Binding Character and Narrative: Point of View Revisited

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Back at the very beginning of the year, I posted a couple of essays here at MW about point of view, one of them dealing with choosing single person POV versus multiple, and the other comparing first and third person voices.  Neither of those posts, however, addressed the basic question of why point of view is important to good storytelling.  To be honest, I don’t think I addressed that question because I didn’t have a good answer for it.  But recently I’ve been addressing POV issues in my discussions with a number of beginning writers, and I think I’ve finally figured it out.  

Let me begin by saying that I have a pet peeve when it comes to reading fiction.  I find it very distracting when a story is being told from one character’s viewpoint and then suddenly shifts — without some kind of visual clue to the reader — either to another character’s POV or to omniscient voice.  There are things about the Harry Potter books that I don’t like, places where I feel that J. K. Rowling has not done a great job.  But one thing she does superbly is maintain a consistent voice for her books.  We are almost always in Harry’s point of view, and when we’re not she makes it absolutely clear where we are.  Her POV never wanders in the middle of a chapter; she never tells her reader something that Harry can’t know.  Rather, she allows us to figure things out right along with him, and that’s what makes the books work so well.  That’s how point of view should work.  We should see the story through the eyes of a character and know only as much as he or she can know at any particular time.  If you want to use multiple POV — if you want to tell the story from the perspective of several characters in order to weave together plot lines — great.  But make certain that your reader knows exactly when you are shifting from one character to the other.

Why?  Because point of view at its best should be the nexus of character and narrative.  Point of view is more than a way to tell a story.  It is how we imbue our storytelling with emotion.  Harry Potter’s voice works because he’s not just telling us the story; he’s sharing his fears, his desires, his teen angst, his loneliness.  His voice gives the story its dramatic impact.  That’s what point of view is about.  Maintaining a consistent point of view is not just a matter of keeping your storytelling clear, though that is important — constantly shifting POV without warning can confuse and frustrate readers.  Good use of POV is about remembering whose story you’re telling.  Sure Rowling could have shifted from Harry’s POV to Voldemort’s during one of their confrontations in order to tell us what Voldemort was thinking at that moment, or what he knew about what was going to happen.  But we weren’t reading Tom Riddle’s story.  We were reading Harry’s.  The meat of the story is in Harry’s head and heart.  That’s where the focus needed to be, and that’s exactly where Rowling left it.

Point of view is what binds character development to plot development; it’s what allows a story and its main character to grow and change and resolve together.  When that bond is broken, even briefly, character and narrative both suffer.  The storytelling becomes confused; the reader’s identification with your lead character is compromised. 

I don’t mean this to sound quite so dogmatic — I know that the MW mantra is “There’s no right way to do any of this.”  But I would suggest that you think about point of view not as a rule, but rather as a tool.  Used consistently and carefully, it can make storytelling easier, more effective.  Used haphazardly and it can undermine much of the good work you’ve done in other aspects of your writing.

David B. Coe
http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com
http://magicalwords.net
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
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24 comments to Binding Character and Narrative: Point of View Revisited

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter

    Interesting that you posted this just the day after I saw an editor list ‘head hopping’ as first among the reasons why he rejects manuscripts.

    Do you think it is more common to make mistakes in this area than it used to be? I don’t remember ever having a problem with this as a child, but nowadays, I read books where it shifts point of view without a line of white space, and I can’t figure out who is who.

  • David, I went back and read the other posts as well. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this important topic.

    I’ve been writing a fantasy in 1st person, although it’s more of a military than epic. I’m hoping it works. I wonder why the aversion from 1st person you mentioned in one of the older posts. I’m finding it a great way to get deep in the character’s head and feel his struggle.

    POV decisions can certainly be learned, but I think some writers have a stronger instinct on which to use, and which character to tell the story from. But then we all have different strengths.

    Cheers,
    NGD

  • That is interesting, Jagi. I hadn’t seen the article, but it doesn’t surprise me that an editor would find this annoying. To answer your question, I think it’s not that the mistake has become more common, but rather that omniscient voice has become less accepted. It’s a trend, like the falling out of favor of said-bookisms, which were much more accepted three or four decades ago. One of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors is filled with instances of head-hopping (Love that term, by the way), but the book was written 20 years ago, and it probably didn’t raise any eyebrows at the time. I think it would today.

    Dave, thanks — glad you liked the posts. As I mentioned in one of the posts from back in January, (and as Jagi mentioned in her comment to that same post) 1st is accepted in certain subgenres — books that are written in the noir style, for instance, as Jagi’s is. But I think editors and readers both want there to be a reason for the POV choice authors make. It shouldn’t be a random decision. Several years back, I wrote a short story in first person present tense, and submitted it to a number of places, including SciFiction, which was edited by Ellen Datlow. Ellen wrote me to say that she liked the story, but wasn’t sure about the voice. But rather than telling me she couldn’t buy it in that voice, she asked me why I’d chosen it. I explained my reasoning and she wrote back to say that my reasons were good ones and she had decided to buy the story. (It’s called “The Christmas Count” and can now be read on my website.) As I say, editors want to see that thought went into POV decisions. Being quirky for the sake of being quirky isn’t good enough. But if you have a reason for the choice you’ve made (and I bet you do) chances are it’ll work.

