letting you roll your eyes or laugh along with them. You can be a lot more whimsical with Omniscient if that’s your thing (I hate it) or give it an air of gravitas that you couldn’t really do in First or Third person for the big mythic stuff.

  2. I prefer close third person to an omniscient approach. I think this has come from instinct rather than a well made decision, but I do prefer it – it seems more personal to spend time with a single character, to see things through the limits of their experience.

    I’ve recently started playing with the conjectural approach you suggested near the end. I think it’s got a lot of potential, as the narrator may misunderstand the other person’s intent, and if you can imply that disconnect to the reader it can create tension. But I’ll admit I’m really, really struggling to make the conjecture not feel forced, never mind doing any of that clever stuff.

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