Perspective Types 202-02

In addition to choosing a POV character, there is also the question of which voice to use; first, second, third limited, or third omniscient, and whether the story will be told in past or present tense. At the moment past first and third limited are most common within fiction.

First Person
First person creates a sense of immediacy. It helps audiences build a strong attachment to the POV character, though it also important to restrict a first person narrative to a single POV. Otherwise audiences may get confused by the multiple “I”s.

First person requires a strong voice, with unique sentence structures and vocabulary. A first person narrator can never conceal anything with the audience, because the audience is literally inside their mind, hearing the character’s thoughts. It’s a very intimate form of narration, and it requires a very strong character to keep audiences engaged.

When writing in first person, authors can choose either past or present tense. First person present offers immediacy, but also locks the story into the single perspective of the protagonist in the moment, without the perspective of hindsight.

First person past tense has the advantage that it actually makes use of two characters; the protagonist when the story takes place, and the protagonist “now”, who is either writing or telling the story to someone else; which is a key component of first person past tense. The protagonist must be a character who would tell or write his story, and he must be in a present situation where it makes sense for him to do so.

First person past tense can create one problem, the protagonist knows how the story ends, and the audience can at least rest assured that the protagonist survives the story. One solution is to have the protagonist keep a daily journal, writing entries in their spare time.

Second Person
Second person is told entirely in the form of “you”, which is difficult to maintain. The “you” is still a fictional character, but audience often feels as if the narrator is directing them to become the character, adopting their role and perspective.
The constant use of “you” often feels like a set of instructions, with little room for description or reflection. “You dive in, savoring the icy chill of the water.” The problem is that not everyone likes swimming, or being cold, putting audiences in conflict with the story itself.

Second person can be very effective within a dialogue between two characters, which preserves the audience’s role as silent observer.

Third Person
Third person relies on an invisible narrator who is separate from, but always observing the events of the story, as well as the thoughts of the characters. It uses “he”, “she”, and “they”. Third person can be omniscient or limited. The narrator never actively interferes the story; they merely observe.

Third omniscient is when the narrator simultaneously knows the thoughts of every character in the scene. This is one of the more challenging forms to write, because the narrator and audience know everything, no secret can be kept. The story still focuses on a few key characters, but the narrator is free to enter any scene that bears relevance to the story.

Dune is a rare example of strong third omniscient. In one scene the first line is a traitor admitting to himself that he intends to kill those closest to him. The other characters have no idea, but the thought is so significant that it dominates the traitor’s mind.

Third limited is one of the most popular forms, where the narrator follows a specific character, sharing their thoughts and perspective, but free to share things the character may not know or notice.

Within a scene the narrator is focused on a single character, but the narrator can shift to a new character any time there’s a line break. Most authors restrict a POV shift to a scene change, but it is possible to switch to a different POV character within the same scene, as long as the author uses a line break to establish the shift.

Within third limited there are also three levels of depth; how closely the narrator is tied to the POV character. At one end there’s deep level, which is essentially first person except told using “he”, “she”, and “they”. The narrator is inside the POV character’s head, experiencing everything through the filter of the POV character’s perspective. Light level uses a narrator that observes the scene like a camera, but also shares the character’s more intense thoughts with the audience. Last is the cinematic level, where the narrator only knows what they can observe with their own five senses.

Next Time…
Using Perspective

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24 thoughts on “Perspective Types 202-02

  1. I’d say my current book is third person deep level. Sometimes I ponder about just making it first person but it’s written from a male character’s POV and while I love em… I don’t want to write as a man!

  2. Pingback: Perspective & POV 202-01 | Write Thoughts

  3. Excellent read, Adam. Right now I’m working on a trilogy and utilizing third person omnisicent. At first it was a challenge, but after I wrote out character profiles and established plot arcs for each of my main characters, I found that being inside multiple heads became easier.

    Thanks for sharing this information. It’s already helping me!

    • That is very good to hear. Thank you for sharing. I look forward to seeing your story when it’s complete.
      If there are other topics you’d like to see covered, please let me know.

  4. I find I’m most drawn to writing 3rd person limited. I like telling a story closely from one characters POV but dabbling with side characters too. Occassionally, I’ll use 1st person. I agree that you need a really strong character voice and aren’t able to hide anything from the reader (except when using an unreliable narrator).

    • On some level I wonder to what extent my own affinity is rooted in how many books I have read in third limited, but I do agree, I am drawn to it as well.

      • Yeah. I think the majority of the books I’ve read have been 3rd person limited. I do like a good 1st POV. Sometimes I like mixing 1st and 3rd person, but that can be tricky.

      • I tend to let go during the rough draft, and often drift between first and third. Then I go back during revision and clean it up, settling on which perspective to choose for the story.

      • I’m working on the letting go during the first draft. I’m getting better, but I usually have to chant “crappy first draft” to myself whenever I want to edit during the initial writing.

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