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They, You and I: Perspective as a Writer

Updated on June 28, 2011
William Burroughs, one of the most experimental authors in terms of perspective and sentence structure.
William Burroughs, one of the most experimental authors in terms of perspective and sentence structure.

Perspective is in my opinion the most important element a writer needs to choose once he or she knows what to write, contrary to font, as I stated in another Hub. It's the perspective that ultimately determines how a story is told, and how the writer and his or her audience will interact with it. Should the story be told directly through a character's eyes and through his or her voice, or should the voice be one of omnipresence, a God-like figure or detached observer who knows all? Maybe the story would even seem to be best told directly to the audience, addressing the main character as the reader in second person.

Perspective tends to be part of any writer's signature voice. A writer like Stephen King always tells his stories in the third person, telling the story like someone who maybe saw everything that was happening to every character as the story unfolded, all through unexplained means. On the other hand, a writer like Chuck Palahniuk tends to use the first person to go even further into the psychology of a single character while making them the center of his satirical messages, a la Survivor or Choke . Some authors (very few) have even chosen the second person to narrate a story, forcing the reader to take the main character's place with a dominant “you” as the main noun. I've only seen this done in one novel in its entirety, and that was Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney.

The first person tends to be my choice, as it gets into the head of a certain character and can be a great narrative choice if psychology is what you want to explore as a writer in your story. Of course you might want to think of tense as well, something most writers don't tend to debate too much, most sticking with the typical past tense. Though this may be a popular tense of past writers and into today, present tense is growing as well, and is what I'm most comfortable in writing, though it really depends on how the story wants to be told. Do you want your character to know what's going to happen as the story goes along? Then you're safer with strict past tense. Do you want your character to seem as clueless to his or her exact future as the reader? Then present tense can be best. This tends to be my case. I prefer the unpredictability. But present tense can also be used to describe past events, with the character simply reliving all the moments by telling them as though they're happening at the moment, much like how some people will casually tell stories. I've even seen third person present tense though, but only in one case so far, The Delivery Man by Joe McGinniss, Jr.

The first person is something I consider a form of method acting, or at least I approach it this way, considering my novels and short stories told in this perspective to be as much performances as they are stories. Being character-driven rather than plot-driven, I'm a very psychological writer.

A lot of genre writers tend to prefer the third person, mainly because it's more explanatory and allows for the writer to write in their own voice to describe their literary universes. Fantasy and sci-fi is almost always told in third person, especially if a lot about the world needs explaining, and many characters are focused in on. By default, the narration is usually past tense, like any story would be casually told. The narrator in third person can sometimes be someone a main character knew (i.e. the narrator of Slaughterhouse Five ) or it can simply be a nameless, Godly presence. Third person has also focused on one character's thoughts or actions (called Third Person limited) while the more all-knowing narrator can exist (Third Person omniscient). Third person can make any writer feel more like a God, like they have control over their characters and the way the story moves. Most bestsellers tend to carry this narrative method.

For the first person to work, it can be a bit more challenging, in telling when a character should notice something so it doesn't get in the way of the story, making things choppy or unnecessary. A character in the first person can be obsessive about detail (Patrick Bateman in American Psycho ) or completely sucked into himself, his experiences, and his perception (Charles Bukowski's narration). The perspective can be toyed around with more if the voice is something a writer takes time to build for each character. Then there's minimalism, like Hemingway, or lengthy and vivid descriptions, like many pre-twentieth century writers. The postmodern era has given more of a rise to minimalism, though colleges tend to enjoy more luscious model telling still.

Many authors love to play with perspective, some of them blending first with second (like a how-to) in informing the audience, and then can even experiment with third, all in the same story. This tends to be more of a literary practice with general fiction, not so much the genre fiction.

Some authors have toyed with perspective and narration completely, most interestingly (in my opinion), William Burroughs's cut-up and fold-in technique, which was really first vaguely used in the novel Naked Lunch from the perspective of junkie and alter ego William Lee, and later full-fledged in his following Nova Trilogy . This method was predominantly used in a first person context, but it basically was created in American literature by Burroughs and his partner in art, Brion Gyson, though originally started in the 20s by Swedish Dadaism.

A rough example of how the cut-up and fold-in method works.
A rough example of how the cut-up and fold-in method works.

The theory behind the technique is this: Burroughs believed that the true meaning in any sentence can be brought out if the words are rearranged, and even whole new clear meanings can be birthed. He did this by literally printing out lines of text and cutting the words up, remixing them to form a new text. The fold-in technique was done by printing two sheets of paper with the same linespacing for their text, and folding each in half vertically, combining the left half of one page with the right of another and effectively forming new sentences. In addition, the places where the text met were determined by tediously discovered intersection points. The results may often seem almost nonsensical or confusing in their meaning, which was the main reason it took me so long to get through Naked Lunch; it's not an easy read. Neither is The Soft Machine or anything in the Nova Trilogy unless you're more familiar with Burroughs's narrative style. In a sense, it made the narration of the characters sound more like the disorganized thoughts and hallucinations of addicts.

Going along with the theme of addicts, perspective isn't simply a way of telling a story mechanically, but also what character is sharing his or her view, mostly in first person. Some writers choose characters who are easily to identify with for general audiences (unfortunately, this is not me) and others choose a darker and/or unusual route, telling the story from perspectives that aren't quite autobiographical in terms of personality. Many writers who cater to mainstream audiences--who write in first person--tend to make their narrator(s) more accessible emotionally to a majority of readers. I'd have to agree with Bret Ellis on this one though and say that the majority of readers and film goers are narcissistic in repelling any form of media in which they can't totally identify with the characters. Society can often best be satirized and made fun of in literary fiction when a character goes in a different direction than the writer does in real life. Unfortunately, this is how many writers go unnoticed.

Perspective shouldn't (again, my opinion) be played with so much that it becomes impossible for a typical reader to decipher, no matter how many options there can be to choose from. While something like the cut-up, fold-in technique may have been difficult, it's still possible to pull the satire and commentary, as well as a general story arc, from any piece. With nonfiction, it's almost a given it won't be told in anything other than the autobiographer's voice, but in fiction, perspective is everything in getting a story across most efficiently and effectively, unless you don't write for anyone other than yourself, and even then it's good to look over what you've written and ask, “Would I want to read this? If I knew nothing about the person who wrote it?”


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    • MDavisatTIERS profile image

      Marilyn L Davis 4 years ago from Georgia

      Thank you Ben for the time, energy and effort that you put into this well written article. Very helpful information, and the examples of either genre or author gave me another point of reference.

      Voted up and following

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      Ruby 4 years ago

      Very well written, glad I came across this article! Keep on writing!

    • Ben Graves profile image

      Ben Graves 6 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Thanks a lot for the encouragement, Cathy I!

    • Cathy I profile image

      Cathy I 6 years ago from New York

      You have terrific writing skills, and are very knowledgeable on the subject. I forsee that you will become a best selling author or better yet, a great Literary presence. Good luck with getting your book published. My countryman, Hon. Derek Walcott, is a poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. He also started writing at a young age. Dream Big!

    • Ben Graves profile image

      Ben Graves 6 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Thanks for the comments, W.E.

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      Website Examiner 6 years ago

      This is brilliantly written, well-researched, and thoughtful. Hopefully, you will find some way to reach a large audience with this article. W.E.