When you’re writing a story, there’s always a point of view. You’re telling the story from a particular perspective – and that can have a huge impact on how the story comes across to the reader.
At the most basic, you need to choose between telling a story in the first person (“I woke up one morning…”) and the third person (“He woke up one morning…”).
The second person is also a possibility (“You woke up one morning…”) but it’s very rarely used in mainstream fiction.
Beyond this, you might opt for a closer or more distant perspective, depending on how much you want your narrative to be coloured by your character’s thoughts. You might also choose to have more than one narrator, which we’ll be taking a look at in a moment.
You’ll also need to choose between past tense and present tense (and be careful you don’t accidentally shift between them). It’s more usual to write stories in the past tense, which is often seen as the “natural” storytelling tense … but many first person narratives, and some more literary third person narratives, use the present tense.
First Person Perspective: Key Considerations
If you tell a story in the first person (“I”), then you’ll need to decide:
- How close are you going to get to the character’s thoughts? Will you write your story in standard grammatical English, or is it going to be more strongly “voiced” than that? If your narrator is a young child, or speaks non-standard English, you may want that to come across in the voice of the narrative.
- How exactly is your character telling the story? Many first person narratives are presented simply as stories, with no sense of them being “told” through a particular medium – but some are presented as though the narrator has actually written them down, or as though they’re talking to us.
In some older novels, it’s fairly normal for the first person narrator to not be the protagonist (think of Watson in Sherlock Holmes, for instance) – they’re telling the story of someone else’s exploits, which they may or may not be heavily involved in.
These days, it’s more usual for the first person narrator to also be the protagonist of the story – though this isn’t a hard and fast rule.
These books are all good examples of first person narratives:
- Emma Donoghue’s Room, narrated in the first-person by five-year-old Jack, for a single, strongly voiced perspective.
- Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, with three different first-person narrators, all of whom have distinct voices.
- Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, with an unnamed first-person narrator who (we discover) is writing a journal.
Third Person Perspective
If you tell a story in the third person (“he/she”), then you’ll need to decide:
- Are you going to narrate only what a particular character knows (“limited third person” or “deep POV”) or are you going to tell the reader things that the character(s) aren’t privy to (“omniscient third person”)? Limited third person is by far the most common choice for modern fiction.
- Will you use more than one perspective? While this is an option in first person narratives too, it’s definitely more common in stories told in the third person. If you are using multiple perspectives, you’ll have to think about how best to jump between them: moving at the end of a scene or a chapter is the most common option.
These books are all good examples of third person narratives:
- K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, which makes frequent use of an omniscient narrator (as well as multiple limited third person narrators).
- Any of Sophie Hannah’s Culver Valley crime novels, which are divided between first person, present tense, and third person, past tense narrative.
- Any of G.R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, which use a lot of different character’s perspectives, always in the limited third person.
Using Multiple Narrators
Several of the books that I’ve shared above use multiple narrators, rather than just one. This can be particularly useful if:
- You want to use narrators who aren’t fully reliable – maybe they don’t outright lie to the reader, but they are biased. Having several different narrators can give a more rounded, complex version of the story.
- You’re telling a story that takes place in multiple different places at once, and you want to follow the action through the heads of different characters.
- You want to reveal information to the reader that the protagonist doesn’t know – this can help increase the tension. For instance, you might show the perspective of the protagonist’s love interest, who – unknown to the protagonist – is making preparations to leave.
If you’re using multiple narrators, you’ll need to think about how best to balance them. With two or three narrators, it might make most sense to rotate between their viewpoints; with more than that, you’ll probably have some characters who have a greater number of viewpoint scenes than others. You’ll want to carefully consider whose perspective to use for any given scene, too.
You’ll also need to think about how you shift between the different characters’ viewpoints: as I mentioned earlier, the most common options here are to shift the perspective at the end of a scene or chapter. In a first person narrative, it’s usually pretty obvious that you have to have a firm break between viewpoints; in a third person narrative, it’s important to avoid “head-hopping” between characters.
Different points of view will suit different stories and styles – and you may want to play around with point of view a bit before deciding exactly how you’re going to tell your story. Good luck!