Medievia Mudslinger

March 30th, 2003

Writer's Guide - Part 15 - By Excrucior

It depends how you look at it...

There are two areas to consider when writing - perspective and tense. These are very important aspects and you should make decisions on these before you start writing. I'll deal with perspective for now.

As a good rule, when you start writing in one perspective, you should stick with that all through the rest of the piece. You could occasionally vary between them, but only with rather advanced narrative techniques - often using italics - but again, you have to have a good reason for doing so.

There are three narrative perspectives - first, second, and third. The majority of fiction is written in third person, in my experience, although there are some very good pieces of first person out there. Second person is rarely used and for a very good reason.

First person is where the narrative is from the viewpoint of the main character. It generally consists of a lot of usage of the word 'I' and 'me' and so forth.

I jumped down to the alley floor and bounced lightly on the tips of my toes to minimize the noise. My dagger slid silently from its sheath as I prepared to strike. One blow, and the guardsman was just another corpse in the gutter.

The first person perspective creates a sense of immediacy and attempts to allow the reader to identify more closely with the proponent. It is limited in that all the attention is focused on one place - when you start with one person you cannot go onto another. It also has the drawback that you may have thought of a different way of dealing with a problem, and if the character does something differently, you lose a lot of empathy with the action.

If you want some recommended fiction in this style, try Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat series - science fiction and very readable, but don't expect anything too deep. Heinlein attempted to change perspective between first person characters (he had four main proponents) in "The Number of the Beast" but it read more like a gimmick than anything else.

Second person is very underused and for very good reasons. This perspective had the narrator telling the reader what they experience. It has a greater sense of immediacy for the reader than third person, but it's very much only used for the sake of the style itself.

You jump to the floor of the alley, bouncing on the toes of your feet to keep quiet. You unsheathe your dagger silently and decide where to strike. Your blow lands, and the guardsman lays at your feet.

Like the first person perspective, second limits you to what a character sees or does. I've never read a successful story in second person perspective, and the only time I've seen it work (apart from zone descriptions in the game of course) is in the Fighting Fantasy style gamebooks, where you have to go to page such and such for one action, or another page if you do something else (you know the type). Remember, though, very few people ever try this style - it's not easy on the reader with the constant repetition of "you" and "your".

Third person perspective is the most versatile and thus the most popular of all styles. In this, you don't have to tell the reader what happens from a character's point of view but from an outside observer's vantage. The majority of Mudslinger and real life fiction is in the third person - I consider this to be a hint.

The assassin jumped down to the alley floor and took care to land silently, bouncing on his toes. He drew his dagger swiftly and, without a pang of remorse, stabbed the unsuspecting guardsman in the back. Another corpse joined the debris.

In the same sentence, I was able to denote the attitudes of the assassin and the guard - no remorse and unsuspecting respectively. That is part of the third person perspective's power - you can even flick the action to another area entirely. Think how a film works, taking a view of a scene from one angle and immediately jumping to another for more action in a different place.

Some people prefer to show things from all angles, while others prefer the action to stay on one character. I prefer the second form myself, but I can see the value of the occasional break to the evil overlord's (or overlady's - we're not biased here) hideout to see them readying the Weasel of Armageddon. That sort of thing adds a lot of tension, though it's very cinematic in style. It depends on you, your story, and your audience.

Is there any way to combine the styles? Generally, I would advise not to even try, though if you used a decent story mechanism then it would be possible. Try the following.

Bob relaxed. He'd been taught how to do this, and they had said that you had to be calm to do it. He felt his vision swim as his mind linked with that of his friend in the herobattle arena.

Your foe is dying and he knows it. He's been running for several minutes now but his tracks are plainly visible to your trained eye. Your wounds hurt but you know he's worse. Your dagger is ready to strike and you search for the next footprint that will betray his location.

Something attracts your attention - behind you. He's doubled back to run around behind you! Your body spasms as he plunges his dagger in...

Bob sat up with a start. A cold sweat covered his back, chilling him more than he had ever expected possible. So that's what it was like to die...

The above example goes from third to second and back again. That would work, but only if the second was for a short length. You could have used first there instead, but I felt that second was more of a change, reflecting better the sense that Bob was being told what happened. Generally speaking, you should decide on one perspective and keep it for the entire tale unless you're feeling really confident.

Dialogue was mentioned in an earlier section, but when someone is talking, the perspective they use depends on what they're talking about. If it's within quotes, you can do as you like, as long as it makes sense.

When deciding on perspective, feel free to experiment - as long as you can justify it in the tale. The thing to keep in mind is that the majority of fiction - mainstream and Mudslinger - is in third person. Sometimes you will have to use first person for the style of the story - it's something that you'll have to decide.

In the next section I'll be dealing with a related issue - tense.


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