One of the first questions a writer faces is what viewpoint to use in their novel. Do you write in first or third person? It is one of those questions that seems simple on the surface but gets complex once you start to delve into the details.

In this section, we will consider viewpoint in depth. You’ll start by learning about the different viewpoint types. This will be followed by a more detailed examination of first and third person viewpoints.

Once you have completed this section, you will have a far more in-depth knowledge of the role of viewpoint in a novel. As a writer, you will be more comfortable in picking and using a viewpoint. As an editor, you will gain the confidence needed to make changes to the viewpoint so that it best suits the novel.

Understanding Narration

In order to understand viewpoint, we must first take a step back and consider another concept, that of the narration.

Wikipedia describes narration as ‘the use of a written or spoken commentary to convey a story to an audience.’ You will often also hear this described as ‘narrative summary’. In essence, it is the voice of the person telling the story or the narrator.

The narrative of a story is split into three elements:

  1. Narrative point of view.
  2. Narrative voice.
  3. Narrative time.

Narrative point of view is addressed in this section and narrative voice in the next.

The third element, narrative time, is simply the placement of the story. Is it in the past, present or future? This is reflected in the tense you pick to write the story. The only real aspect of this that is relevant from an editorial stance is that the narrative time must be consistent. If the writer is writing in the past tense, they need to stay in the past tense. It is not uncommon for writers to unintentionally switch between tenses. This is something, as an editor, you need to keep an eye out and address.

This might sound obvious, but the narrative voice (voice of the narrator) is not the same as the writer’s voice. Think about it, this is actually a definition of fiction. It is a story told by someone other than the writer. In non-fiction, this is the opposite. The voice in a non-fiction book IS the voice of the writer. In non-fiction, the narrator and writer are the same person. In fiction, the narrator and writer are different people.

Having established the role of narrative, we now turn our attention to the first element of narrative and the different types of narrative viewpoint.

What is Viewpoint?

The narrative viewpoint is the position of the narrator in relation to the story.

The writer has three options:

  1. First person.
  2. Second person.
  3. Third person.

The vast majority of novels are written in either first or third person. In the following section, we look at both of these viewpoints in detail. However, before we move on, let’s take a moment to consider second person viewpoint.

At this point, I think I’d like to share that I have actually written a number of books written in second person. These were a collection of choose your own adventure books. The key to understanding second person is that the narrator will refer to themselves as ‘you’.

Below is a section from Arnhem: Fight Your Own Battle (EDGE – Battle Books) by me…

Sunday, night…

You spring to your feet and shout for your men to retreat. In the middle of the road you are exposed and bullets slice through the air around you. The German machine gun continues to fire. 2 Section are slow to react. You kick Corporal Venables, the nearest man, into action. He jumps to his feet – ordering his men off the bridge.

You sprint across to 1 Section on your left, but they are already moving back along the bridge. The machine gun fire is now more random – the darkness protecting your retreat. As you jog away from the pillbox you see at least six paratrooper bodies on the ground – one of them is Corporal Ramsey. You are the last man off the bridge.

The Major is waiting on the road below the bridge. You explain that the attack failed and he just nods and thanks you. You tell him that there are bodies of paratroopers on the bridge and ask his permission to mount another attack to return the bodies. The Major looks you in the eye and simply says no, ordering you back to your platoon house.

If you wish to disobey the order and take your men to get the bodies, go to 96.

If you wish to do as you are told and return to the house, go to 88.

I suspect that for most writers they will never even consider writing a book in second person (rightly so). As an editor, they are rare beasts indeed. If you are working with a second person book, just email me and I’ll offer any help you might need.
With second person brushed neatly under the carpet, let’s turn our attention to first person. One word of warning. There’s much been written about the technical aspects of first and third person viewpoints. I have tried to keep the explanations in this course to the essentials. If you feel you need more I’d suggest a quick Google search as a great jump off point.

First Person

A novel written in first person has the narrator speaking directly about themselves. They will use ‘I’ (the first-person singular pronoun) and/or ‘we’ (the first-person plural pronoun). The narrator is also limited to the knowledge that would be possessed by the character.

One of the ‘great’ novels, written in first person, is Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Below you will find the opening two paragraphs of the book. Notice how they have been written from the viewpoint of the narrator.

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.

First person is a very common writing viewpoint. It has no genre boundaries and is seen in all common genres. However, it is seen a lot in contemporary fiction and also literary fiction. Many novels that are considered ‘classics’ are written in first person.

