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Narrative Perspective

novel writing techniques starting to write Jan 08, 2023
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Few things can alter a story as quickly as shifting the point of view from which it’s told. Think about it: tell the same tale from a first person perspective, and then switch that to a different character’s perspective. Next, try a third person limited point of view. Then consider a completely omniscient narrator. Or go more avant-garde and think about how it might sound from a second person point of view. You’ll quickly notice how the shape of the story, the experience of hearing it, are completely altered depending on the point of view. It’s not just how we access the character’s thoughts that’s different – the narrative voice sets the tone for the whole novel.

But when is a first-person or third-person narrator the right choice? And does it always have to be the main character doing the narrating? If you switch perspectives, do we need to hear from all the characters involved in the action?

To help you make the big decisions about the narrative voice in your novel, our editing coach Francine Toon has dedicated some time to weighing up your options and their respective effects, and canvassed editors at the ‘Big Five’ publishing houses for their opinions on narrative perspective, too. If you’re unsure of the right point of view to tell your story, read on!

 

Writing fiction is all about subjectivity

There are no facts, only interpretations.
—Nietzsche

This famous quote by Nietzsche can be a helpful way to think about narrative perspective when it comes to writing your novel.

Of course, you may start with a number of ‘facts’ regarding the content of your novel – the characters, the action that takes place, the setting. These are very important. Yet it is also important to consider the most interesting way they can be interpreted to the reader, via the narrative perspective.

In other words, the narrative perspective is the lens through which we view the facts of the novel.

Playing with narrative perspective goes back thousands of years. Homer’s Odyssey starts with a straight-forward third person narration (‘Odysseus put on his shirt and cloak’), to describe fairly plausible events. Things only become fantastical when Odysseus starts telling the story himself at a banquet, hoping to impress his hosts with tales of fighting monsters. This use of first person narration (e.g. ‘I approached the Cyclops’) is an early example of an unreliable narrator, one who incidentally has a reputation as a liar.

So how do you decide which type of narrative perspective is best suited to your novel?

Let’s take a closer look at the different forms and functions of narrative perspective, with some insight from commissioning editors.

First person narration

a different narrative point of view like a first person narrator could change the feel of your story

First person singular

The first person narrative is told as though a character is speaking to us, the reader, or we are inside their head. It uses first person pronouns ‘I’, ‘me’, ’my’ and ‘myself’.

It jumps out at us in the opening lines of The Catcher in the Rye:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like.
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

There is an immediacy to stories told in the first person point of view, we are up close and personal with the character, witnessing events through their eyes, accessing their thoughts and feelings. We may also get a sense of their personality through their turn of phrase and general manner of speaking. Unreliable narrators are typically written in this way, as the narrator relates their own perspective and we’re plunged into the character’s mind rather than watching events unfold objectively.

If you feel these emotive, subjective qualities would serve your plot well, you might want to choose a first person narrator.

Stories well-suited to the first person point of view

For the reasons above, first person point of view is often used for coming-of-age novels – The Catcher in the Rye being a prime example – and it is similarly popular in the YA genre (for example Looking for Alaska, Twilight, The Hunger Games). Indeed it is suitable for any novel that is heavily character-led.

This form of narration is also highly biased and gives us limited insight into other characters; we see only what the character delivering the first person narrative perspective sees. That can be perfect for creating page-turning tension and suspense. Psychological thrillers are often written in first person (for example Before I Go to Sleep, In a Dark, Dark Wood) as facts can be concealed from the narrator (and/or reader), plot twists can be created and the drama heightened.

Finn Cotton, Crime Editor at Transworld, confirms this:

We are still seeing a trend towards psychological thrillers that use first person. These books often have an unreliable narrator who withholds information from the reader.
—Finn Cotton, Crime Editor at Transworld

First person, with its intimate perspective into one character’s thoughts and feelings, is also favoured in the romance and women’s fiction genres (for example, Bridget Jones’s Diary, It Ends With Us, Outlander).

Emily Kitchin, Women’s Fiction Editor at HarperCollins, says:

These books, especially those currently being recommended on TikTok, are more likely to be first person point of view, or perhaps an alternating male and female point of view, which can work well for a romantic comedy. I love first-person for this genre and feel you can get in the character’s head and get to know them better.
—Emily Kitchin, Women’s Fiction Editor at HarperCollins

 

Epistolary and diary novels

Sometimes first person narration is used within the construct of diary entries, emails and letters, either sparingly, such as in Howard’s End and its modern update On Beauty, or as an entire novel, such as The Colour Purple, The Diary of Adrian Mole, The Appeal or Dracula. This can create an even more limited point of view.

Each of these examples falls into a different genre, but the form has been carefully selected as the best way of telling that story and heightening certain dramatic effects such as suspense, humour or emotion.

When considering this form of first person narration, ask what advantages (and indeed disadvantages) it could bring to your novel.

