More Than A Narrator – The Three Parts of Story Perspective
There are three parts to perspective in a story; the narrator, the point of view, and the focus character. It’s easy to get confused, and people often use them interchangeably when discussing the more intimate, nitty-gritty details of a story. Most people leave these conversations to college-level literary criticism courses, so you won’t need to worry too much about your average fan delving into the “how”s and “why”s of your story. But we will.
As a writer, you should know these things cold. Because even if your average fan doesn’t know to look for them, you can sure bet they will be noticed if they’re not there.
What is Story Perspective?
Before we delve into the three parts, what even is perspective, and why should we care? Go pick a book up off your shelf. Any book. Have you done it yet? Without reading more than a paragraph or two you should be able to identify the narrator, the point of view, and the focus character. If not, I hope that by the time you get to the end of this article you will be able to.
Any story you will ever read, from Harry Potter to Beowulf, has a perspective. It’s the very basic framework for how a story is told. Try to tell a story to someone, just an anecdote about something interesting that happened at work. You are the one telling the story, they are the one listening. It is being told through your perspective. Novels, short stories, poetry, yes even non-fiction; Any story, in any genre, will have a perspective. Simply put, perspective is how you relate your story to your audience.
In this article you’re reading, I am the narrator. I am the one sharing this information with you. The point of view is second person. Second person is rarely used in fiction because it speaks directly to you, the reader, which can be disconcerting, or boring, if you’re reading all about the mating habits of vampires.
It’s the narrator’s job to relay this information to you in a way that you hopefully won’t find too tedious, but as an author, I also have to find a way to do more than relay information; I must also engage you in the story using a full, well-rounded, and consistent, perspective.
The narrator is the voice through which you’re telling the story. Think of them as the filter through which your story must pass before it reaches your reader. This filter provides context and frames the story in a relatable way. Their voice – the style in which you tell the story – keeps it interesting so that your readers stay engaged. And you want your readers engaged so that they come back for more.
Go back to the example where you are telling a story to someone about something that happened at work. Here, you are the narrator because you are the one telling the story. If I wrote down the story of what happened to you at work, you would still be the narrator, but I would be the author. Fiction is just this process, but you get to be everyone.
As an author, especially a fiction author, it’s easy to forget who your narrator is or what their voice sounds like. After all, you are the one writing the story, so it’s told in your voice right? Well, no. Not always. In fact, the most compelling narrators are often as much characters in the novel as your protagonists. The key to having a powerful narrator is consistency – and the easiest way to keep a narrator consistent, is with point
Point of View
Every literature class, from about fourth grade through post-graduate studies, has at least once section on point of view, or PoV. We all know the basics; first-person is told from the view of the character telling the story, using personal pronouns such as “I”, “me”, “my” etc, second-person addresses the reader directly using “you” and “your” statements, and third-person is some outside view telling a story happening to someone else with “they”, “their”, “s/he” pronouns. From there we get into more complicated details about closed-perspective or open-perspective, omniscient vs limited view, reliability, and bias. In fact, there’s so much to talk about here that I could write a book on it. Luckily, I don’t have to; there’s this great article from Lexiconic Resources that already did.
What all this means for you as a writer, is that you have options. The point of view you choose will set the tone for your entire story and help you communicate in some fun and creative ways. It helps if you think of the PoV as the narrator’s position in the story, rather than the narrator themself. If your narrator is “who” is telling the story, the PoV is “how” the story is being told. While most fiction is written in some variance of the third-person point of view, many great stories simply lend themselves better to first-, or even second-person, PoV. The PoV that you choose for your story can be whatever works for you – whatever helps you tell the story you’re tying to tell.
The hard part isn’t choosing a PoV though. For most writers the hardest part is consistency. Once you choose your PoV you must stick with it. Changing your PoV in the middle of a book, or switching around in the middle of scenes is hard to follow and readers will get confused and most likely but the book down. Think of this consistency as the road you drive you car on. Most people don’t pay too much attention to the road itself, rather they focus on the other cars driving around, pedestrians crossing the street, and the general action that is happening on the road. As an author, it’s your job to pave a safe roadway for the action of your story to take place. If you do your job right, your readers won’t be paying too much attention to the PoV, they will be focusing what your characters are up to.
This isn’t a term that many writers are familiar with. We tend to use “protagonist” and “main character” interchangeably instead, and neither is exactly right. While a protagonist is a central figure that the main plot of a story revolves around, there can actually be many main characters. Your heroes, villains, and sidekicks are all main characters in that they are directly integral to the plot. A focus character on the other hand can be any one of these at a given time. Focus characters are the person or persons the perspective is following in a scene.
Let’s say you are writing in a third-person, closed perceptive with a reliable narrator who is outside the scene (i.e. not a character in the book). In this case you could have one scene where you are in the head of the protagonist, seeing the action through his eyes, but in the next scene you are half-way around the world watching different events unfold through the eyes of a different main character. The character you attach the point of view to is your focus character.
Another example. I have been writing a series of short stories told from the first-person PoV of my protagonist, Tianna Blackboot. She is a highly subjective and therefor unreliable narrator, and the whole story is told from the perspective of this person who was there watching it happen. But there are occasionally scenes where she wasn’t there, she only heard about the events later. In these cases, I attach her PoV to a focus character and relate the story “as it was told to her”.
Your focus characters should always be main characters, but they never have to be limited to your protagonist. Using focus characters, you can have a lot of fun with your story, without changing the PoV or damaging the credibility of your narrator.
The perceptive you choose for your story can (and should) make all the difference in how readers relate to your work. Using these three tools together effectively can turn casual readers into lifelong fans. Now, go build that road so that your characters can drive your story.