Picking the right character to do something or show something is important, more important than I think we realize. How do you know who’s the right person to narrate? Should it be the protagonist? Should it be written in first person or third person? Should it be limited or omniscient? How many narrators should there be?
Is there a right way to narrate?
I don’t think there’s “one” right way. But there are wrong ways—and what those are depend on the story.
In the art world, there’s this fancy-sounding term that called “the vanishing point”. The vanishing point is where the lines of perspective meet up. It looks like, as things get further away, they grow smaller and smaller until they become a single point. I’m not sure how often vanishing points are actually visible, but in theory, they’re all over the place. For example, if you stand in the middle of the street and look down at one end or another, the houses and the street seem to get smaller and smaller. Now, unless that street is really long, and there are absolutely no bumps/hills, the vanishing point isn’t actually visible—but in theory, it should be there.
Are the houses and stuff actually getting smaller? Of course not. If you walked down the street, those other houses on the end would actually be house-sized once you stood in front of them. They only seem to be smaller. That’s perspective.
Vanishing points aren’t strictly necessary, technically, but they add depth and a different perspective to the same image. In fact, in the image that has no vanishing point, you can see a lot less things, and it all seems way more flat. Of course, there can be more than just one vanishing point, and that changes it up even more.
Now, all of this was mostly to illustrate how perspective can drastically change the same thing. (Let’s excuse the fact that the third image was of different buildings than the first two, because I think the idea is clear enough anyway.) How does this apply to writing?
In writing, perspective usually refers to point of view—the PoV character, or the narrator. And PoV is very important to perspective. First person narration, someone described to me once, is being inside the character’s head. We see what they see, hear what they hear and what they think, feel what they feel. In a way, we almost become them, at least so long as we’re in their story. Third person, meanwhile, is more like becoming friends with the character (unless, of course, the author wanted us to dislike them, but that’s irrelevant). The difference between first person and third person is like the difference between being the character and being friends with the character.
You see how that affects perspective?
Now let’s talk about first-impressions for a moment. First impressions are important with people. How likely is it that that person will talk to you again, when the first-impression you made is that you’re a total dork? Well, unless they like dorks, your chances are probably pretty slim of making friends with them. In writing, first impressions are not much different. It’ll shape the reader’s view of a character. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than just that, and first impressions can be completely and utterly wrong.
But they still affect it, do they not?
So let’s say, you have a first person narrator. She’s had a rough life, and as a result, she tends to not trust people. When she meets this random new character, what is she probably going to think of him? She probably will automatically not trust him. He may do something to further that mistrust, or maybe it’s all in the narrator’s head.
What’s the first impression? Assuming the first-person is written well enough that the reader is actually invested in the story, and that the reader thinks the narrator is reliable (I’ll get to that topic in another post), the reader’s first impression of this character is that he’s going to be untrustworthy. Why? Because that’s what the narrator thinks.
What does this mean? Well, let’s take a look at who this new character is. Let’s say… let’s say he isn’t trustworthy, and later on in the story, he’s going to betray the main character. But let’s also say you want this betrayal to be a plot twist—and therefore to not be totally predictable.
If, from the very start, the reader suspects him, how predictable do you think this plot twist will be?
Now, what if we had a different narrator? It’s the other character’s friend, who’s much more trusting. When she meets this new character, she’s not immediately put off by him. She doesn’t have to like him, necessarily, but she doesn’t distrust him. So that means, when the reader sees the new character from her eyes, their first impression isn’t going to be as bad.
Are we going to distrust this new character as much? Probably not, unless he does something really suspicious.
So if we want his betrayal to be more of a surprise, which narrator is probably going to help us out more? The trusting one. Because, to a point, the reader is going to feel what the protagonist feels, especially in first person. Remember, first person is becoming the protagonist. Third person is befriending the protagonist.
So if we’re being narrated by the distrustful character, her first impression, and therefore the reader’s, will be that the new character isn’t trustworthy. The narrator’s friend might tell her that she’s being silly and he doesn’t seem untrustworthy, but that isn’t going to be enough to overpower that first impression.
If the trusting one is narrating, then that’s our first impression. Her friend might tell her that she’s too trusting and that the new character is suspicious, but that might also not be enough to overpower the first impression.
It’s all the same information. But how it’s portrayed—what perspective it’s shown in—will determine how the reader processes that information. So who is picked as the narrator can be pretty important.
(Disclaimer: This is completely theoretical. There are other factors to this whole thing, and it only really works if the reader is wholly invested in the protagonist. If the reader just isn’t quite clicking with the character, for whatever reason, they might end up with a totally different view. But even that you can manipulate.)