How to Decide Which Perspective to Write From
Point-of-view matters in a narrative. The right perspective will allow your reader to fall into your story, suspending their disbelief and ensuring they become invested in the characters and their fates.
This is a story told from the point-of-view of a character within the story, using an ‘I’ or ‘we’ perspective. The first person is the one who is speaking. The narrator puts across the world as they see it. The writer portrays scenes through a character’s eyes.
It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
First-person perspective puts the reader inside a character’s mind. In this example, the narrator is considering their impression of their father. Everything shared in this sentence is subjective and based on experience, not fact, thereby offering depth of character through opinion.
This is a story told from the point-of-view of the reader assuming a character role within the story, using a ‘you’ perspective. The second person is the one who is being spoken to. The narrator talks to and instructs the reader. The writer includes the reader in the narrative.
You hear the car after an hour and a half. During that time you’ve been here in the darkness, sitting on the small telephone seat near the front door, waiting.Iain Banks, Complicity
Second-person perspective puts the reader inside the story. Here, the narrative puts the reader in the mind of a murderer by having them assume that role in the story.
This is a story told from the point-of-view of an outsider telling the story of other characters, using a ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘they’ or ‘it’ perspective. The third person is the one who is being spoken about. The narrator is not part of the tale. The writer can explore different characters and multiple perspectives.
Their commander was a middle-aged corporal—red-eyed, scrawny, tough as dried beef, sick of war. He had been wounded four times—and patched up, and sent back to war.Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
Third-person perspective puts the reader amongst multiple characters in the story. In this extract the reader goes from the focus of a group of characters to describing their corporal, to then finding out about that character as if drifting into his memories.
Choosing a Point-of-View
When deciding which perspective to write from, there are two questions to ask.
Is the narrator part of the story?
If they are, then there will be at least an element of first-person perspective to the narration, though they may not be the protagonist, and they could decide to include the reader as a second-person. If they are not, the story will be told from a third-person point-of-view.
Who is the narrator?
When you are telling an anecdote, you do so in your own voice, even if you were present or part of the yarn you are spinning. You don’t make up the story—it is true—though you might embellish certain aspects or make alterations for dramatic purposes. You could reorder events, add in or cut out people that were involved, or take any manner of artistic licences with the tale, yet at its core it remains an anecdote of what happened. That is because you are the narrator, not the author.
When writing fiction, you are inventing characters and sending them off to undertake a plot. You are not telling the story, your narrator is—whether they are part of it or not.
Your narrator exists in their own right. You need to get their voice right and you allow them to tell the story in their own way. Whether your narrator is part of the story or not, consider how they wish to narrate. If your narrator is part of the story, the story should be told from a first-person perspective. If the narrator wants to include the reader, the story should be told from a second-person perspective. If the narrator is telling a tale of other characters, the story will be from a third-person perspective.
Whichever your narrator decides, you—as the writer—need to capture the narrator’s voice and allow them to tell the story in their own way. Otherwise, it will be you telling a story, and that won’t work if you are also the person inventing the story.
Often, writers use narrators who have voices similar to their own, and occasionally find that an ‘author voice’ creeps in. This is where the writer’s own opinion or thoughts manifest on the page and is a big distraction from the story. The great advantage of separating the narrator from the author, no matter the perspective, is that this is less likely to happen. The thoughts will be the narrators, not the writers, and so will be in-keeping with the tale being told.
Whenever I write a story, I like to think of my narrator as a character who is recounting the tale. I am the one writing it down—capturing it—as they are telling it to me. They could be of a different background, they might not be human, sometimes they are slightly drunk; whatever the case, each story has a different narrator. Some are formal, others are not. Whoever they are, I cannot write the story properly without knowing their voice. Narrators are characters. You are creating their truth—who, what, where, when, why—but it is up to them to decide the how, so let them. They could speak in a similar way to you, but they might not. They may take considerable liberties as they tell the story, but so be it. It’s their telling that matters.