 

Child’s voice, vernacular and the deceased

Think carefully before choosing a child as your first person narrator. It is difficult to strike a balance between a narrative voice that sounds too precocious and adult for the character’s age, and one that could be authentic but sounds affected on the page.

Children, by nature, have limited access to and understanding of the world and of other characters, which may not be suitable for your plot. Like many publishers, Leonora Craig Cohen, Literary Fiction Editor at Serpent’s Tail, finds this mode of storytelling ‘marmite-y’.

Scout Finch is often remembered as the ‘child narrator’ in To Kill A Mockingbird, but while she does recount the events of her childhood, as she experienced them, it is with an adult voice, many years later.

Similarly to writing in a child’s voice, a first person narrative that attempts to transcribe an accent is a difficult feat and can feel distracting, clumsy or even offensive. Even Trainspotting, a famously successful example of using vernacular, uses fairly standardised Scots and Scots-English, interspersed with British English.

Often, using a few specific words will do all the heavy lifting without taking the reader’s attention from the story.

Leonora Craig Cohen also advises caution on narratives told from ‘beyond the grave’, that is to say, using a narrator who has died:

Arguably almost all historical fiction does this, but making us connect with someone whose ultimate fate is known is a real challenge.
—Leonora Craig Cohen, Literary Fiction Editor at Serpent’s Tail

A brilliant, non-historical exception that proves the rule is The Lovely Bones.

 

Using multiple narrators in first person

Choosing the first person doesn’t necessarily mean you’re limited to one character’s perspective. In fact, offering multiple first person narrators with alternating chapters providing different interpretations of the story’s events can be an excellent source of dramatic irony. Just look at novels like The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

Multiple voices are created not only by describing what your characters experience, but through varying your prose style for each character and inserting idiosyncratic turns of phrase.

For example, in The Poisonwood Bible, selfish Rachel Price’s narration is made distinctive by her 60s American vernacular and misused phrases (for example ‘took for granite’ instead of ‘took for granted’) while her intellectual sister Adah uses figurative language (e.g. ‘a lone red snake of dirt road’).

If you have a large cast of characters, but still want a sense of intimacy or concealment, this could be the right option for you.

Psychological suspense novels such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, use two or three alternating perspectives and Emily Kitchin points out that first person, multi-perspective novels are increasingly popular in other areas of crime and thriller:

Since the rise of Lucy Foley and increased prominence of the ‘closed-location mystery’, I’ve definitely seen many more crime and thrillers on submission that use multiple narrators, sometimes four or even six characters. If handled well it can be brilliant and creates that Agatha Christie-style sense of twistiness and mystery, you’re not sure who to believe!
—Emily Kitchin, Women’s Fiction Editor at HarperCollins

 third person narration may be classic but a third person narrator certainly isn't the only point of view to consider

 

First person plural

Occasionally novels use a first person plural narrative – ‘we’, ‘our’ and ‘us.’ One example is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, where an anonymous group of men look back at their teenage years:

It didn't matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn't heard us calling.
Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides

This unusual style of narrating is fitting for the novel’s tragic events as it mirrors a plaintive Greek chorus. Interestingly Eugenides has chosen the narrative perspective of the bystanders, which enhances the sense of mystery surrounding the central characters, while still giving the reader a sense of closeness. Maintaining a heavily stylised perspective is a tricky feat and, as in The Virgin Suicides, requires a light touch.

  

Third person narration

have

Where the first person point of view can be described as ‘internal’, the third person narrative is ‘external’ to the characters, describing their actions and thoughts by using third person pronouns ‘he, she, they, him, her, them.’

The first time she took the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, her palms sweaty, she walked the streets, watching, absorbing.
—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

In crime and thriller, Finn Cotton is seeing more authors move away from the popular first person narratives of psychological suspense and into third person perspective, which he associates with ‘cosier, sometimes comic crime, featuring more likeable characters.’  

The associated ‘cosiness’ of third person point of view may be due to its usage by classic crime writers such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.

In general, it is the more traditional narrative style, having been favoured for centuries in fairy tales and by classic novelists such as Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy and George Eliot.

There are two kinds of third person narrative, ‘close third’ (sometimes called ‘third person limited’) and ‘omniscient’ narrator. Let’s take a closer look at each narrative point of view.

Close third person point of view

Close third person narrates events from one character’s point of view.

Compared to first person, there is more distance is between the reader and the character, but the reader still only experiences events from one perspective – that’s why this point of view is often referred to as offering a third person limited narrator. This can be useful if you don’t want the intensity of being inside a character’s head or want to write in a prose style that is separate from a character’s voice.

That said, in a third person narrative, you have the option of giving a sense of the character’s perspective and voice by inserting turns of phrase or words they would use. For example, in Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart: ‘Ann McGee had the brass neck to call in sick again that morning.’ The term ‘brass neck’, is used to Shuggie’s voice and convey his frustration.

