Choice of perspective represents one of the most fundamental things about a story, yet the consequences of that decision creep into the story in ways many authors, even experienced ones, don’t consider. The devil lies in the details of keeping the prose aligned with the chosen perspective. Mistakes in perspective lead to varying degrees of cognitive dissonance that may affect readers on a conscious or subconscious level, and keeping perspective coherent throughout will lead to a story that flows much better through little cues that can support the viewpoint if used properly or fight it otherwise.
I’ll start with a very brief overview of the types of perspective, since it’s something most writers can define, even if they have trouble following it. Perspective has two parts. One is the person. In first person, the narrator is a character telling you about his experiences. He uses “I.” In second person, the reader is a character, and the narrator tells him what happens to him. In this case, he uses “you.” In third person, the narrator describes things that abstract characters do and uses “he,” “she,” “they,” or possibly “it.”
The other part is whether the narrator is limited or omniscient, and therein lies most of the discussion. They mean what they say: the omniscient narrator knows everything, and the limited narrator is restricted to what one character at a time can know or perceive. Most problems with perspective arise from letting perspective bleed between characters or wavering between limited and omniscient, often unintentionally.
Much modern writing uses third-person limited, and I’ll deal chiefly with that, except where noted. The strength of an omniscient narrator lies in its ability to give any piece of information, whereas the limited narrator provides a more intimate portrait of the character. There are degrees of limited, but the deeper it goes, the more the narrator becomes the character, differing from first-person only in the choice of pronoun. It can actually be difficult to avoid letting that personal voice seep into the narration, which is essential in writing the most common kind of omniscient narration. It’s more difficult than most writers think, but I’ll talk about that more in a moment. Limited very much gets the reader in the mindset of a particular character and can forge a stronger connection. Note that this doesn’t mean the story’s main character must be the one holding the perspective! Sometimes viewing him from another angle can provide a more nuanced story.
A couple of story types really only lend themselves to one kind of narrator, so they’re special cases. An epistolary story, for example, can only represent the letter/journal/diary writer’s viewpoint, so it must be limited. He can’t know what other characters are thinking, after all. Another is one where you want to hold the perspective character’s identity as a reveal. I’ll talk about a more generalized form of this later, but the short version is that an omniscient narrator knows the character’s identity, so it doesn’t make sense for him to withhold that information.
To degrees of limited, I would like to introduce the topic of psychic distance. This is how closely the narrator becomes that character. At a far distance, the narration has no tie to the character. It can say factual things in a formal manner. Zoom in a little closer, and parts of the character start to show up in the narration, like subtle opinions or impressions. And at a very close distance, the narration takes on that character’s voice and sounds like things he might say in his own head. As an example, take these few lines about Scootaloo walking into a haunted house:
1a. Scootaloo found the house very creepy.
1b. ‘This is a creepy house!’ Scootaloo thought.
These are entirely factual and don’t have the narrator take on Scootaloo’s thoughts.
2. Scootaloo walked into the creepy house.
Now it’s the narrator saying the house is creepy. This is Scootaloo’s opinion, but the narrator expresses it.
3. What a creepy old house!
And here, the narrator not only states Scootaloo’s opinion on her behalf, he says it as she herself would. Essentially, he’s letting us see Scootaloo’s thoughts without presenting them as thoughts. It’ll take on a conversational style, and the narrator may do speech-like things, such as ask questions, shout, trail off, get interrupted, and emphasize words.
So how do these relate to omniscient and limited narrators? There are some special kinds of narrators I’ll get to in a moment, but for the standard ones, omniscient needs to dwell up there in the realm of statement #1. An omniscient narrator sounds formal and deals in facts. Any opinions or thoughts should be directly attributed to characters.
