Sometimes perspective and point of view (POV) are used interchangeably, but they shouldn’t be. They are different. Point of view refers to who is telling the story. Perspective is about how that person sees the story. When you craft your novel, POV is one of the first decisions you’ll have to make. Perspective will be something you’ll consider the whole way through the writing process.
Most people choose to tell their story either through first person (I, me, my pronouns) or third person (he, she, they pronouns). In other words, will your protagonist be the narrator, as they are in first person? Or, does a narrator describe what happens to other people (third person)?
There are two types of third person: third person limited and third person omniscient. The first is far more common in modern writing. It simply means that the narrator describes the story through only one person’s eyes at a time. The latter means that the narrator (an unknown, unnamed one) describes the action through an all-knowing lens—knowing the truth in every character’s heart, able to tell all to the reader. Technically there’s a fourth POV—second person—but that is rarely used.
The best way to tell your story is by choosing which POV feels right to you. It’s also useful to have a sense of the conventions of your genre as well. It’s not to say that there are hard and fast rules of POV, but some genres tolerate first person better than others. As always, the writer’s skill makes all the difference. Still, it doesn’t hurt to know that most novels are written in third person limited, though often from many characters’ POVs. Who tells which portion of the story can greatly increase suspense.
Once you’ve decided who is telling the story, now comes the harder part: how will they tell it? Perspective refers to the worldview, biases, gender, age, background, desires, and motivations of the character. There’s a famous saying that, “There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each differently.” Robert Evans, the film producer, supposedly made this point. It’s apt and describes perspective perfectly.
In practical terms, is your protagonist reliable or unreliable? Are they mistaken or ill-informed? Do they have a reason to lie? Have they been fed false information? Are they too young to understand, too jaded, too hurt or lonely, too optimistic or naïve? This is the stuff of perspective. Once you’re in first or third person POV, what is your character’s angle? Why might they report what happens in the way they do?
Examples of Perspective
I think use of perspective is best exemplified in fairy tale retellings that imagine the feelings or story of minor characters…or even the villain. Take Broadway’s hit musical, Wicked. It’s based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Instead of seeing the Wizard of Oz from Dorothy’s perspective, we see it from the Wicked Witch’s. Is she that evil? Or is she simply misunderstood and cursed?
Maria Semple’s 2012 bestseller, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is another great example of the use of POV versus perspective. The book is largely a collection of correspondence from Bernadette to others, but her teenage daughter also narrates. At first the reader takes Bernadette’s correspondence at face value, but as the book moves on, we see how the author uses perspective to create mystery and humor. Soon the reader suspects Bernadette is crazy, but by the time the book ends, we find that maybe she’s just misunderstood. The journey of shifting perspectives is what makes Semple’s book a winner.
When you plan your own manuscript, think of the ways who tells the story (POV) can be influenced by that character’s perspective. What will make for the most compelling read? Look to see how other authors make this distinction in the books you read. And then: dive in yourself!