David B. Coe: Point of View, Voice, and the Choices We Make

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200CoeJacksonI’m sure that some of you saw the title of this post and groaned. I have written about point of view on this site quite a bit. I talk about point of view on panels and in writing workshops all the time. I have said again and again that, to my mind, point of view is the single most important narrative tool we have at our disposal, because it brings together character development AND plot AND setting. How does it do this? By coloring all that our readers experience with the emotions, thoughts, perceptions, and knowledge of our point of view characters. You’ve heard all of this before, and many of you are probably sick to death of it. Sorry. But it really is important . . .

I’m not going to give you the whole “Here’s why I care so much about point of view” thing today. I’m sure that if you do a site search using “Coe Point of View” you’ll get enough hits to keep you reading MW posts for the rest of the day. (Actually, I just did this to see, and there really are a ton of hits. It’s almost embarrassing. Almost.) You don’t need another of those. But I would like to discuss how I chose the particular point of view and voice that I use for projects I’m working on now. I believe that part of my creative process might be illustrative of some of the things I think about as I’m preparing to write a book or story.

My new series, the Case Files of Justis Fearsson (the first book, Spell Blind, will be out on January 6 and a new Justis Fearsson short story, “Long Nights Moon,” has just gone up on the Baen.com website), is written almost entirely from the point of view of my lead character, Jay Fearsson. These are detective novels, and so my purpose in choosing a single point of view character is to make my readers’ experience with my plot and setting mirror as closely as possible my narrator’s experience. Let me put that a different way. When I write big fat epic fantasies, I tend to use several point of view characters. Those books have complex, multistrand plots and they sprawl across a vast fictional landscape. Using several POV characters allows me to give my readers lots of information. I can show them the story from different perspectives, and give them a sense of the broad boundaries of the world I’ve created. At any given time, my readers will have MORE information than any single character, allowing them to keep up with all those plots and subplots.

SpellBlind250But mystery-based urban fantasies like the Justis Fearsson books, and also like the Thieftaker novels I write as D.B. Jackson (another example would be Faith’s Jane Yellowrock books), have different characteristics and thus different needs. Their plots are more streamlined and less complex. More, because they follow the path of an investigation and depend upon the interplay of clues and discovery for their suspense and tension, I don’t want my readers to have more information than my investigating protagonist. Rather, I want my readers to discover just as Jay and Ethan (Kaille, of Thieftaker fame) do. And so these books have one point of view character and his perceptions and actions are central to my readers’ experience.

While the Fearsson and Thieftaker books share this characteristic, the voices of the two series are actually quite different. The most dramatic expression of this difference is obvious from the very first page of each book: The Fearsson books are written in first person, while the Thieftaker books are written in third person. Why? First person point of view is the most intimate voice for a novel, and it works very well with such investigation-based plots. Jay’s voice is snarky and personal and, I think, quite compelling. My readers are firmly in Jay’s head. In fact, a friend of mine, also a writer, read the first book a couple of years back (in an incarnation that was pretty close to the finished product). She later told me that she found herself thinking “Does David really think these things?” only to realize, “No, he doesn’t, his character does.” It was as gratifying a comment as I’ve ever gotten on a book. I want my voice for the Fearsson books to be that personal.

When I first started the Thieftaker novels, I was tempted to write them in first person, too. But I didn’t and the reason is, with such an intimate voice, explanatory passages tend to sound a bit awkward. First person point of view is almost like a conversation, albeit a one-sided one, and those discursive paragraphs that we sometimes need in stories don’t work as well in a conversation. That’s fine in the Fearsson books because they are set in our modern world, and there isn’t a whole lot Jay has to explain. But Ethan’s stories, include a good deal of historical context that my readers need to understand. Explaining the history in first person wouldn’t have worked, and so I wrote the Thieftaker books in third person. The voice isn’t quite as intimate, and in this case that slight distance between reader and point of view character helps me, by allowing me to digress and explain when necessary.

