Narrative perspective comes in many forms. In first-person limited, the narrator and the protagonist are one and the same, and the audience knows only what the character knows. In third-person omniscient, the narrator is free to rain down information from on high and use whatever voice will best fit the story.
Most perspective choices have legitimate uses, but a few are clearly mistakes. These only serve to annoy readers, no matter how novel or exciting they seem. While it’s impossible to say these perspectives should never be used,* most writers should stay away from them. Here are a few of the most persistent.
1. The Watsonian POV Character
We all love the detective who lives at 221B Baker Street, and that love has led to many attempts to emulate Doyle with a Watsonian narrator. This is a character, like Watson, who is not the protagonist, but the reader still sees events through their eyes. This style has a number of problems.
First, it distances the reader from the story. Rather than viewing events through the most important character’s eyes, readers are left with a secondary character’s interpretation. The Watson character almost always feels passive and boring compared to their brilliant companion. The reader inevitably feels like their time is wasted on this sidekick when the real hero is off doing something important.
Second, this perspective choice inevitably leads to over-glorification of the hero. This was acceptable back in Doyle’s day, but a character with Holmes’s level of candy is insufferable by modern standards. There’s a reason every retelling of Sherlock Holmes* gives the great detective increasingly serious personality flaws. Without them, Holmes would be a bore.
Finally, a Watsonian POV character violates storytelling conventions, confusing the reader. Modern audiences are used to viewing the story through the most important character’s eyes. While it’s sometimes acceptable to break established rules, you need to have a good reason, and this perspective choice doesn’t come with any.
In the original Holmes stories, Doyle used Watson’s POV to hide information from the audience. When Holmes makes his big reveal about the mystery, he almost always uses some kind of clue that the reader either never saw or was tricked into dismissing. If Holmes were the POV character, there’d be no dramatic reveal because readers would solve the mystery immediately. While modern TV shows still use the same technique, readers will feel cheated by it. It’s hard to see the protagonist as clever when they’re using information you don’t have.
2. Abandoning the Protagonist’s Viewpoint
Some stories benefit from using multiple POV characters. If a story is particularly complex, or it has morally gray conflicts, a writer might need more than one viewpoint to give readers the whole picture. A Song of Ice and Fire is a classic example.
But multiple POVs must be used carefully, because they are incredibly easy to get wrong. One common mistake is when the author establishes a protagonist, then quickly abandons them to play with other characters. This occurs at the beginning of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, and the story suffers from it.
Protagonist Rosemary is a great main character. She’s a fish out of water, so the author has a clear reason to explain things to her, but she’s also competent in her field so she doesn’t get annoying. Her interactions with the other characters are entertaining, and her backstory is an intriguing mystery.
That’s why it’s so confusing when the book quickly leaves her to spend several chapters from the POV of other crew members. For Rosemary, being on board a wormhole-ship is exciting and new; for the others, it’s just business as usual. This makes their chapters far less interesting than hers are, and nothing happens that couldn’t have been communicated through Rosemary’s eyes. Worse, a book’s opening is a vital time for readers to form a bond with the protagonist, and Angry Planet cuts that time short for no beneficial reason.
The protagonist should, by definition, be the most interesting character in a story. They have the greatest problems to deal with and are best equipped to move the story forward. Authors need a very strong reason to leave the protagonist’s POV, and even then, limit such absences. In order to merit their own viewpoint, another character must move the plot forward as well as the protagonist does. Otherwise, you are merely leaving behind the best part of your story.
3. Changing Narrative Styles
Choosing the correct narrative style is difficult. Does an author want the immediacy and extra pronoun of first person, the closeness of third-person limited, or the flexibility of third-person omniscient? On the bright side, this is a decision you only need to make once, because a story’s narrative style should stay the same throughout.
Unfortunately, some authors make the mistake of changing their narrative style at different points in the story. Some authors do this because they want a different feel for each character. In Acceptance, the third book of the Southern Reach trilogy, Jeff Vandermeer had already established that some characters used first person and others used third in previous books. Acceptance was the first time those characters had been brought together, and instead of choosing a single style, Vandermeer switches back and forth whenever the POV changes.
While Acceptance is still a good book, the constant switching both annoys and confuses. It’s jarring to go from first person to third person and back again.* It draws the reader’s eye to the mechanics of the prose instead of focusing on the story. Vandermeer was a little stuck because he’d established the link between characters and narrative styles in previous books, but that doesn’t change the fact that switching back and forth detracted from the story.
