Before I get into this post on perspective in fiction, I will start with this: You do you. I am not the literary police here. Also, since I did not invent fiction writing, I am not an expert on what should or should not be done. But, if I have been paid by your publisher to edit your manuscript and a perspective issue comes up, I will call you on it, because that is my job.
The following is not an exhaustive treatise on perspective in fiction. People have written books on the subject. I have gone the route of brevity.
The perspective you choose for a piece of fiction is part of the voice of the story. I do not have to tell you this, but here it is. Authors write in first person, close third, distant third (often omniscient), and even second person. I also don’t have to tell you this, but here I go anyway: when you’re in first person, you’re following the perspective of the narrating character. Unless you’re writing sci-fi/fantasy fiction and your character is Professor Xavier who can read minds, you are presenting only the thoughts and motivation of the “I” character. In close third, the author still follows the perspective of one character at a time in a scene or possibly a whole book. The Harry Potter novels were written in close third. We follow Harry’s perspective for the most part, though there are times when J.K. Rowling :provides a perspective that is not Harry’s (chapter one of the first and fourth books, for example).
Omniscient narration has an unseen narrator who is privy to the thoughts and motivations of all of the characters. Many of Terry Pratchett’s (photo below) Discworld novels have this sort of narration. Chronicles of Narnia author C. S. Lewis also went the narrator route.
If while describing what Harry sees, feels, and thinks Rowling were to suddenly tell us what Cho Chang or Hermione thought (outside of dialogue), we would call that head hopping. Author and former agent Nathan Bransford describes it this way:
Sometimes people try to create an omniscient perspective through an assemblage of third person limited perspectives. . . . We see what this character is thinking, then we see what this character is thinking, then we see what this character is thinking.
Now, many authors with multiple third-person limited narrators might switch narrators from scene to scene as Bransford mentions in his article, which you can read by clicking here. That’s common. But Bransford is referring to a sudden switch of perspective within the same scene. The perspective is muddied when we know we’re following Sally’s close third perspective in a scene but we’re suddenly told what another character thinks—information Sally couldn’t possibly know (but the author knows). Here’s what I mean:
Sally darted into the elevator. She heaved a sigh of relief as the doors closed, then glanced at the elevator’s only other occupant—a man whose gaze seemed fixed on his shoes. What was his name again? Phil? Frank? She knew him from Accounting.
The man glanced up, noticing her gaze in his direction.
Aside from the hasty writing, you might wonder, what’s the big deal? Seems pretty straightforward. But I would call your attention to the word noticing. That tells me we are now in the man’s head, rather than Sally’s. Why? Because only he would know what he noticed.
I have looked at someone sometimes but my thoughts were completely elsewhere. So while I was seeing the person in theory, I wasn’t really seeing him or her. Authors slip up in perspective when they assign an exact motivation or action to someone outside of the perspective of the point-of-view character (i.e., telling us what the man noticed).
This post is a bit long, so I will stop here. For a good craft book on perspective, you might check out The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley (Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2008).
Terry Pratchett photo from Wikipedia. Other photos by L. Marie.