Limited can make use of the entire spectrum, as deep as the author cares to go. People say factual things in their own thoughts, so statement #1 wouldn’t feel out of place in a limited narration. However, if you spend too much time at that end, it makes the whole story feel omniscient, and the few moments where the limited narrator comes through will feel like a mistake, so make sure the limited narrator comes through with a subjective or conversational-sounding statement often enough to maintain a consistent voice. And make sure that even when a limited narrator says factual things that they’re still restricted to what the viewpoint character can reasonably know or perceive.
I alluded to nonstandard types of these narrators. They’re typically going to appear as one type of narrator who uses the characteristics of the other. One the one hand, that could manifest as a limited narrator who sounds omniscient. Thus the narrator is bound by the knowledge and perception of one character but doesn’t take on any sort of personal voice, electing to stay in a neutral, formal tone. Really, this combines the disadvantages of both without getting anything in return, so while it’s possible, it would likely be difficult to keep it entertaining.
The other is an omniscient narrator who sounds limited, so he expresses opinions and exhibits a personality of his own, but one that’s not a character. This may be a godlike entity who observes the story’s action and comments on it. Such a narrator often turns up in children’s stories, in order to facilitate a whimsical tone, or in comedies, where he can make wry observations. It tends not to work as well for serious stories, since whimsy and humor are for the reader only, whereas something like tragedy needs a connection to the characters to gain power, so a limited voice that has no such connection feels detached. Or it may be an implied or explicitly defined storyteller who presumes what characters think without saying it’s just his speculation, like an old man spinning a yarn around a campfire.
With those concepts of what the various perspectives are and how they work, I’ll move on to the most common mistakes that break perspective. One of the biggest is what we call “head hopping,” in which the narrator frequently or abruptly changes the character whose viewpoint he uses. Many authors do this unintentionally simply because they don’t pay attention. The perspective needs to stay confined to what the viewpoint character can know and how they would perceive things. This doesn’t mean that you can’t relay information the viewpoint character doesn’t explicitly know. Just couch it as that character’s speculation or deduction.
For example, suppose an author intends to use Applejack as the perspective character. The following statements wouldn’t work for that:
1. Little did Applejack know that Rarity had taken the earlier train.
You can’t have the limited narrator telling me things the viewpoint character doesn’t know.
2. Fluttershy gave it her best try.
This is more Fluttershy’s assessment than Applejack’s. How would Applejack know it was her best?
3. Pinkie had never seen one of those before.
This is probably not something Applejack would know.
4. After Applejack fell asleep, Apple Bloom slipped out of the house.
Applejack’s asleep, so she can’t see this happen.
5. Rainbow Dash had worn herself out.
This is kind of a gray area, as it’s a reasonable conclusion for Applejack to draw, but it still sounds more like Dash’s viewpoint. In this case, it’s often better to show evidence that Dash is worn out instead of stating it outright, or to indicate it’s Applejack’s impression, like so:
Rainbow Dash must have worn herself out.
It’s a lot easier to get away with head hopping in omniscient narration, since that narrator really can know all these things, and the narration isn’t supposed to give the reader that close connection to a particular character. Plus the reader doesn’t have to worry about assigning subjective statements to character viewpoints.
Conversely, head hopping doesn’t fit a limited narration well for the same reasons. A limited narration by definition represents a character outlook, so if that outlook keeps changing, it prevents the reader from getting settled into any of the characters or identifying with them, and forces the reader to keep re-evaluating whose opinions the narration contains. That can slow readers down and confuse them, and all of this runs contrary to the point of using a limited narrator.
A story doesn’t have to keep to a single perspective for the whole thing, of course, unless the author wants it to or the story is short enough that it can’t smoothly execute a perspective shift. Because limited narration is so tied to the character it represents, it’s important to establish quickly and clearly who holds the perspective at the beginning and when any shifts occur. I’ll touch on this more in a moment, but the most natural place to switch perspectives is when there’s already a significant break in the story, like a new chapter or scene. Here’s a sample transition between scenes:
Pinkie had never experienced such a super fun time before!
What a hot day! Applejack tipped back her trusty hat and wiped the sweat off her brow.