Writing in first person brings with it some advantages…

The first is that the narrator has direct access to the main character’s thoughts and emotions. It is simple for the narrator to say what they (and therefore the main character) is feeling. If you are looking to write a story that is seeking to examine emotion on a deep level, first person is a good choice. We have also talked a lot about the role of conflict and the different levels of conflict (inner, personal, extra-personal). If you are looking to write a novel heavy on inner conflict, then first person is worthy of serious consideration.

The second advantage is that first person often means less description is required. Since you are writing from the ‘mind’ of the character a writer can ‘get away’ with describing less of the world. Enough description is needed to allow the reader to paint a clear picture in their mind’s eye but little more. This means that if you are a writer that hates writing description, first person might be an ideal choice.

Finally, first person provides one more great advantage, it is perfect for plot twists. Since the narrator can only write what a character knows, it means events can occur ‘away’ from the main character and can, therefore, be ignored by the narrator. This means first person lends its self beautifully to tricking the reader into unseen plot twists. Iain Bank’s, Wasp Factory, is a great example of this in action.

Though first person has some clear advantages, it also has some marked disadvantages…

The first real disadvantage is that the narrative viewpoint is limited to what the main character sees and knows. This is great for setting up twists in plots, but can be a hindrance in some types of storytelling. If you are looking to examine the thoughts and motivations of multiple characters, then this is next to impossible with first person. If you are looking to tell sweeping, epic stories with a number of characters (think Game of Thrones), you are giving yourself significant hurdles by picking first person.

One way around the problem of sweeping narratives is to write using multiple first person narrative viewpoints. This way you tend not to have a single ‘main’ character and jump between different viewpoints in each chapter. This can be a very effective way of writing but requires a level of skill and control.

The final big disadvantage is that drifting from the main character and writing the thoughts and feelings of other characters is far too easy to do. In a strict first person viewpoint, this is a big no. One word of warning here. There are a number of successful novels that use first person but also drift into the minds of other characters (for example, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak). My advice, as an editor, is to not do this. It is potentially confusing and requires great skill from both the editor and writer to make it work at a suitable level.

I want to close this little section with a few pointers for editors working with first person novels…

  • The first thing for an editor to consider is whether the viewpoint is helping or hindering the novel. If the writer is trying to write a fantasy epic but is writing in first person, then alarm bells should be ringing. The flip side is true, if a writer is creating a story that focuses on the internal dialogue of the main character, but is writing in third person, then the editor should consider suggesting a shift in viewpoint.
  • The second thing to consider is if the writer is sticking to the narrative rules. First person means that they need to stick to the thoughts and feelings of the main character. If they are drifting to other characters, then the editor needs to be pulling this up. Likewise, if the main character suddenly gains knowledge they could not have possibly known, then the editor needs to be marking this as a potential problem.
  • Finally, one question an editor should be asking is whether the story is confusing. The first person approach means that the narrative width is limited and it is easy for a writer to make assumptions about what a reader will ‘get’. Therefore, an editor must be aware of the potential for a read to become confused.

Third Person

A novel written in third person will see the narrator separate from the characters. The narrator will use terms such as ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, or ‘they’. The narrator tends to know everything about the world and is not limited to the knowledge of the characters.

Third person is, by far, the most popular viewpoint and is used in all genres.

One of the ‘great’ novels written in third person is Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Below are the opening few paragraphs from this novel…

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning — fresh as if issued to children on a beach.

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?”— was that it? —“I prefer men to cauliflowers”— was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace — Peter Walsh. He would be back from India one of these days, June or July, she forgot which, for his letters were awfully dull; it was his sayings one remembered; his eyes, his pocket-knife, his smile, his grumpiness and, when millions of things had utterly vanished — how strange it was! — a few sayings like this about cabbages.

Ok, before we plough on a little warning that we are about to discuss a problem that I see three or four times a week. Third person is actually a term used to cover three very different ways of writing. If you are writing in ‘third person’ but are not sure which of the three types you are using, or where not aware there was three types, you have a potential issue on your hands.

Third person viewpoint comes in three very distinct forms:

  1. Limited.
  2. Objective.
  3. Omniscient.

Third person limited is when the narrator is describing the feelings and thoughts of one or more characters. The narrator’s knowledge is limited to the knowledge of this character or characters. If focussing on more than one character, each chapter will tend to focus on just one character. An example of this would be George R. R. Martin’s, A Game of Thrones series.

