You’ve got the perfect idea for a story. You’ve nailed down a setting, plot beats, even characters. There’s one big question left to answer: who’s going to tell it?
Perspective is the narrative lens through which readers view a story. A reader might experience the perspective of the protagonist, an antagonist, a child, an animal, or something else entirely! What sets a narrator apart is their role in the story’s events and their perception of a world and its characters.
Sometimes, when people talk about perspective, they’re considering point of view-- the kind of narrator used to tell a story, which might be a floating head in third-person or an involved character in first-person-- but perspective as a literary device specifically means how that narrator perceives the story. A narrator speaking from any point of view will have a unique take on the plot depending on who or what they are, and will talk about it to a reader in a distinct way.
So what makes perspective so important? It has an effect on how every other element of the story is conveyed. Characters, setting, and events only exist to the reader in the way that your narrator views and describes them. The story of a school field trip told through the eyes of a kindergartener, her teacher, her lunchbox, herself looking back as an adult, or an omniscient narrator will be radically different! Each of these narrators will notice different details and interpret story events in unique ways. Many people may witness the exact same event and come away with different perspectives on what happened.
Authors have always used perspective strategically. If Arthur Conan Doyle had let Sherlock Holmes start narrating stories in the late 1800s, they might have been cold and dry or given away clues too easily. Writing from Doctor Watson’s perspective added emotion and kept questions open while ensuring that readers saw Holmes with the same awe as Watson.
More recently, Hannah Rothschild’s 2015 novel The Improbability of Love includes a few chapters narrated from the perspective of an antique painting! The story follows the dramatic twists and turns of art dealing as a business and a culture, making a painting’s view of events a real insider’s perspective.
Today, authors are invested in creating stories told from the perspective of people from all walks of life, especially marginalized communities. The writing community is considering who can write from which perspectives with movements like #OwnVoices, which prioritize stories about marginalized characters written by authors who share those facets of identity.
Before you sit down to tell your story, think about who is doing the real talking to a reader. Is your narrator’s perspective interesting, relevant, and singular? Work on developing your narrator’s voice. Do you like the way your world looks through their eyes?
Feay, Suzi. “The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild Review.” The Guardian. Guardian
News and Media, April 20, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/20/the-
TSCPL_Miranda. “Own Voices.” The Seattle Public Library. Accessed May 27, 2021.
About the Author: Kahlo Smith is a writer, editor, gardener, and Bigfoot hunter from Santa Cruz, California. When she isn’t offering her unique perspective on different perspectives on perspective, you can probably find her hiding behind trees in the woods for no particularly suspicious reasons.