Perspective (purr-SPEK-tihv) is the way a character’s perceptions, values, and opinions affect a story. It is influenced by factors like personality, socioeconomic status, cultural background, education, spirituality, and language. These details all inform a character’s beliefs and attitudes, giving them a distinct way of perceiving the world, which in turn shapes the narrative. In fact, the word perspective stems from the Latin prospectus, which means “view.”
How Perspective Is Used
Perspective relays a scene or concept through the mind of a specific character. A narrator may tell a story using their own perspective or by adopting another character’s. Stories can include a single perspective or several. For example, in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the story is filtered through the perspective of its eponymous heroine. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, however, the third-person narrator adopts the perspective of several characters. Writers can portray perspective through techniques like first-person narration, omniscient narration, stream of consciousness, and breaking the fourth wall.
Stories with close or limited points of view can still express multiple perspectives, particularly through dialogue. In speaking for themselves, characters can make observations and judgments that contrast with those of the viewpoint character. However, not every perspective is relevant. Writers use context and detail to indicate which ones are most important. Readers are more inclined to trust a character who speaks earnestly than one who speaks haughtily, for example.
Writers can also emphasize perspective by using a distinct writing style. Room by Emma Donoghue is told from the perspective of a young boy, and the novel’s rhetorical style reflects his youth and naivete. This technique can be useful when writing an unreliable narrator, as readers are immediately made aware of the speaker’s limitations.
Perspective and Point of View
Perspective is how a story is presented to readers. A character’s background shapes the lens through which they see the world, which influences how they view and recount events in a story. Point of view is simply the rhetorical strategy used to convey that perspective.
There are several types of point of view.
- First person is narrated by a single character who uses the pronouns I, me, we, and us. First-person narration is considered limited because it’s confined to the viewpoint of a single character.
- Second person is narrated as if the reader is a character. It uses the pronouns you and your.
- Third person is narrated from an outside perspective using he/she, his/her, they, and them. This is the most common point of view in fiction.
Why Writers Use Perspective
Perspective is the way writers communicate views and observations in their works. They can share such views overtly through a narrator who clearly speaks their mind, or they can take a subtler approach, filtering a character’s perspective through an omniscient narrator.
Nonfiction writers explicitly express their own perspective through first-person narration, which is common in the memoir genre. However, it’s important to remember that a narrative does not necessary reflect the writer’s own perspective, beliefs, or values.
Because perspective is informed by several parameters, from environment to psychology, it tends to be complex. Just as readers find multidimensional characters more authentic, multidimensional perspectives enrich a story, making it more engaging and realistic. And because no two characters have the same personality or background, each has a unique perspective. That’s why a story can change depending on who is narrating, and some writers use multiple viewpoints to add depth and complexity to their stories.
As mentioned, rhetorical strategy can emphasize perspective. Writers can use these heightened perspectives to stimulate the reader’s empathy and reinforce the narrative’s main theme or argument. Take Black Beauty; this novel is narrated by a horse, and its lessons about treating all life with respect resonate more powerfully because of it.
Perspective in Art
Where literary perspective is the lens through which a story is told, artistic perspective is how a three-dimensional subject is represented on a two-dimensional surface, such as a canvas. Artistic perspective uses lines and color to create illusions of depth and space.
Perspective in art falls into two major categories: linear, which relies on parallel lines, horizons, and vanishing points to suggest distance; and aerial (or atmospheric), which uses the fact that distant objects appear blue to suggest distance. Da Vinci’s The Adoration of the Magi is an example of linear perspective, while Frans Koppelaar’s Landscape near Bologna uses aerial perspective.
Perspective Examples in Literature
1. James Joyce, A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man
A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man is a semiautobiographical novel. It recounts the childhood of Stephen Dedalus, who experiences an intellectual awakening as he ages. Part 1 begins:
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.
Joyce establishes Stephen’s youthful perspective using a few techniques. First, he alludes to childhood fairytales with the opening phrase “Once upon a time.” While this line strikes adults as cliched, it’s often how children signal they’re about to launch into a story. Joyce also adopts juvenile diction and syntax to further emphasize that this is a young, immature storyteller. Compare the excerpt above to this passage from Part 5:
He drained his third cup of watery tea to the dregs and set to chewing the crusts of fried bread that were scattered near him, staring into the dark pool of the jar.
Note how this narration is more complex and sophisticated, a clear signal that Stephen has aged and now has a more mature perspective.
2. William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”
Considered an eminent example of modernist poetry, Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” in 1919 to describe the atmosphere in Europe after World War I, which makes the poem a good example of how context informs perspective. This is the first stanza:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
World War I seemed almost apoplectically destructive in its immediate aftermath, and the ramifications of such violence shook the foundations of European society. The interwar period was marked by disillusionment and fractured faith, both in civilization and in religion. The poem reflects this altered perspective through several images of instability and chaos, including the gyre, the falcon, and the crumbling, destabilized center.
Further Resources on Perspective
This NY Book Editors article explains the difference between perspective and point of view, and provides tips for using perspective to improve your writing.
Teachers can peruse this Scholastic unit plan for ideas on teaching literary perspective to elementary school students.