On the other hand, you may use third person to create a sense of emotional detachment, and elusiveness

 

Stories well-suited to a third person limited narrator

Leonora Craig Cohen says that the majority of books she sees on submission are either in first person or close third, ‘it’s about 50/50’. Unlike the trends in crime and thriller and women’s fiction, only a handful of Craig Cohen’s literary fiction submissions are alternating perspectives from two or more points of view.

Over in the sci fi genre, close third is used in classic dystopian novels such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Neuromancer and I Am Legend. If we are following a protagonist through an unfamiliar world, the third person narrative is able to show us their experience, but with some helpful, if subtle, context.

Of course, some of their animals undoubtedly consisted of electronic circuitry fakes, too; he had of course never nosed into the matter . . . Nothing could be more impolite.
—Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

In this example from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick weaves in some societal details that may feel forced in a first person narrative.

an omniscient point of view lets us into the minds of other characters

Third person omniscient narrator

Omniscient narration is third person narration in which the external narrator is all-seeing, all-hearing and all-knowing, giving the reader insight into different characters’ thoughts, experiences and points of view. In this mode, the narrator can impart knowledge to the reader that is outside the characters’ awareness. 

Jane Austen is famous for using this form of narration, which is helpful when using satire and exploring themes of social interaction and conflicting outlooks.

In this example from Pride and Prejudice, we see how the third person narrative can switch from different points of view:

He had entertained hopes of being admitted to a sight of the young ladies, of whose beauty he had heard much; but he saw only the father. The ladies were somewhat more fortunate, for they had the advantage of ascertaining, from an upper window, that he wore a blue coat and rode a black horse.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Stories well-suited to an omniscient point of view

Third person omniscient can also be useful when your novel requires a large canvas, such as a multigenerational saga.

Although the style has precedent in classic literature, it is much less common in contemporary fiction, perhaps because it can sometimes sound old-fashioned.

It is worth noting that handling multiple points of view within a chapter is not for the faint-hearted. Hopping from one person’s mind to another mid-scene can often produce a dizzying effect for the reader and should be avoided. Even in Jane Austen’s example above, we do not enter the minds of the ladies, but only gain their vantage point as a way to further describe the first character.

Certain genres, such as science fictional space opera, use the third person omniscient only for certain passages, as a way of describing the wider world from a distance, before zooming back in to a certain character and using close third person.

 

Second person narration

This form of narration uses second person pronouns (‘you’). The second person narrator is rarely seen in novels, and when it is, it may only be for certain passages. The overall effect is generally more suited to short stories, poetry and self-help non-fiction.

A novel that successfully sustains a second person narration is Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney.

The problem is, for some reason you think you are going to meet the kind of girl who is not the kind of girl who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.
—Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City

 

Stories well-suited to second person narration

Similarly to first person narration, second person provides a sense of intimacy, but adds a certain sense of detachment, as though the narrator is a more objective observer.

When considering this unusual style, it would be wise to ensure the perspective doesn’t become overbearing and detract from the plot of the novel.

 

Which narrative perspective is best?

As we can see, a variety of narrative perspectives are used for a variety of genres, with some aspects more suited to certain genres than others.

Do editors prefer one mode of storytelling over another? Finn Cotton says:

I think all narrative perspectives can be brilliant in the hands of a good writer. Certain perspectives are also better suited to certain types of story. However, in general, I would say I prefer books that use third person. This might be because over the past few years we have seen lots of first person voices (maybe I’m slightly tired of them now) but I also think third person narratives often feel bigger in scale and have a more varied tone.
—Finn Cotton, Crime Editor at Transworld

Emily Kitchin says:

I always love an unreliable narrator! My favourite kind of novels are the ones where you can’t quite be sure that the narrator is telling you the full story.
—Emily Kitchin, Women’s Fiction Editor at HarperCollins

Leonora Craig Cohenenjoys aspects of both, favouring:

A highly distinctive first (which shows the character has a very particular take on the world) or slightly more distant third which gives greater insight and commentary on the characters’ motives and missteps.
—Leonora Craig Cohen, Literary Fiction Editor at Serpent’s Tail

Before making the best decision for your novel, think carefully about the advantages and disadvantages a certain narration will bring to the story you want to tell.

Will it help you shed light on your characters or conceal their secrets? Will it enhance the dramatic tension or give context to the world you have built? Is it important that you show more than one side to the story, or is one character the driving force?

These are questions only you can answer, but returning to your favourite narratives and asking why they work can be a good place to start.      

 

  


 
 
our editor Francine Toon explains how to choose a point of view for your novel

Francine Toon 

Francine Toon was a Commissioning Editor at Sceptre (part of Hachette UK) where she published distinctive, prize-winning fiction and worked on the novels of bestselling, world-famous writers. Throughout her career, Francine has edited a range of genres including literary, crime, historical and reading group. In every role and project, Francine brings warmth and creativity to her meticulous editorial process. She consistently champions under-represented voices and loves mentoring new writers. Francine is also a prize-winning author, with her debut novel Pine publishing in 2020.

 

 


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