Sunday, February 28, 2016

Changing Perspectives

By Kasie Whitener

First-person point of view comes most naturally to me. Most of what I write is a character inside me trying to break out. I just let his (or her) voice flow and some 50,000 words later, I have a novel.

Recently, I shifted a first-person narrative to third-person point of view with great results. The advantages of third person are numerous:
    You can describe what the main character looks like.
    You can balance the scene between participants instead of leaning heavily to one perspective.
    You can tell what happened without the bias of a first-person narrator’s motives.

The third person approach infused new life to a tired scene. It’s one I’ve written a dozen times, one that is necessary to delivery exposition to the novel, one I can’t live without but was never really fond of. Switching to third person gave the scene new energy.

One question that came from my critique group (mentioned two weeks ago by my writing buddy Bonnie) was, “Who is telling this?”

Even though the narrator is outside of the scene, there’s still a storyteller. I’ve written about perspective before. Some definitions:
    Third-person close is a third-person point of view with insight into a single character’s thoughts.
    Third-person omniscient gives insight to multiple characters’ thoughts. Omniscient is a dated style used by Henry James but generally considered false today. When writers use omniscience today, they typically shift between “close” characters by chapter (think Game of Thrones).
    The scene I read was third-person-distant. It provided the perspective of one character, but not the thoughts or feelings intimate enough to be considered “close.”

I like the distance of the third-person narrator. I don’t want the reader to know the characters’ thoughts; the action should reveal motivations and desires.

But without insight to a character, how will the reader connect with the story? Third-person-distant is a challenging perspective, one I’m not entirely sure I can pull off.

The novel I’m currently reading is a third-person omniscient that shifts perspectives depending on the chapter. Some segments are close to the husband character, some to the wife, and others to the prostitute that comes between them. This shift occurs after page breaks and chapter changes, but sometimes inside the chapter, the narrator slips and gives us both the wife and the husband in “close” narration.

Our critique group would never put up with that. We always identify where a story has shifted perspective. Maybe it’s our unique pet peeve. Our group won’t let a narrator head-hop.

Shifting from first- to third-person narration is more than just exchanging pronouns. It’s a complicated revision that re-imagines the entire storytelling experience. Likewise, shifting from third- to first-person narration might bring a reader closer to a story. It’s a worthwhile exercise to change narrative point of view. Even if you ultimately switch back.


WritePersona said...

Not sure I understand "a third-person omniscient that shifts perspectives depending on the chapter." Do you mean a chapter in which third omniscient POV shifts to third limited?

Kasie Whitener said...

No, sorry, I meant the third person omniscient follows one character per chapter. In Game of Thrones, Martin titles the chapter the character's name so you know whose "close" perspective we'll be getting.