Many authors make this mistake with far less reason. At first glance, it seems like a cool idea to emphasize how different one section of the story is by using another narration style. An author might want to bring across how disoriented the protagonist is after they’ve eaten some bad cactus fruit, and so switch the perspective to second person for a chapter. That will certainly disorient the reader, but not because they understand the protagonist’s plight; it suddenly feels like they’re reading a different book.
4. A Story Within a Story Within a Story
First, we need to establish some vocabulary, because talking about a recursive topic like this is confusing. A normal story read by the reader is a 1st-level story. A story being told by characters within the 1st-level story is a 2nd-level story. A story told by characters within a 2nd-level story is a 3rd-level story. Got it? Good.
The 2nd-level story is a well established staple of literature. Writers can communicate a lot about their fictional culture by including its stories and reveal much about the characters by deciding which stories they tell and how. This goes beyond a framing device like that used in One Thousand and One Nights or The Princess Bride. It is a complete story nested within another complete story. So long as the 2nd-level story is brief and relevant, it can really benefit the 1st-level story.
But this has the potential to go on and on forever, with 3rd-level stories and 4th-level stories. When is it too much? It turns out that anything beyond the second level is too much. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than the novel A Stranger in Olondria. In this novel, the protagonist encounters a ghost who tells him an abridged version of her life story. Within that story, the ghost* is told a story of how the gods first made men and women.
The ghost’s story had the potential to be interesting, but the 3rd-level story about gods has no attraction at all. It’s supposed to teach the ghost a lesson and inform readers of how she sees the world, except the only reason to have the 2nd-level story is to teach the protagonist a lesson and inform readers of how he sees the world.
Every new level adds a new layer of distance between reader and characters, which is why 2nd-level stories are supposed to directly relate to the 1st-level characters rather than act as complete stories in their own right. It takes extra effort for readers to bridge the gap and care about what’s happening in the deeper storytelling levels, and anything beyond 2nd-level just isn’t worth it.
5. First-Person Omniscient
Nearly every narrative style has a type of story that it’s best suited for, but there’s one exception. First-person omniscient isn’t suited for anything, except maybe a comedy making fun of first-person omniscient. In case you haven’t encountered this beast in the wild, first-person omniscient is when the narrator uses the “I” pronoun and also knows everything that’s happening in the story, including the inner thoughts of other characters.
This style is rare, but it does happen. In the Hugo-nominated Eifelheim, much of the story is told in first-person omniscient. The narrator isn’t any of the characters in the story, but they refer to themselves as “I” and know exactly what everyone is thinking at highly emotional moments. The narrator even drops occasional hints about how they know the main character, making it clear they are a specific person.
This type of narration is incredibly annoying. It’s impossible not to wonder how the narrator knows so much about the characters’ lives, including what they’re thinking during an ugly argument. Very few stories include a character who could plausibly have all this information. In Eifelheim, the narrator turns out to be a professor who helps the main characters out with a project near the end. How did he know what they were thinking when their marriage was falling apart? Did he later become their therapist?
But what if your story does have a character who could plausibly know all this? Perhaps your world includes an all-knowing god-computer or the ever-present spirit of Death, then is it okay to use first-person omniscient? No. Even here, you’ll have to choose between two bad options.
Option one: Your narrator reveals who they are at the beginning of the story. This is, at best, a clumsy framing device. It takes the reader’s focus away from your story and on to the narrator, which might work for a comedy,* but it will only hurt the story if played straight.
Option two: Your narrator doesn’t reveal who they are. Then your readers will spend the whole story distracted by this mysterious “I” who knows everything. They won’t be able to focus on your characters or your plot because of the obtrusive narrator, and heaven help you if your explanation at the end doesn’t seem plausible.
Neither option is good for your story, especially since there’s approximately zero benefit to using first-person omniscient. It gives you no options you couldn’t easily get from third-person omniscient, so just take it out of your tool box, and let it gather dust.
Perspective mistakes are deep in the nuts and bolts of writing, so they often don’t get the attention they deserve. They might not be as flashy as a plot hole or poorly motivated character, but they are absolutely vital to this great machine we call language. Avoid these mistakes, or confused and annoyed readers will come to your house with pitchforks.
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