A Certain Point of View

One of the things that’s always fascinated me about people, and by extension writing, is the fact we all see the world through our own eyes. On the surface that may not seem astounding or provocative to anyone else, but let’s examine it a little deeper for a moment.

You’re walking on the sidewalk of a busy street in your town when a fender bender happens at the intersection ahead of you. Dozens of people saw the accident, including yourself, yet if all those people are separately asked to recount the details of the incident, a wide variety of stories will emerge. Some accounts will even directly conflict in certain details of the event, like the colors of the cars or who was at fault. All the people witnessed the same incident at the same time and all are telling the truth — at least, the truth as they saw it. (Here’s a short, interesting exercise in eyewitness fallibility if you’d like to learn more.)

How does this pertain to writing? Storytelling is all about perspective. Who is telling the story? What is their age, their background? Were they an active participant or did they merely observe it? These questions pertain to the narrator and are fundamentally important to how a story gets told. Writers also have tools like tense (present or past) to manipulate how a story is conveyed to the reader. Think of the possibilities like a nesting doll.

Russian dollsThird Person Omniscient is the outermost doll. This one encompasses all the rest. It sees and knows everything. Heroes, bad guys, this viewpoint can get inside anyone’s head and find out what’s really going on. (Just don’t try to do it all at once!)

Third Person Limited is represented by the next couple of layers, depending on the number of narrators. Some books are told from multiple characters, yet each one can only present the story from their own perspective. Other books have only one narrator who only imparts information that they know to the reader. While we can often see inside this narrator’s head, the third person perspective still positions the reader as an observer from the outside.

First Person, Past Tense introduces the next level of intimacy. The story is told to the reader directly from the mouth of the main character. Thoughts and emotions, as well as observations are shared, but strictly from the viewpoint of that character.

First Person, Present Tense is the deepest level of reader/narrator connection. The reader lives the story, moment to moment, just as the protagonist does. Everything is immediate and the technique works well for action scenes, but can seem unnatural or forced during quieter, more mundane sections.

As a writer, this last choice might seem to be the best to engage a reader and it can work to great effect. A recent, popular example is The Hunger Games. But this perspective can be extremely limiting as well. An example of this can be seen in the movie version of The Hunger Games where they added scenes with the President conversing with his staff in order to supply some back story and create more tension.

To stick with only one viewpoint can elevate our empathy for the main character, but it’s also easy to lose sight of the forest amongst the trees. I believe this is a main reason why first person narratives are more predominant and popular in middle grade and young adult literature. As we grow, we first develop a sense of self before gaining an awareness of others. In my opinion, it’s easier for young readers to identify with a first person narrator because that’s how they view the world. Things that occur outside the sphere of awareness of children are largely ignored. A missed dessert because of an unfinished plate of vegetables can be high drama for a toddler or even a first or second grader. Everything can be a sign of the apocalypse, even for those in their teens — which is also a reason why I think dystopians are so popular with the younger crowd as well, but that’s a subject for a different blog post 😉

The story you want to tell will often lead you to your choice of perspective. If the action is centered entirely around a single character, first person might be an excellent fit. If you have a larger cast of important folks, some version of third person may be a better vehicle to work with. The main thing to remember is no one has a monopoly on the truth. We all carry our own versions of it and experience things in personal, unique ways.

I’ll leave you with a short animated video featuring a singing Obi Wan and Yoda, explaining “a certain point of view” to a bemused Luke. Take care and go out and find your own truths today!


TuckerPenny1010smAlan Tucker , author of The Mother-Earth Series (A Measure of Disorder, A Cure for Chaos, and Mother’s Heart), as well as a new science fiction novel, Knot in Time, is a dad, a graphic designer, and a soccer coach. Mostly in that order. He’s had a lifelong adoration of books, beginning with Encyclopedia Brown, progressing through Alan Dean Foster’s Flinx, and continuing on with the likes of Jim Butcher, Rachel Caine and Naomi Novik, to name a few.

“I wanted to write books that I’d enjoy reading. Books that I hoped my kids would enjoy too!”

Visit his website for more information about his books. View maps, watch trailers, see reviews and much more!

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10 thoughts on “A Certain Point of View

  1. OMG! Love the video at the end! My laugh for the day! Great post, Alan. It’s funny how every author feels comfortable using a specific point of view. I use third person limited. Perhaps it’s time to challenge myself and venture out into first person. Cheers!

    1. Thanks, Sharon! Glad you enjoyed the video 🙂 I was never a fan of first person stories, then I had an idea for a time-traveling high school drop out and it just fit best with first person, so I went with it. Third book in the series is out for edits now 🙂 So, I’d encourage everyone to explore different perspectives. You’ll discover problems and possibilities you never knew existed until you play with it a bit.

  2. Everyone who heard about an unusual evening insisted that I write about it, but I had a very hard time deciding on the voice.I needed to change the ending and didn’t want to give it away, I wrote it as a play. I found that they are devilishly hard to even get people to read the first ten pages, which would not do it justice.I shelved it for a year before I realized I could tell it First Person, Past Tense, but limited. It’s coming.

  3. My first 5 (unpublished) books were written in 3rd person. It is still my preferance as it allows me the most flexibility. When I started writing YA and MG, though, I found that 1st person was easier in that it allowed me to use my “YA voice.” Young readers demand a bit more humor and sarcasm in their stories, so a 1st person POV just makes it easier to salt the narrative with those little bits of humor. Now to learn how to do the same in 3rd person without ripping the reader out of the story.

    1. So true regarding first person and the character’s voice! I’ve started a new fantasy/scifi for adults and I’m struggling with voice for one of the two main characters. I’m sure I’ll write a lot of words I’ll end up throwing away before I get it right 😉 Thanks for sharing your experience!

  4. That was a super post! I guess I knew all of this by years of reading and writing, but to see it all laid out in order made for a really interesting read. I like 3rd person best, too, but I tried 1st for my Taylor Davis series and it really did make the humor sparkle. Thanks, Alan!

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