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Literary perspective is the perspective from which an author tells a story. It is one of the most important decisions authors make when designing a story. The narrator can be unnamed or a specific character. Authors also choose whether to write in the first, second, or third person. Readers can determine this partly by which pronouns refer to each character.
First-person, limited narration is used in many novels. The narrator is called ‘I’ and their knowledge of the story is incomplete. Most of the memoirs are also written in first-person limited (with some exceptions — more on that later). The first person gives a sense of the narrator’s voice.
A first person narrator is often – but not necessarily – the main character. Starr Carter in The Hate U Give is a main character who is also the first person narrator. Readers experience the events of the novel with her. Nick Carraway is a character and narrator in The Great Gatsby, but not the main protagonist. By not making Jay Gatsby the narrator, the novel portrays his inner circle while retaining its mystique.
Omniscient or omniscient first person narrators are much rarer. The narrator of The Lovely Bones is a murdered child who observes her loved ones from the afterlife.
A first person plural POV is even rarer. In 2018 on Book Riot I mentioned The Virgin Suicides and Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” as examples of this POV. When the POV is ‘we’, the narrator is a collective, not an individual. In the case of the Faulkner story, the story “we” refers to an entire city.
The second person, “you,” has many possible uses in narration. Sometimes the narrator addresses the reader directly in the second person, as in Choose Your Own Adventure books. In other examples, readers do not become characters in the story themselves, but the second person allows them to better identify with a particular character.
Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” is a second person short story written in the form of a mother advising her daughter. house of prayer no. 2 is a rare memoir written in the second person, which immerses the reader in author Mark Richard’s isolating experience of growing up with a disability in the 1960s.
The third person pronouns are he, she and she. The limited third-person narration remains closely tied to one character’s perspective. In the third person, the author has a little more flexibility than in the first person. For example, they can use their adult vocabulary instead of just using words that a young protagonist would know.
Omniscient third person narration is one of the most common POVs in fiction. The narrator knows the whole story and can reveal the thoughts of the characters. Third person narration that observes characters from a distance and includes the thoughts of individual characters is called free indirect discourse. Jane Austen was one of the first authors to use this style.
When authors switch perspectives too often, some readers may find this head-hopping confusing. Louise Harnby blogged that readers can feel disoriented when they have to adjust to another character’s thoughts from one sentence or paragraph to the next. Today, many authors have multiple POV characters in the same novel, but they may choose to focus on one character’s POV for an entire chapter or section to avoid head-hopping.
Third person is often considered more objective than first or second person, but this is not necessarily true. Even an unnamed, omniscient third-person narrator does not necessarily represent the author’s personal voice or opinions. Roland Barthes wrote about this distinction between authors and their narrators in his essay ‘The Death of the Author’. As Stacey Megally recently wrote on Book Riot, there is no such thing as a completely objective or “trustworthy narrator” because all real and fictional people have prejudices and imperfect memories and knowledge.
How to choose the right POV
All these perspectives have advantages and disadvantages. So, how do writers determine which point of view works best for a given story?
It depends on the author’s goals for their story. A novelist may want to focus on the insecurity of a first-person protagonist, surprising both the reader and the protagonist when their appeal is reciprocated. If the same story had an omniscient narrator, or the love interests as another POV character, readers would already know that the attraction was mutual. This can either spoil the tension or create more tension through dramatic irony, depending on the author’s approach. This applies to any genre in which suspense is important, including mystery and horror. Determining the structure of the story and how much information the readers should remember can also help writers choose the best POV.
First-person POV helps some readers relate more to a character, while other readers prefer the broader third-person point of view. As a reader I don’t have a strong preference for a particular POV, but as a fiction writer I do. So far, all my stories that have been accepted by literary magazines are first person. When I started submitting my work to illuminated magazines in college in 2009, first-person stories seemed more popular. Now the third person seems more popular, at least for literary magazines.
Having preferences is inevitable. However, when reviewers call a first-person story “stem-y,” that criticism feels vague and contemptuous to me, especially if the character or author is marginalized. Voice and character can overwhelm other story elements, such as plot, but that’s a more nuanced critique than “voice-y.” Second person narration is often experimental and challenging, but I like that it makes me look at characters and stories in a different way.