Perspective is one of the most powerful weapons of warfare you have at your disposal. When loading words into your literary cannon, you need to decide who is going to be firing them at the reader. Put clearly, from whose perspective is your book written?
Most instructional books title this perspective as Point of View (POV), and most agree that there are three main approaches to it: first person, third person, and omniscient. After this, the agreement ends. I have seen texts offer more than 20 variations of these three. Let’s take a day to focus on the basics. After all, to wield the weapon, we must understand it.
First Person is the surgical blade many mystery writers use to carve out their manuscripts. When taking advantage of this the writer adopts the “I” voice. You relay the story through the eyes, mouth, and mind of one of the books characters.
Renni Browne and Dave King explain in their book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, “…in order to succeed in the first-person point of view, you have to create a character strong enough and interesting enough to keep your readers going for an entire novel, yet not so eccentric or bizarre that your readers feel trapped inside his or her head” (p. 42).
First Person is also a double edged blade (it cuts both ways). You gain the advantage of intimacy, but lose the ability to offer insights outside of the characters range of knowledge. You can only offer suggestions as to what other characters are feeling, based upon the understanding (or lack there of) of your narrator. It’s fun to write, but over the long haul, challenging. Trust me, my current book Wastelander, is in this POV.
Here is a brief example/teaser (the unedited first two paragraphs) from my book. It is first person-tastic. I don’t want to hear any cyber scoffs…
As far as luck goes, it hadn’t been my greatest day. It’s hard to cling to those sparkly, silver linings when you’re buried underneath no less than ten-and-a-half bloated decaying bodies in the hopes you don’t get eaten alive by a bunch of inbred, radioactive cannibals.
Believe it or not, this predicament was premeditated by yours truly. The plan was to collect on cannibal heads. Four to be exact. I figured four heads should net me a couple jugs of water, some grub to munch on, some rounds, or maybe the sweet comforts of the female persuasion. I hadn’t really worked out those details just yet.
At the opposite end of the weapon rack is omniscient. Where you could only cut with precision from the viewpoint of a single character with first person, you now can drop a hydrogen bomb of information on the reader with omniscient POV. The omniscient narrator is godlike in their knowledge. They have the inside scoop on character motivations, historical background, and everything in-between.
The challenge with omniscience is you can struggle to create a deep bond with the reader. The all-knowing being can be hard to relate to. It obviously can be done and there are countless books out there written from this POV. The website, Literary Devices, has some great excerpts, as well as more information about omniscient voice. You can check it out here.
Nestled snugly in the middle of the rack is Third Person. It is the bayonet adorned rifle that allows you to shoot at a distance, or stab from up close. In plain terms, with third person we can create distance in the narrative and we can close it. How do we do this? One of the best examples I have seen comes again from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (p. 48-49). Check out these two examples from that book and look for those differences in word choices. How do they make you feel?
Coral Blake mopped the gritty sweat out of her eyes and gazed up at the dusty green underside of the oak. The dog days of August had settled in, it seemed, and like most folks in Greeleyville, South Carolina, she took cover from the sun on her front porch under that grandfatherly tree.
My, how she hated that tree in autumn. Then, she’d stand out in the scraggly front yard with a rake and curse the leaves that multiplied like loaves and fishes as they fell. But now, with her head up against the cool metal of the glider, the tree was a positive blessing.
Compare that excerpt to this revised one, also in third person.
Coral Blake mopped the sweat out of her eyes and gazed up at the dusty green underside of the oak. It seemed the dog days of August had arrived, and like most of the citizens of Greeleyville, South Carolina, she took refuge from the sun on her front porch under the tree.
Ironic how much she hated that tree at other times. Every fall she’d stand in her threadbare front yard with a rake and curse the leaves that multiplied as they fell. But now, resting her head against the cool metal of the glider, she considered the tree to be a blessing.
The differences in language and word choice are subtle, but they create the differing distances I was talking about earlier. Depended on your particular work, and what you are trying to accomplish with a passage, you may need some distance from the reader, or you may need to breath down their neck. This is the power of third person.
That’s it for today. Like I said when I started this post, there are more variations on these three POVs than I have fingers and toes. One of these days we might examine those variations more, but for now, go forth with these weapons of war. Just don’t put your eye out…
What are you favorite perspectives to write and read from? I am enjoying writing in first person (but am looking forward to finishing this book so I can write in something else). I’m not a huge fan of reading omniscient narrative, but easily sink into third and first. There are exceptions to this, but there is it. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!