Perspective in Creative Writing: Who Is Telling Your Story
Perspective is the lens through which you’re telling your story. Which lens you choose affects your reader’s experience and opinion of your characters. As the author, you bring your own unique world view to your story. So do your readers. However it is your choice in main character and distance that have the greatest effect on your story’s perspective.
Author and Reader Lens
Your personal beliefs, likes, knowledge and experiences will seep into your story. This isn’t a bad thing. I have a background in medicine, so many of my characters wind up being healers. I use my knowledge of human anatomy and physiology to strengthen my characters and add an extra dimension to my stories. You can use your areas of expertise to your benefit as well. Kevin Hearne was passionate about Celtic mythology before he wrote The Iron Druid Chronicles. His bestselling series benefited from that lens.
Some biases can be a determent. The writing community wants all types of people to be represented. If you tend to only include one type of person, try branching out and including others. See how it can expand your plot and make your characters more real. If you only write one specific sub-genre, explore a completely different type of story in a short piece. Challenging your biases will help you grow as a writer and prevent you from being known as a one trick pony.
Reader biases are something you should be aware of, but cannot control. Know that some people are going to read their perspective and beliefs into any story. Don’t dwell on their reviews.
Who you choose for your main character determines who your readers root for and what type of story you’re writing. The main character of Here Lies Daniel Tate by Cristin Terrill is a con man. In real life, this character would be the villain or antagonist, not the protagonist everyone wants to succeed. Because the novel is told from his perspective, readers hope he escapes instead of hoping the FBI catches him.
The flip side is also true: who you pick for your protagonist determines who your readers root against. The person or force directly opposing your main character becomes the enemy in the reader’s mind. This can be a specific person, organization, the main character themselves, or even a force of nature. I once read a short story from the perspective of a deer, which made the human hunters the villains.
Who your protagonist is also controls the tone, emotional journey, and type of story. Pick any superhero movie recently produced. If the villain were the protagonist, the story would be a tragedy because they failed. These movies are comedies (in the broadest, traditional definition) because the main characters succeed. Most horror movies would become science fiction, urban fantasy, or literary fiction if told from the monster/killer’s perspective. Your choice in protagonist controls your story’s arc.
How your protagonist views their world and situation affects the tone of your story. An upbeat, witty protagonist leads to a funny, light-hearted tale. A pessimistic, tough main character leads to a darker, gritty story. Make sure your protagonist’s perspective and personality and story’s tone are in alignment.
Point of View Lens
After you select your protagonist, you have to decide what point of view you’re going to use to deliver their story. If you choose first person or third person close, your readers will see most of your character’s inner thoughts and emotions. This gives the reader greater insight into why your character does what he does. If you choose omniscient or distant third, your readers will judge your characters based on their actions, not their internal motivators as much.
Point of view allows you to control how close your readers are to your characters and control the release of information. If you want your protagonist to keep secrets, distant third person or omniscient are likely the best choices. If you want to show your protagonist’s inner growth or demons, first person or close third person might be the best choices.
Another way you can use point of view to control perspective is by providing multiple points of view. Instead of filtering your story through the lens of one character, you use two or more to give your readers a fuller picture. In Scythe author Neal Shusterman shows the different degrees of corruption in his novel’s organization by using two point of view characters. This also shows why the two characters remain loyal to each other despite having vastly different experiences. Using multiple points of view is an excellent way to show how people from different upbringings, cultures, places, etc. perceive the same event or situation differently.
Your choice in main character and point of view control how your reader perceives the events of your story, in particular the conflict. Usually, readers want to read about the characters experiencing and being changed by the conflict. If you have a car crash, they want to experience that crash, not witness it. Making sure your point of view characters are the ones directly involved in the conflict unless they are offering a unique perspective.
Markus Zukas’s The Book Thief is narrated by Death, but the protagonist is a young girl named Liesel. Death is the point of view character: He is the lens through which the reader perceives the story. However as the protagonist, Liesel is also a lens and her perspective is clear as well. You can use multiple lenses in your story.
Why an Editor Suggests Thinking about Your Perspective
Once you understand perspective, you can use it to your advantage. Many writers just start writing without thinking about if their main character or point of view is the best choice for the story they want to tell. That’s an okay way to start getting your idea on paper, but what happens when you’re a third of the way through and realize you made the wrong choice? Instead of risking a complete rewrite for a new perspective, pause and consider your story. Ask yourself what kind of story you want to tell, what distance you need, and who’s experiencing the conflict. Then look at your protagonist and point of view to make sure they are the best choice to Ignite Your Ink.
What’s your favorite perspective to read or write? Share your preferences in the comments below. For more writing tips and a free Point of View Comparison Chart, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers transform their writing so it lingers with readers.