As the first scene ends, Pinkie holds the perspective. The reader will assume she still does after the chapter break until he has reason to think otherwise. So at first, it’ll seem like Pinkie’s the one thinking it’s a hot day. Then in the next sentence, he finds out it’s really Applejack, so he has to go back and change his impression of what he read of the scene so far. Now imagine if the shift took an entire paragraph or an entire page to become evident. Then the reader has to reread or reimagine a significant chunk of text, which harms immersion. If those statements were swapped, then the reader knows the opinions will belong to Applejack before he even gets to one, so there’s no confusion.
If necessary, perspective can shift in the middle of a scene. But consider what necessitates it. Does the new character have critical information that can’t be known, perceived, or intuited by another? Is the same true of the first character? Otherwise, should the new character have held the perspective for the whole scene? Can you stay in the new character’s perspective for a while?
If a shift is warranted, perform it smoothly. Think of it as zooming a camera out of one character, then panning over to and zooming back in on another, but the “zoom” action happens via psychic distance. Start with the first character at a close distance, and over the course of a few sentences, work toward a far, omniscient-sounding distance. Then reverse the process for easing into the new character’s perspective, and have a paragraph break at the switch. For an example, here’s an in-scene transfer from Diamond Tiara to Scootaloo:
Ugh, that math quiz had caught Diamond Tiara completely unprepared! It didn’t help that her mother had been in a snit about something lately. As soon as the final bell rang, only thoughts of finding a quiet place to curl up occupied her mind.
Scootaloo watched her stalk out of the classroom. Diamond Tiara hadn’t been acting right all week. But good luck trying to find out why—she’d always clam up. “Can I help you with something?” Scootaloo asked quietly with a little tug on her saddlebag. A hint of a wistful half-smile appeared. She probably appreciated the effort to keep things confidential, but just as quickly, she waved Scootaloo off.
Okay. She’d try again later.
Many authors also fail to match the narrative voice to the perspective character for limited narration. The narrator and character are essentially the same, so the narration should sound close to the vocabulary, intelligence level, mannerisms, and personality of that character. You wouldn’t have Pinkie’s narration ramble in very flowery, purple language, and you wouldn’t have Rarity’s sounding like a street thug. Roughly speaking, the narration should resemble things you could imagine the character saying out loud while musing to themselves.
Limited narration should match the situation as well. Its tone should reflect the character’s mood, the pacing goes along with the action, and detail should focus on what the character could reasonably pay attention to. In the middle of a fight, it doesn’t make sense to muse for three paragraphs on how beautiful the distant mountains are.
Audience can drive tone, too. A journal meant only for personal reminiscences won’t sound like an academic one, and a story told to a standard implied listener won’t sound like one explicitly told to little kids at bedtime.
Another thing that can either reinforce or break perspective is the use of Lavender Unicorn Syndrome (LUS), or excessive use of such descriptors. Different kinds play well with different narrators. Aside from it being a good idea to keep them under control in general, omniscient narration doesn’t have an inherent restriction on their use, but limited narration does.
To put it very succinctly, limited narration, because it represents the focus character’s thought process, implies that the character chooses to use these descriptors, and they often don’t make sense in that context. Omniscient narration can call Twilight “the lavender unicorn” because it’s true. But if Twilight is the limited narrator, why would she choose to refer to herself that way? People don’t use such external and formal terms in their own heads, unless they have no choice. If the focus character doesn’t know who Fluttershy is, then he may have no alternative but to call her “the pink-maned pegasus,” because that’s how he’d identify her in his own mind. But once he becomes acquainted with her, things change.
Typically, people think of other people they know by three ways: name, pronoun, and relationship to them. That third one is really the only LUS-type phrasing that works well for acquainted characters in limited narration. Going back to Twilight as a limited narrator, she might reasonably refer to Shining Armor as “Shining Armor,” “he,” or something like “her brother.” But it doesn’t make sense for her to use “the white stallion” or “Flurry Heart’s father.” So make sure descriptors match how the perspective character would actually think of them.
