Hello everyone. How was your holiday season? Hectic? Restful? Nonexistent?
I’m back with a little bit of jabber about that crazy novel idea I had. It’s still in the works. I haven’t forgotten it, but the holidays and my new job sort of pushed it to the back burner. I’ve had a lot of ideas and a lot of time to really think about the plot and the characters, and I’ve decided that my New Year’s Resolution (pardon the cliche) is to get started on that novel. No more putting it off or procrastinating or worrying. Write it!
In that vein, I was talking to a friend recently about perspectives in literature: namely, first, second, and first person perspectives. What started the conversation was my recent introduction to the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher (worth checking out if you enjoy that genre!)
I mentioned to her that first person narration (the perspective in the books) was not my favorite. It doesn’t ultimately make me like or dislike the novel any more or less, but it does lend a certain feel to the novel as a whole. If you’re a writer of any kind or even just an avid reader, you know how important the tone or feel of a novel can be. The narration and perspective of the novel lends a great deal of that tone. It’s downright important to pick the right one.
First person perspective is pretty common in literature, though more so in non-fiction than in fiction I would wager. It is the perspective that comes straight from the main character’s mouth; that is, the book is written in terms of “I” and “my”. The main character narrates his/her own story as if they were telling it to you over coffee. This is a wonderful tool for story telling and if used correctly can lend a degree of personality and attitude to the story. It gives the author a chance to let the character’s personality shine through the narration of the novel instead of simply his or her words. However, it can also come across as pompous, as if the character is bragging about him or herself. The sentence, “I am very astute like that,” sounds like the character is bragging, where as the same sentence rewritten in third-person style does not. Another limitation of this perspective is that the narrator, being the main character, cannot be omniscient. The story will be limited to the thoughts and internal dialogue of the main character, and will not be able to follow events or actions taking place in areas where the main character is not. This can work just fine for a story in which you only want the reader to know what the characters knows.
Second person perspective is a foul, loathsome approach to literature best reserved for mass-produced “choose your own story” crap than any serious novel. It is the perspective as told from your point of view, so that the entire story is written in terms of “you did this” and “you did that” as if you, personally, were part of the narrative. It’s popular among books aimed at tweens and doesn’t hold up under finer literary scrutiny, most likely because telling the story from “your” perspective gets very annoying very quickly. “You take a step down the dark hallway.” No, no I didn’t. I don’t want to. I want to turn around and go back. “You brush the hair off your face and reach for the doorknob.” But I’m bald. And I don’t want to open that door. “The door creaks open and what you see inside causes you to faint!” What did I see? Why did I faint? I’m not a pansy. See what I mean?
Third person perspective is the most common and involves a story told by a narrator who is not a character in the book. The book is written in terms of “he” and “she”. That narrator can be literally anyone else: it can be an observer who saw the events happen but did not partake, it can be a deity watching from on high, it can be no one in particular…and the real strength of the third person narrator is that you, the author, can decide if they are omniscient (all-knowing) or limited. Omniscient narrators know the thoughts, motives, pasts and internal dialogues of all the characters and can use them to effect the story or inform the reader. A limited narrator knows intimately the thoughts of one character (the main character, usually) but nothing about the others. A great example of this was the Harry Potter books, in which the narrator was able to convey all of Harry’s thoughts and feelings but the feelings and thoughts of Ron, Hermione, and others were not accessible unless spoken out loud by the characters themselves.
Obviously each of these three has its own advantages and disadvantages. Second person, while my very least favorite, has seen popularity among books such as those written by R.L. Stein. First person is good for really getting inside one character’s mind while third person is good for stories with lots of characters and events that do not all revolve around the main character.
Finally there is an alternating perspective in which the book’s main character changes periodically. In one chapter you may read from the perspective of Bob, and in the next chapter you read from the perspective of Bill. If you read the Animorphs books (my great childhood love) they did this very frequently. Each book was from the point of view of a different character. While the Harry Potter books were almost always told from Harry’s point of view using a third person limited perspective, sometimes they deviated and told a brief scene or two from the point of view of another character. Such as when the old caretaker stumbles upon Lord Voldemort in an old house in the English countryside.
The vast majority of my stories have been written in third person. A select few were in first person, when I felt that the narration would hit home better if told from the mouth of the main character. It’s a good tool for getting the reader into the character’s mind. But for the purposes of my novel, it doesn’t work. There are too many characters having too many important thoughts. There’s too much going on away from the main character that needs to be witnessed by the reader. And beneath it all, I just cant shake the feeling that a first person narration can get a little braggy sometimes. My main protagonist isn’t a bragger.
So the novel will be written in a third person omniscient perspective with periods of alternating viewpoints. As for anything else I write? Well, that’s still up in the air.
Tune in later this week for a short story written in first person perspective!