The other major difference between the voices of the two series revolves around tone. The Thieftaker and Fearsson books are all fairly dark. Both series have flashes of humor. But as tough as Jay’s life has been, Ethan’s has been much, much harder. Jay is younger, more resilient. And he is firmly anchored in modern popular culture. So with the Fearsson books I have lots of that snark I mentioned earlier, as well as movie, sports, and music references. The books are chatty, and the vernacular will feel comfortable and familiar to my readers, because the setting and the character are products of the world we live in right now. The Thieftaker novels, of course, are historical, and so Ethan’s narrative voice is more formal, more alien in that he speaks and thinks in a 18th century vernacular. My readers have farther to travel in order to relate to him and his story. On the one hand, this makes the Thieftaker books feel more exotic. Readers have the sense that they have traveled to a different time and place, which is cool. On the other hand, the Fearsson books feel more immediate, and the boundaries between Jay’s world and ours feel much more porous. The things that happen to him could very well happen to us, which makes the threats more visceral, the characters more accessible. Neither approach is “better,” but they are different.

All of these factors go into my thinking about point of view and voice. Every project has unique demands and presents unique challenges. And for all of these, point of view provides us with a powerful tool to make the narrative voice fit the story we wish to tell.

So, what point of view choices have you made for your current work? And more importantly, why did you make those choices? What were your goals for the voice you chose?

*****

David B. Coe is the award-winning author of more than fifteen fantasy novels. His newest series, a contemporary urban fantasy called The Case Files of Justis Fearsson, debuts with the January 2015 release from Baen Books of Spell Blind. The second book, His Father’s Eyes, will be out in the summer of 2015. Writing as D.B. Jackson, he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy from Tor Books that includes Thieftaker, Thieves’ Quarry, A Plunder of Souls, and Dead Man’s Reach (also coming in the summer of 2015). He lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.

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11 comments to David B. Coe: Point of View, Voice, and the Choices We Make

  • […] of view and voice, and how those choices shape a project and are also shaped by the project.  You can find the post here. I hope you enjoy […]

  • darinkennedy

    For reasons similar to what you wrote above, I wrote my first book in 3rd person past tense as occasionally, the main character wasn’t going to be present for some pretty significant events / conversations / revelations. My second book is very experiential so I did it in first person present tense. I like the sense of immediacy. When I started my third, I again had a character who was going to go through a lot that pertained specifically to her, so I again went with first person and again present tense. My new story, a new adult urban fantasy with a male lead, is about 2,600 words in and I’m trying first person present tense again, as that is where my voice seems to be happiest. I sincerely hope that, as happened with my second book, that I don’t get 10-15K in and realize it needs to be different, but you’ve got to start somewhere, right? My short stories have been all over the place for POV, and those have been some fun experiments for sure.

    I did read the first couple pages of Spell Blind. Sounds excellent!

    All best,

    Darin

  • My current WIP is written in 1st person present tense. When I came up with her story, I had all ideas in my head. When I went to write her on paper it just didn’t sit right, so eventually I realized that on paper I was using past tense because thats what I know. In my head she was talking in present tense.
    Its quite difficult to write in but I’ve gotten used to it somewhat. It makes her voice stand out. She is soft spoken but her attitude is all harsh and fragile. I think mixing those things together gives her a softness, a vulnerability, a likable quality she probably wont get in past tense because of everything she goes through. Even I find myself wondering, why isn’t she doing this, why is she ignoring this major event that just happened. When I read back over it I realize Bethany is very much an in the moment girl. Yesterday’s problems are yesterdays until further notice and that’s very much how we are. We tackle the problems that will affect us first or hardest.

  • No need to be embarrassed by the frequency of POV posts. I for one find them very helpful, and timely. A few months ago, when I took a break on my current project to play around with an idea for my next novel, I started out in third person, but it wasn’t working. I’ve never written in first person, but am going to give it a try…so your insights and explanations are very valuable.

  • Razziecat

    I love the POV posts because I sometimes question whether I’m doing the right POV for my story, and these posts help me understand why a POV might or might not work. Generally, I go with whatever the character wants 😉 In my space opera stuff, there are four main characters, and I can write three of them in first or third, and it works, depending on the story. The fourth one is almost always in third, because he’s just that difficult; he has a natural distance from everyone he interacts with, including me. These stories are where I experiment, practice what I’ve learned, and try out new things.

    The character I wrote about in the opening I posted here a few days ago just comes naturally to me in first person POV. I may write the whole story in his POV, or I may switch between him and the other major character; I’m still working that out. It would be nice to concentrate on just one POV for a change, as I usually have every character in the story clamoring for a voice. Plus, the other character has a lot of secrets that are going to affect the way the two interact, and I think it might work better if the reader finds these things out at the same time the MC does.