It’s a fairly subtle effect, and there are several other writing tools just as subtle. There are classes of verbs that cover things like knowledge and perception. The first would include hope, want, wish, wonder, and know, and the second has verbs such as see and hear. They have different implications when you have a limited narrator. Because the narrator is a character, it’s already implied that the narration is his personal experience. If the narrator describes an object, the character must see it, or the narrator couldn’t have noticed it there either. It can be redundant to say the character sees, hears, knows, hopes, whatever. Just stating it as a fact means the character saw and heard, and just expressing a question means the character wondered. There are times such verbs come in useful, but employ them intentionally. Pointing out a character saw something in this context adds emphasis—it implies the character was specifically looking for it or that it was something most characters would miss. So make sure that’s what you mean.
“Show, don’t tell” can also work differently for the choice of narrator. An omniscient one can observe and know all things, but keep in mind the restrictions on a limited one. The most common way to break perspective here is for the viewpoint character describing her own emotion. Consider this ordinary sentence:
Twilight wore an expression of horror.
I won’t get into a discussion of what “show, don’t tell” is and when it should or shouldn’t be employed. I’m only looking at when it works against the perspective. In this case, what if Twilight is the limited narrator? This introduces two problems. First, she can’t even see her own face to make this judgment. This is what someone external to her would notice. Second, she’ll feel that horror in far more immediate ways than through noting how her face looks. Even if she can see it somehow, that won’t be her clue to how she feels. Focus on how she would actually experience that emotion.
What would an example of that look like? Say we have this sentence in Rarity’s perspective:
Rarity’s cheeks blushed a bright red.
As I said, she can’t see this. But she could still intuit her blushing through feeling her cheeks grow warm or her rising sense of being uncomfortable.
Lastly, I’d like to discuss a few story gimmicks that necessitate a limited narrator. One is the journal, diary, or letter story. A character wrote the material, so it would have to work within the constraint of that character’s knowledge and perception, plus it should reasonably match a written version of their voicing.
Another is the unreliable narrator. Only a limited narrator can have gaps in their knowledge, though it is possible for an omniscient narrator to be deliberately misleading, if given a proper motivation. So for the most part, unreliable narrators should be limited. Readers will trust a narrator until given a reason not to, but once they have one, they must keep track of what of the unreliable narration to believe. For that reason, it’s often a good idea to hold an unreliable narration to a single perspective for the whole story to avoid having multiple competing sources of credibility. A skilled author can pull it off, but it’s an easy recipe for a confusing story.
And finally, stories often like to withhold information as a twist or surprise. Sometimes this can work even within an omniscient narration, but it can prove tricky. It must feel natural that the omniscient narrator never brought up the information, and there are several ways to get around that, but the main point: don’t make it obvious the narrator won’t tell the reader something. With a limited narrator, however, the perspective character may have a reason for not telling. If Rainbow Dash spends all day moping around, and whenever a specific subject comes up, she forces her train of thought in another direction, then she has a plausible motivation to avoid it, and it makes sense that her limited narration would follow her own thought process and clam up about it. But an omniscient narrator would know what had upset her and have no reason to stay quiet. Or say you want to hide a character’s identity. An omniscient narrator knows who the character is, while a limited one might plausibly keep the secret.
So when writing a limited or omniscient narrator, really think about what they imply. Carefully consider each sentence you write as to whether it fits the choice of narration between limited and omniscient, and if limited, whether it makes sense within the perspective character’s knowledge, perception, and personal voice. It will make for a much cleaner story that doesn’t throw lots of little stumbling blocks in the reader’s way.
When I said "truly excellent writing advice," I meant it! Pasco has edited stories for me in the past, and I'm sure he'll agree that one of my bigger weaknesses is that, though I'm generally good about holding to a single perspective, I have a tendency to let my narrative distance from the perspective character drift. Thanks for letting me share this, Pascoite!