This advice applies to short stories, novelettes, and other writing, as well.
Sometimes when writers are struck with an idea, they struggle on which perspective to use the most. Should this novel tell the story in first person? Should I jump from character to character with a multiple third person narrative?
The question that needs to be answered first is this:
Which perspective tells the story the way it needs to be told?
Let’s go through a few of the most common perspectives and what they offer.
Limited First Person
This perspective allows the reader access into a single character’s (typically the protagonist) mind. Readers are allowed access to the character’s thought process and feelings on events and other characters.
This perspective is great in that it allows that extra tie between the reader and the main character. Such as in The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, the story is told from Ponyboy’s perspective, a young Greaser who is in a gang with his two older brothers. This perspective was the best choice for this book because Ponyboy was the perfect person to tell it; he was middle-ground in the story–somewhat of an off standing character. He was neither a die-hard Greaser or a stubborn Soch. Instead, his opinions became muddled in the middle and allowed the reader to see the stark contrast between the Soches and the Greasers from an almost neutral perspective.
If the narrative had jumped around between characters, some of the anticipation would have been lost, because the reader would see exactly how the characters thought and what their actions were going to be. The deaths in the book would have been expected and lose their impact.
This is not to say that other perspectives besides limited first person is necessarily bad, however.
2. Omniscient/Multiple Omniscient
This perspective isn’t exactly common, but it’s interesting so I thought it important to add. An omniscient perspective is when a story is told through the eyes of an unknown narrator. A lot of times this can be used in children’s books, and whoever reads to the child takes on the persona of the narrator.
This perspective can be used in other avenues as well, however, such as in William Faulkner’s short story A Rose for Emily.
This story is told from a multiple omniscient perspective of the town, using “us” and “they” as the perspective. This helps view Emily, the main character, from multiple outside eyes and conceal the true events of the story, as everything is related through gossip between the multiple “we” omniscient narrators.
This perspective is probably one of the hardest to use, and only masters like Faulkner are able to use it as effectively as used in A Rose for Emily–not that that should keep anyone from trying.
3. Broad Third Person
Some books are told from a strictly “he, she, they” perspective, presenting the story with practically no bias narrator to affect the reader’s opinion of the story.
This perspective is typically accompanied with multiple chapters jumping from character to character, each presented in third person but showing characters at different places and different times. Trust Me, my serialized novelette, is told from this perspective, as is the Gone series by Micheal Grant.
The Gone series is written extremely well as it follows different teenagers in their struggles after an incident which seals them off from adults and the outside world, trapped among kids with deadly powers and mutated creatures. With so many characters that interact and affect each other, this perspective allows the readers to connect characters and events in ways unaware to the characters, building suspense for when the facts will finally be revealed.
Some books break the boundaries and rules. You by Caroline Kepnes uses the second tense. While technically still in first person (using “you” verbs instead of “I”, as if the reader takes place of the protagonist under which the first person perspective would be used), it still adds a new mystery and intensity by changing tenses entirely.
The Bartimaeus trilogy mixes first person and third person narrative. This book switches perspective between Bartimaeus, a mischievous djinn, and multiple other characters, using third person on all except Bartimaeus, whose perspective is told from first person.
Not only does this give the reader insight into Bartimaeus’s hilarious mind, but also glimpses of his past, creating mystery and empathy for him above almost all other characters in the novel.
As stated in my last post, there are only rules in writing because they need to be broken–and broken well.
Choose the perspective that will tell the story the best way possible. If one doesn’t work, try another one. A book is a puzzle for the author to create and then break up into an intricate way so that readers can piece it together and come up with a different answer every time.
Good luck writing!