Third person objective is when the narrator is not describing the thoughts and feelings of any character. The narrative summary will focus on description and have no internal dialogue. Hemingway was a pioneer of this process and I would suggest Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway as a good example.

Third person Omniscient is when the narrator has a FULL knowledge. Wikipedia has this to say… ‘a narrator has knowledge of all times, people, places, and events, including all characters’ thoughts; a limited narrator, in contrast, may know absolutely everything about a single character and every piece of knowledge in that character’s mind, but the narrator’s knowledge is “limited” to that character—that is, the narrator cannot describe things unknown to the focal character.’ The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is a good example.

It is essential, when writing and editing, that you are very clear as to which version of third person is being used. Only by clearly understanding this can an editor be applying the correct advice. Third person limited is, by far, the most common form of third person. If you are not sure which option you are using or editing, start at limited.

Writing in third person brings with it some advantages…

The biggest advantage with third person comes with the fact that it is, by far, the most popular viewpoint employed by writers. This means that not only are readers intimately aware of the viewpoint, but there is also a huge amount of resources on the Internet to support any problem you may face.

The second advantage is that third person allows for complex storytelling. Over the years, writers have refined the third person technique and we are now in a situation in which the three types of third person viewpoint gives readers a huge freedom in their approach. If you consider the way popular thrillers are constructed, or look at an epic fantasy, such as Game of Thrones, and you will soon find the type of stories they tell are only possible in third person.

The final advantage of third person is that it lends itself perfectly to description. This means that writers are able to create richly described worlds in which readers can become immersed. It is difficult to imagine J.K. Rowling creating the same depth to her worlds if writing in first person.

Third person is not all cute kittens and it brings with it a number of disadvantages.

The first big pitfall is that many new writers are unaware that third person is actually three things. They will plow ahead with a novel writing ‘third person’ but wholly unaware if they are writing limited, objective or omniscient. This brings with it a whole heap of problems, which often fall to the editor to fix.

The second issue comes in emotion. Since the thrust of third person is in narrative summary and description, it is often difficult to convey emotion. Yes, you can have internal thoughts (as long as you are not writing in objective) but these are often stunted by the format. It means that writers are forced to show, not tell.

The final problem is telling, not showing. As we said, emotion is difficult to convey. This means that writers are forced to use description to pass emotion to the reader. This is difficult and many writers will fall back on telling. They will not describe a sad man; they’ll tell the reader the man is sad. This is like cancer to a novel. We have a whole unit dedicated to showing, not telling.

From an editorial viewpoint, third person viewpoint brings with it two huge problems. We’ve already touched on both of these, but from an editorial viewpoint these problems are fundamental issues. In fact, if you are working as a full-time editor you will be dealing with these issues on a daily basis.

  • The first is third person type. It is very common for a writer to be unaware of the type of viewpoint they are employing. This means that you must first take the time to decide which of the three are being used. Once this has been established, you must then edit the manuscript with a view to keeping the narrative consistent. If writing in objective, then all the thoughts must go. If writing in limited, then ensure the narrator’s knowledge is not too great. You get the picture.
  • The second problem is telling not showing. we will be dealing with this in the next unit, but at this point, all you need to know is that it is a huge problem in many novels. As an editor, you must become aware of when a writer is telling, not showing. You must also be able to remove this tell and replace it with show. It can be a painful process.

Exercise

There is no one exercise that can be suggested that will instantly resolve any issues with viewpoint. I am, therefore, suggesting a few steps that you should be taking.

From a more general perspective:

  • Spend some time researching the viewpoint in which you write. Read as much as possible and really start to ingrain the viewpoint into the way you think about books and story.
  • Read a handful of books that are written in your viewpoint. However, try to read as an editor, not a reader. Look for the way sentences are structured and how the narrative voice is presented.
  • Practice. Take a subject, any subject, and try to write a short passage in each of the viewpoints. Start with first and then work on the three types of third person.

From a more specific perspective:

  • When editing, look for the keywords for your viewpoint. If writing in first person, the narrator should be using ‘I’. If writing in third person you are looking for ‘he’ or ‘she’. Dialogue is often a place that you’ll see mistakes.
  • When editing in first person, look for ‘drift’. The narrator should only know what the main character knows.
  • When editing third person, look for the misuse of internal thoughts. Also beware of what the narrator knows, unless writing in omniscient, the narrator should only know as much as the characters.