Choosing a Perspective for your Novel


ThenWeCametotheEnd Over the past week or so, I've been reading Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris. It's a brilliant and funny novel that details the behavior of a group of advertising executives as their agency undergoes layoffs during the late 90's. 

One particularly noteworthy aspect of Then We Came to the End is it's perspective. The novel is written in first person plural (we, us, etc.) which is extremely rare in fiction, especially long form fiction. There are a few famous short stories that use this perspective—A Rose For Emily being perhaps the most famous—but it's generally avoided by writers. 

This makes sense, given how cumbersome the perspective can be. First person plural happens to fit well with Ferris's novel because the group of ad people function almost like a unified entity of gossip, fear, self-doubt, and jealousy. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but notice certain sections where Ferris had to strain a bit to make his chosen perspective fit the narrative. It by no means ruins the novel which, like I said, is fantastic; however, I suspect Ferris had a few "smashing-face-into-desk" type nights as he wrote Then We Came to the End.

Perspective This got me thinking about perspective in general. I think some writers have a tendency to forget that they can choose their perspective, and end up diving into whichever one feels right at the outset. This can sometimes backfire when mid-way through a short story or novel the writer realizes their ensemble cast of characters would have way more depth if they had written in 3rd, rather than 1st person.

I'm curious to hear how authors choose their perspective? Have you ever had to backtrack significantly? Do you give it a lot of thought before pen/finger hits paper/keyboard? Any perspective success stories?

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  1. Very little thought goes into choosing my perspective. I just start out with whichever feels better at the moment.
    I prefer 3rd person because it is easier and I don't feel like I've locked myself into a trunk, and I can switch the character that I'm following at any time. I almost always start out in 3rd person. I had switched to 1st person a few times before, but most of those times I had switched straight back to 3rd person because I suddenly felt trapped.
    I don't mind trying something out in 1st person, especially with short stories, but only if I have no intentions on ever following a different character. I prefer the freedom that 3rd person offers. Some authors switch between characters in 1st person, but I think this is cheating. Also, I would actually be ashamed of myself if I tried this, though I don't actually complain when others do this.
    This 1st person plural perspective sounds fun though, and I've never tried it. Perhaps I will sometime soon.

  2. I tend to choose my perspective by what feels right at the moment. I haven't had to back track very often. But then, I tend to write out stories in my head prior to putting them to paper, so I have an idea of which perspective works best before I start writing.
    On another note, first person perspective is not necessarily restrictive. I read a book, The Innkeeper's Song by fantasy author Peter S Beagle, in which he used first person perspective throughout. However, he changed characters in each chapter. He would indicate which character would be narrating the new chapter by titling it with the character's name. He did an excellent job of it. He captured each character's "voice" perfectly.
    I haven't seen that particular technique used very often. Patricia McKillip is another author who used it successfully, in her book Solstice Wood. To my knowledge, it is the first time I have read a book where she does this. Still, it can allow an author to use first person and still break free of the restrictions.
    First person plural is a perspective I had never heard of before. It sounds intriguing, though I am not sure I would ever use it. But I might try it out in a short story, just for the fun of it.
    Thanks for the great article.
    GA Lanham
    author An Unlikely Place

  3. For me, first person, present tense, singular, is what comes naturally - even if my main character is male - or something not-human. I have to really struggle to break from this and write from any other perspective. I suppose some of the reason is I ’see’ my novels in my mind, like movies - and I want all the sights, sounds, and body language - right here, right now. I want to ’see’ it happening as I’m reading - just like you see the action unfold in a movie.
    However, this is a unique twist on it, and one I’ve never thought of trying. Thanks for the article! Once NaNo is finished, I may devote some time to playing around with a plural perspective. The way I naturally stack characters on top of each other anyway - could likely benefit from a plural perspective.

  4. The Virgin Suicides was written in first person plural, no?

  5. Jennifer B. Fields4 November 2010 at 03:35

    I choose my story perspective based on the number and/or complexity of the characters involved. I'm the sort of writer who DOES NOT fly by the seat of my pants, so to speak. When I write a story, I sit down with a pre-planned basic storyline. I tend to choose 3rd person, but I have found that certain plots call for-if not demand-a different pov. I say listen to your characters and your plot. They will tell you what they need.

