First-person or third-person? Past or present tense? These are questions that I think about a lot as a writer.
My first novel We, The Watched employs first-person perspective with a present tense, but it took me a few tries on chapter one to get there. I remember trying third-person past, and then first-person past, but neither seemed to serve the story of a man who wakes up with no memory in a surveillance society.
In the end, I chose first-person because the story is about one man named Seven’s struggle to conform in a totalitarian world, and this perspective allowed me to really flesh out his internal conflict. Because Seven has no past, telling his story in present-tense felt right, too.
This POV was also great for making the reader feel like he or she was Seven. Readers come into books with no knowledge of what came before–and so did Seven. First-person present seemed the perfect way to make the reader feel like a participant in the plot.
While this perspective worked well, I decided to shake things up for the sequel, Divided We Fall.
My second novel is no longer about one character, but two. Seven learns more about who he was before the events of We, The Watched, including an important person who he left behind. I opted for third-person this time so that I could smoothly switch between the perspectives of the two protagonists and highlight their relationship.
With third-person, you can do an omniscient, narrator style where the reader sees everyone at once and can see into everyone’s head. However, since Divided We Fall is about two people, I chose to limit each scene to just one of their perspectives. I like this approach because I think it makes readers feel more invested in the story–as if the events are happening to them.
This approach actually gave me a lot more freedom to play around with time. The perspective in my first novel forced me to follow Seven even when there was not a lot of action happening. In Divided We Fall, I could jump to a different character when things got dull, and jump back when they became exciting again.
Meanwhile, choosing past tense helped reflect that Divided We Fall is very much a book about looking back and coping with how things can change.
My upcoming third novel, The Wanderer and the New West, similarly uses third-person past perspective. However, I have expanded the number of POVs to include about seven main characters. This flexibility adds an epic quality to the story and keeps action levels high.
Of course, figuring out which character’s perspective to use in a given scene or chapter is not always obvious. Sometimes one character’s voice will bring a unique flavor that another’s does not. In some cases I’ve rewritten scenes several times before finding the best voice.
So wait, two books in a row with third-person past? Does that mean I’ve decided it’s the best way to tell a story?
No way! Actually, I recently wrote a short story (coming soon) in the world of We, The Watched and I went back to first-person present. I think it came out great! The decision on which perspective to use comes down to the story. What works for one kind of book won’t necessarily work for another. Often, it’s trial and error gets me to the right angle. The important thing is to keep trying and never be afraid of rewrites!
Feature image: “Relativity” (1953) by M.C. Escher