  • Great post David. I’ve written in First and Third Multiple and Third Singular, and I keep going back to the First. But with Skinwalker, my agent suggested a *two* first person POV narritive. It was very difficult at first to keep the two POVs and voices distinct. But it was also fantastic fun.

  • I usually don’t do much head hopping, but my WIP has two main characters and so I’m switching between the two. Still, each change is set off by a break if it’s within the chapter. It seems to be working pretty well so far, but we’ll see how it goes once it’s sent off. I had read that it’s good to have both the female and male protagonist POVs in Romance and that’s what the work is, so that’s how I’ve been doing it. The novel isn’t in first person, it’s in third, but through the POV or either the female or the male lead, depending on whose head it makes more sense to be in at the time. I’m also doing it for the focus of the story, which is on the two of them working equally side by side, but coming together mentally to do something great. It also shows how they see each other, instead of being one sided.

    My usual mode is third person Omniscient. It fits the stories I tend to write. I have one first person work, because the main character is pretty much telling the story to the audience.

    I’ve noticed that quite a bit of Urban Fantasy seems to be written in the first person and have always wondered at the reasons for it. Even the one I’ve got sitting around I started in first person.

    Dunno, most of my favorite books were in third/Omniscient, so that’s how I tend to write.

  • QUOTE: my agent suggested a *two* first person POV narritive.

    I would think that would be a hard one to achieve. I would think it would be difficult to find ways to differentiate the two “I’s” in the narrative when they switch. Doable, but a massive headache.

  • Faith, that does sound challenging, but totally cool if you can make the voices distinct. Do you give your readers any clue at all as to whose mind they’re in — do you title the chapter by character name, a la George Martin?

    Daniel, I think there’s nothing wrong with shifting POV the way you describe it: offset by chapter break or section break. And yes, there are great reasons for telling a story from more than one POV. But what you’re describing isn’t 3rd person omniscient; it’s 3rd person limited. Important distinction. 3rd person omniscient means that you can tell us things that a POV character couldn’t know: the thoughts of others, what things are happening elsewhere in the world, stuff like that. It sounds to me like you don’t do that, but actually limit POV to those things your voice characters can know. That’s what I prefer; and most editors seem to be looking for limited rather than omniscient voices these days. Omniscient voices tend to become head-hopping voices.

  • Oh, no, I meant my usual mode is third omniscient. I wasn’t trying to say that the WIP is omniscient.

  • Argh, I hit the button before my thought fully finished.

    However, I have been considering adding some enemy elements and going third Omniscient to do those scenes. I don’t know if it’ll work or not, switching from limited to omniscient for the bad guy scenes. Kind of like going from Luke’s perspective in Star Wars and switching to see what the enemy is up to. I want to give the audience a feel for what’s going on with the bad guys, but by actually showing them and not telling. Literally showing them the dark insanity of the antagonist. I guess I could stay Third limited and go through the mind of the antagonist, which would give the added bonus of giving the audience a feel for the Big Bad in question. Well, I think I figured that one out. 😉

  • Yes, I would think that from a marketing perspective you’d be best off going to the villain’s limited POV rather than switching from limited to omniscient and back again. That could confuse readers and turn off editors.

  • David there are clues. And durign rewrites, my editor always points out spots where the voices are not distinctive enough, which helps. But it is very challenging.

  • The first book I encountered with two 1st Person POVs was Andre Norton’s The Crystal Gryphon, which still remains one of my all-time favorites. Norton actually used the character name for each chapter, the same way George R.R. Martin does now for his A Song of Ice and Fire.

    I’ve looked back over some of my own earlier writings and only recently does the head-hopping really stand out. I’ve grown so accustomed to tight or narrow 3rd person multiple POVs that it really jars me as a reader when the author head-hops around on the page.

    My current style of writing is tight 3rd person multiple POVs. I use a chapter break for each switch at the moment and that works well. Except when I get to the finale. It’s hard to figure out how to handle that part when all of the POV characters are now back in the same place. How do I justify not giving them each their own stage time? And how do I do that without having 2000 to 4000 word chapters suddenly drop to 1000 word (or less) chapters?

    This is the biggest challenge I faced with the backstory I wrote recently. Its a challenge I’m still not sure how to overcome.

    I did read a recent interview with Ken Scholes, the author of Lamentation where he structured his book so that each chapter had 4 scenes and each scene was from a particular POV. For his second book, because the POV cast has grown he’s writing 3 scenes per chapter with each scene slightly longer than the scenes in the first book, keeping the overall chapter lengths of the two about the same.