  • I love the POV posts! My WIP started out as 3rd person from two different characters. When I started the book I thought it was about the different perceptions these two people had of the same events. I still want to write that book, but it isn’t this one. Turns out this current story is really just about how one character is trying to change her life and fit in, despite the opposition from pretty much everyone she meets. She basically demanded that the story come from her first person POV.

  • Darin, thanks! Glad you liked what you saw of Spell Blind. I think that being so intentional about POV speaks well of the work you’re doing. It’s such an important decision. And I like the idea of experimenting with POV is short fiction. I need to do more of that.

    Latedra, it’s good that you recognized the issue early on. Switching POVs midway through a project is not at all easy to do. Present tense can be hard, but if that’s what you’re hearing, then that’s what you have to write. Best of luck with it.

    Xman, thanks. Good to know my timing worked with this one! And good luck with the new novel.

    Razz, glad you like reading them. The truth is, I love writing them. I have enjoyed writing books with only one main POV character (as you’ll see eventually, the second and third Fearsson books open for one brief chapter each in another POV) for just the reasons you mention. But I am now thinking about a new epic fantasy with several POV characters, so the other approach appeals to me as well. Different books, different approaches.

    SiSi, thank you. Yeah, characters have a funny way of dictating to us what we’re going to write. It’s kind of like the idea that people own cats. They don’t. Cats own people. In the same way, we don’t make our characters do stuff, they make us write stuff.

  • inkfire

    The POV for my WIP is….interesting….i would say. I use first person present like others have said, but have two POV characters, so every other chapter is the same character. That is, until one character goes into a coma for three days….then the other character has to narrate all the time for a bit. I use this alternation because the story revolves around these two characters, their relationship, and how they see the world differently. It also shows how different their lives, worries, and fears are, because one of them is in a position of power, and the other isn’t. I tried telling the story through just one character, but i couldn’t be happy with it because the other characters thoughts, emotions, and actions were getting left out of the story. And–other plus side–this alternation has developed voices for my characters because when I first switched to having 2 POVs, I didn’t like how, when i stopped midchapter, i would come back not always knowing whose eyes I was looking through. Now, their voices are distinct and that problem is solved! The leader character has a voice that is more reserved and hidden, because she feels she must always be strong and never show a vulnerability. As a result, the reader gets more action and guarded feelings than open confession. The other character is more loose and open about the world and how he’s feeling and thinking, pretty much the opposite.

  • David, this is great. Let me echo the others and say that you should never hesitate to write about POV. Or any other topic. Great and useful information. I’m working on a time travel story written in first person present tense, until one of three main characters goes back in time. Those chapters in the past are in third person past tense until the chapter when the narrator and the third main character show up in the past to rescue them. It takes a lot of proofing to catch all the misplaced *say(s)* in the chapters in the past. Thank you again.

  • quillet

    I agree with everyone else, I love your p.o.v. posts!

    I find point of view tends to make my writing choices simpler. Not easier, mind you! Just simpler in the sense that there are always certain things a given character won’t think or say or sometimes even notice. So it’s simpler, but at the same time harder, because (for example) if there’s world-building information that readers need, but which the p.o.v. character would never mention, then I have to figure out another way to get it in there. Which can be fun, or can be an almighty headache.

    I’m working now on something first-person, and I’m having a blast because the character’s voice is so strong. It’s in first because it’s a confession he’s written to explain things to his heir. “Things” being trouble, of course. 😉 He’s caused a lot of trouble, so he has a lot to explain…

  • Inkfire, I have a somewhat similar project that has yet to see light of day — it also has two POV characters. I don’t alternate every chapter, but they do pass the narrative back and forth. I loved writing the book because their POVs were different enough to keep me interested all the way through. I hope my readers respond the same way. Best of luck with your project.

    Vyton, thanks. I like the idea of using POV and voice to reinforce the time travel element. Very interesting and smart. Good luck with the project!

    Quillet, thank you. Sounds like I should keep writing POV posts . . . And yes, POV really does simplify our writing choices, because as long as we remain true to POV, then there are only so many ways to handle information and narrative. Your project sounds really interesting, too. First person is perfect for a confessional story.