  6. I suppose it's too late to join this NaNo thing, even if I DID know how? I am so squeaky "new" at becomming a "novelist", it's unreal. I AM however, a "poet", published right here by webook itself. BUT ... I've gone and lost my mind by wanting to try "real" writing. Perspective = point of view does it not? HOW you translate that from "visual" to "conceptual" is beyond me. I understand about some one explaining or "telling" something from THEIR "point of view" but the rules of writing in each kind of it (perspective) are a dark, dangerous, murky swamp, that I fear to tred. I just KNOW I'll be devoured by the much more "accomplished" preditors that undoubtedly populate the place!

  7. I tend to change perspectives for each story. To me it depends on how many characters are involved and how I want them understood. Sometimes it's important for the characters to be described solely through the eyes of one person, and other times you should know what they're thinking.
    I do, however, usually start with whatever sounds good in my head, and then I'll revise later. I've changed a book a hundred pages in from first to third, and really liked it better once I was done, but it was a lot of work.
    I do think that you can play with it, though. I recently read a book that was both, third and first, and the Alex Cross series has done that pretty successfully (though I haven't read them.) And Lee Child's Jack Reacher series switches between first and third between books (read em all, loved em all.)
    The one I'm writing for NaNo I plan to do a bit of that in, shifting from first to third so long as the MC has a way of knowing what happened, why, and what the person was thinking.

  8. I remember reading this book <3
    It was very interesting to read it in the tense, and I didn't really notice a point where the author struggles with maintaining it.
    What I'm working on for NaNo is in 3rd person, because I work best when I can write within the minds of many. I don't usually have a problem with giving my MC information they shouldn't have, as that info is almost never going to be necessary for that particular person at all, so I never feel the need, And, I always go over what I have before I add something else on. (Not to edit, but to recap. And when I edit, it's usually to add much more to the scene than it had before I went back.)

  9. Perspective isn't something I particularly think about, it tends to come naturally along with the story - and quite often I use other formats - a story written in the form of an interview, or as a series of diary entries.
    That said, all my recent long stories have been 3rd person narratives, with a close focus on one character in particular - I find it easier to indicate the character going through changes that way, rather than using 1st person. Should probably try mixed 3rd person at length at some point though.

  10. Thanks for all your interesting perspectives! (har joke ever).
    @Jake B, I think you're right, but I regretfully have to say I haven't read The Virgin Suicides, only seen the movie. I've heard nothing but good things about it though. Maybe I should add it to my list.
    @ima_writerpoet, glad you liked the book too! The parts where I noticed some strain were *****mini spoiler alert*******************when there's a shift to Lynn's hospital stuff and when Joe and Genevieve go out to lunch. I think they still worked, and were actually two of the better parts of the book, but I bet Ferris had to do some heavy planning to figure out exactly how he was going to traverse those tricky perspective scenes.

  11. I wrote one novel in first person and it suited the story. I overcame the practical problems of having other characters telling the story from their perspective or to fill in the reader on what had been going on when the heroin wasn't around by introducing letters for her to read.
    However it is not something I would normally do.
    3rd person is the easiest for me to use and the one the suits my style better, especially as my stories often involve different characters and subplots and 1st person would not work.
    Recently I came across a piece of writing that would have been quite decent, if it weren't for the fact that the persepctive was switching with no warning. It started in first person (and it was about 4 pages in that I had a clear idea that the voice was male) and then suddenly we moved to follow another characters as he walked away from the initial scene, and the whole narrative turned into third person... then a while later we were back with the opening voice and to first person again. That could have been ok, if at least the writer had separated the sections to clearly mark the change of perspective, ma they hadn't. Generally, though, I think once selected the perspective, a writer should stick to it throughout the book.

  12. Great post. 3rd person always seems comfortable, but only if you can get inside each character's head. Just finished World Without End ... 3rd person, but it sometimes reads like 1st person because Ken Follett masterfully switches perspectives.
    I write a lot of personal essays and YA, so 1st person always seems like a good fit for me. Think the best YA is edgy, personal, non-preachy ... which is right up 1st person alley.
    PS: This post literally saved my NaNo from utter ruin. Changed perspective from 3rd to multiple 1st person....Like My Sister's Keeper and The Help.


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