    Doing something like that would certainly solve how to make POV changes other than chapter breaks, but that is quite a dedicated structure to follow.

    The main thing I am conscious of in my own writing is just such a binding between character building and POV narrative. I think Martin is the best at this right now. He has countless POV characters and every one has a voice unique from the others.

    I know I need to get better at this if I want to become published. But that’s what multiple drafts are for!

    I suppose one way to practice this is to create a scene and write the same scene over with each POV character. Even though the same event is happening, how they react to it, what they notice or fail to notice, and how they take control (or fail to) should make each retelling almost like a different story.

    Thanks for this post David. This is a real important topic for me.

  • Great comments, CE, and I love the idea for that exercise that you offer at the end. I might borrow that at some point, not only for my own work, but for workshops. My own approach to multiple POV has been to have a couple of sections in each chapter and to (usually) switch POV with each new section, as well as each new chapter. But I don’t always stick to that, for the reason you give here. As I get closer to the end of a book, I switch POV with increasing frequency and I don’t want to be bumping up against any of my own rules. So I build some flexibility into my POV switches. With some chapters I have just one POV all the way through; others have two or three or four. At the end, I might switch 5 or 6 times. For me, too strict a structure can be stultifying. But we each have to find our own way.

    Again, thanks for the comments. Glad you found the post thought-provoking.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter

    >I’ve noticed that quite a bit of Urban Fantasy seems to be written in the first person and have always wondered at the reasons for it.

    Because they are in the noir detectives style, and those books were written that way.

  • Hi David, I just wanted to say how much I love your posts – always lots to think about. And all of the posts on the site (I’ve been lurking for some time *g*).

    Also, quick note to Faith Hunter (who I ‘know’ a little from LJ): SKINWALKER is in dual 1st-person POV? Cool! I love reading that, but it’s rare… and very hard to pull off! Looking forward to reading your new series even more, now. :)

    Cheers,
    Karen

  • Right, Jagi. See my first comment in this thread.

    Hi, Karen. Thanks for the comment; glad you’ve been enjoying our posts. And in case you’re not aware, Skinwalker is to be released this week! We’re all hoping it’s a big hit!

  • POV problems can sometimes be solutions, too. On at least two occasions I can think of, I was writing a short story that just would not gel together. At some point, it dawned on me that I was using the wrong POV, and that if I simply write from another character’s POV (or switch to 1st person instead of my usual 3rd person) then all the pieces fit, all the dominoes fall. As you stated, it’s a matter of knowing whose story you’re telling and then keeping the focus on that character. Thankfully, that problem has not occurred when writing a novel (rewriting a short story to change POV takes a lot less time) but it is a good thing to think about when unsure of why your story is not working.

  • That’s a great point, Stuart (as usual). I’ve found that in multi-POV books, when things start to break down, choosing a different voice for a particular scene or sequence of scenes can solve the problem. Hadn’t thought about it in those terms for this post, but you’re absolutely right. Thanks!

  • I think part of the problem with omniscient these days is the Show don’t Tell rule – in older books there is more telling going on, and there is often an omniscient narrator who is not part of the cast or plays a minor role. That way it’s easier to switch POV. If you need to Show and be deep in a POV because readers want it that way these days, switches will often lead to head hopping. Doesn’t prevent me from writing omni, though, I’m just stubborn. :) And by now I’ve sneaked more than one omni scene or POV shift mid-scene past my crit circle readers without them noticing it’s there. Seems I get better at those transitions.

    Books centering on one POV are hit or miss for me – if I don’t like the POV, I won’t read the book (and I hated angsty Harry Potter). Martin is easier because I know a Sansa chapter will eventually end. 😉 But I prefer multiple POVs with rather fast changes (fe. Steven Erikson, who often borders on omni) or plain omniscient. Since I read Scott, Dumas, Eliot, Balzac, Tolstoy and lots of similar writers as well as Fantasy, SF and Historical Fiction, I’m probably used to it.

    Except it’s a book where I like the main character, then I don’t even mind first person (Bernard Cornwell’s Derfel, Warlord trilogy) or there is a lot to make up for me wanting to slap the MC (Carey’s Kushiel books; don’t really like Phèdre, but several other characters are fun, and the world in really interesting).

  • test, comments seem to be whacky

  • Hi Gabriele. Your comments are coming through just fine. I think that your comments and others left here indicate just how much of POV choice is a matter of taste. I don’t like omniscient voice very much, but enjoy single POV very much. I also enjoy multiple limited, and certainly have made my living on it so far in my career. We all need to follow our instincts, and it sounds as if you’re doing just that. Good on you, and keep it up!

  • Lol, it took me ten attempts to comment on Missy’s post, and then only after I changed the text, because the silly program told me I already had posted that. Didn’t show up, though.

  • Thanks, Karen!
    Hope you like it!