Posted on June 20, 2019 at 12:32 PM by Guest Author
Choosing the right narrative point of view can make all the difference when it comes to connecting with your readers.
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“If you feel that there's the author and then the character, then the book is not working. People have a habit of identifying the author with the narrator, and you can't, obviously, be all of the narrators in all of your books, or else you'd be a very strange person indeed.” — Margaret Atwood
Although most seasoned writers understand narrative point of view (and often use the same type in many books they write), it can be a difficult concept for beginners to grasp.
And if you can’t truly comprehend point of view — or the impact it has on your work as a writer — how can you hope to choose the right one for your story?
To make the process a little easier, it’s worth starting at the very beginning by explaining narrative point of view and listing the primary types used in fiction…
So, what exactly is it?
Simply put, it’s the perspective from which your story is told. It determines the narrator’s relationship to the story.
It’s the voice that speaks to the reader. It’s how the reader not only gets information but also connects with the story.
Chances are you vaguely remember the types of narrative viewpoint from school. They include the following:
• First person: The first person uses the pronouns I, me, and my. It’s when a single character describes his or her experiences.
Since one individual is telling the story, the reader only has access to information shared by the narrator.
Tip: First person is a popular choice for YA fiction and memoirs.
• Second person: The second person uses the pronouns you, your, and yours. It’s when the narrator is speaking directly to the reader, drawing them closer to the story.
Tip: This is actually tougher than it sounds, which is why most writers steer clear.
• Third person limited: The third person limited uses the pronouns she, he, her, and his. It’s when the narrator is outside of the story, relating a character’s experiences to the reader.
Tip: This viewpoint is popular in mysteries and thrillers.
• Third person objective: The third person objective also uses the pronouns she, he, her, and his. But, as the name suggests, the narrator is completely objective, sharing only the facts with the reader.
Tip: Third person objective isn’t often used over the course of a story, as it doesn’t provide the reader with any insights.
Third person omniscient: The third person omniscient also uses the pronouns she, he, her, and his.
However, unlike third person limited and third person objective, omniscient is when the narrator is able to relate the thoughts and experiences of all the characters in the story. Essentially, the narrator has a “God’s eye view.”
Tip: Third person omniscient is often used in fantasies.
Right now you may be thinking, “Okay, I get it, but is narrative point of view THAT important? Will choosing the wrong one have a major impact on my story?”
Yes, it is. And yes, it will.
How you tell your story, with regard to the viewpoint you use, has a huge effect on how your work is received by readers.
Choosing the wrong one increases the likelihood of your book being set aside.
A fun exercise that demonstrates the importance of viewpoint is to look at great classics and recent bestsellers. How would each one change if a different type of narrator told the story instead?
Would it lead to the same end?
Would the reader be privy to secrets earlier on?
Would the reader be as emotionally invested?
In most cases, the result of this exercise falls flat. After all, a big part of what makes a successful book so special is the way in which the story is told to the reader.
It’s about bringing the reader in — keeping whatever distance you deem acceptable — so they develop a certain level of trust in the narrator and become engrossed in the tale.
For example, if you’re writing a spooky mystery, using a third-person perspective is a great way to keep the reader engaged without giving away any surprises.
Or, if you’re creating a sweeping love story, adopting a first-person perspective can deepen the intimacy between the reader and the narrator.
Someone has to be doing the talking in your story. The key is choosing the right person.
Sometimes, prior to writing a single word, you know exactly who should tell the story.
Other times, however, you need to put some thought into what the best possible narrative point of view would be.
Here are some tips that will help if you’re unsure what viewpoint to use in your work.
1. Determine how much distance you want to put between the reader and the narrator.
Do you want to talk directly to the reader? If so, it may be worth experimenting with second person. However, note that this can be difficult to use all the way through — unless you’re writing a self-help book.
Do you want to create a sense of intimacy without pulling the reader into the story? If that’s the case, then first person may be a good choice, as it allows the reader to connect with the emotions and mindset of the character telling the story.
Do you want to set the narrator far apart from the reader while giving a broad view of the story? For that, it may be in your best interest to use third person omniscient, which enables the reader to learn more about all of the characters in your story.
2. Consider how much information you want the reader to have.
When selecting a narrative point of view for your story, you also need to think about how much information you’re willing to share with the reader, and whether the story will make sense with a particular narrator.
If you like to play your cards close to your chest, then you likely don’t want to give away too much.
That’s when first person serves you well, as it takes the reader on the same journey as the character telling the story. The reader makes the same discoveries as the narrator, at the same time.
However, if there will be huge gaps in your story by relying on the viewpoint of a single character, third person omniscient may be a safer choice, as you can share anything and everything with the reader — though you don’t have to.
3. Decide how trustworthy you want the narrator to be.
Just like real people, all characters have biases, which means they aren’t the most objective bunch.
When selecting the appropriate viewpoint for your book, you need to decide how trustworthy you want the narrator to be.
Do you want the reader to trust the narrator implicitly? If so, third person objective is the way to go.
Are you okay with sacrificing a little trust if it means the reader develops a deeper connection with the narrator? Then first person may be what you’re looking for.
4. Think about whether you need to use multiple viewpoints throughout the story.
It’s tricky, but it is possible to shift the point of view throughout your story. The key is not to do so abruptly, which can confuse the reader.
Many books tell a story from a different character’s point of view in each chapter.
If you have a lot of great characters whose voices deserve to be heard, and allowing them to speak would best tell your story, try changing it up throughout your book.
It may take some trial and error at first, but eventually you’ll land on a narrative point of view that will take your story where you want it to go.
And when that’s all said and done, your book will be much more intriguing to those in your audience.
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