Point of View

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Hi folks!

 

Sorry I’m late today. I forgot to transfer this post from my computer to Magical Words. I only reminded myself a dozen times. Apparently I have melty brain.

 

Anyhow, I wanted to talk to you about choosing point of view. I get asked about this sometimes and in some ways, my response is to stare stupidly and say, you just do. Part of that is experience has taught me to go through the process of that selection on a subconscious level. It takes some work to pull the process to the surface and think about it.

 

But let’s see if I can sound coherent about. First of all, there are several choices involved here. Do you want to go first, second, third or omniscient? Combined in that question is how many points of view do you plan to offer?

 

Most frequently, first person is the only point of view in a book, though there are exceptions, like in Subject Seven, where you have various chapters and characters, each told from the first person perspective. The benefit of first person is that you are up close and personal in that character’s head. You know what they know, you feel what they feel, you experience everything immediately and without the filter of distance and observation. So instead of something like “He hurt himself. The pain was terrible.” You get, “Agony raced like fire up my arm.” Or, even deeper into first person: “shit! Shit! Shit! My skin peeled away.”

 

The negative of first person is that it’s harder to shift into other heads, and you can only reveal what your character knows/observes/finds out. If you need to explain things happening elsewhere to other characters, you can end up in the land of info dumps, or in the land of having your character trying to do too much and ending up with nonsense. Also, sometimes readers don’t identify well with a first person character, because they don’t feel that can be (even vicariously) the “I” character.

 

That leads to second person. I don’t care for second person. I think it’s hard to sustain for any length of time and it can really turn off your readers. Here’s why. First person says this sort of thing: “you go into a bar and you sit down. You notice a dame sitting at the next table and you start to itch.” Yeah, there’s a noirish feel to that, but it often turns up in noir mysteries, when it shows up at all. It takes a lot of work and practice to make second person work. The problem is the reader sometimes finds it difficult to suspend disbelief because they are being told what they feel or think or are doing, even though they are just sitting and reading—similar to not identifying with the first person above.

 

Next is third person. Third person is flexible because you can shift points of view easier (or change heads as it were). Therefore you can reveal things happening at different times and places and it can be easier for the reader to identify with a person in third person. The problem might come in the narrative distance, or how close up and personal in the character’s head you are. If you are too far back, it might feel distant and cold. If you are too close up and in the head of the character, it might feel claustrophobic.

 

Example:

Harry like it when the apple trees bloomed. The thought they smelled good.

Harry sighed. He could almost taste the apple blooms. They made his head spin with joy.

They apples blooms smelled of home and his sister Joy. What was she doing right now? Did she miss him?

 

See how we go progressively deeper into his mind? The first is an exterior observer, and then slowly we go closer into Harry’s immediate thoughts.

 

Personally, I like third person limited best. That’s when you know what’s in any given character’s head while in his/her head, but you don’t know anything more.

 

Omniscient is when your narrator knows everything going on everywhere. He knows what everyone is thinking and doing at every moment. Now there are a couple of problems with this. It used to be very popular and very successful. Read Sherri Tepper’s Grass for an example. Where this can be a problem, though, is if the narrator knows everything, why play coy with the facts? Why not just tell the story and forget about the suspense? It can make the reader mad.

 

Also, you can end up with head hopping, which is really out favor, though David Weber uses it in the Honor Harrington books with a great deal of success. Basically, in any given scene, he’ll shift from head to head to head, depending on what he needs to reveal for plot or whatever. So for instance:

 

Harry hated the way Karl glared at him. Why couldn’t the man just grow a pair and deal with it?

 

Karl frowned and looked away from Harry’s beady stare. Bastard.

 

Harry looked up at the ceiling. He was so going to put in for a transfer.

 

Stupid men, Gail thought. They all needed a good beating.

 

So in just four lines, we’ve been in three heads. That’s head hopping and omniscience.

 

Okay, so now for the big question—how do you pick? Well, there’s no good answer. It depends on the story, it depends on what you want to accomplish, and it depends on characters themselves. You can try writing scenes from several points of view to see what works better. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but it’s really the only good way to know for sure. I’ve written stuff where I’ve tried it in third and needed to shift to first and vice versa. I don’t write omniscient stuff. I don’t do it well when I do it and there’s never been a good enough reason to force the issue.

 

 

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19 comments to Point of View

  • Cindy

    Another negative for me in reading first person books is that sometime the author ends up making them too stupid to live. Yes, you want to make a protagonist flawed and interesting, but too much of someone’s thoughts can make them appear a self absorbed twit. Another balancing act.

  • Cindy: Definitely a good point. With third person, you retain a little mystery and don’t find out how stupid a character might be. Or at least, not necessarily. Which is a good note to take down on first person–don’t make your characters too stupid to live.

  • You know what they know, you feel what they feel, you experience everything immediately and without the filter of distance and observation.

    Can I add “tense” to the list of dimensions? Or is that a totally different subject? I’ve just spent the past two weeks converting my first-person present-tense novel to first-person past, because whie I originally started out in present-tense, and wanted that immediacy, I also realized that the tense accidentally created a distance that was hard to put a name to.

    Great examples, Diana. Thanks!

  • Laura: That interesting. I think tense applies here, but it’s one of those things that overlaps into other areas too. Because it can effect narrative distance and how a reader relates to the character. And the thing that’s so hard is the nameless thing that’s so hard to identify. That’s a good topic. What happens when something feels wrong. How do you figure out what? Hemmm. Thinking.

  • Megan B.

    Head-hopping can be so distracting and confusing, if it’s not done really well. I definitely prefer third person limited. You can still get into multiple characters’ heads, just not all in the same scene.

    And I agree about trying different points of view for the same story. Sometimes I start something, realize it should probably be in a different POV, and start over. It’s best to catch this before you write a large chunk of it! 🙂

  • Julia

    I generally really enjoy writing in third person limited, but the new novel idea seems to be unfolding with a narrator who has a very strong voice. I’ve been trying a few story snippets out in first person, to see whether I can do it in a way I like.

    As a reader, I find myself very persnickity about first person narration. As with Cindy, a number of the first person narrators I’ve read recently seem rather self-indulgent to me. But sometimes first person can really add something to the story. I’d cite Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden as an example of a first person narrator whose voice I really connect with.

  • Megan: It’s so funny how pervasive head hopping or omniscience used to be. It was just the norm. And now it’s not. I have no idea why that changed.

    Julia: Have you ever read Carol Berg? She does AMAZING first person. I do very strong voiced narrators in my Horngate series, but still in third person. So it can be done. So long as you really channel that voice. But it might be you’re going to end up in first person. If you look on my website, you can read some chapters of the Horngate for examples, if that might help.

  • adamgaylord

    For me, third person limited is the most intuitive way to write most stories. First person feels so limited while omniscient almost seems like cheating. But I agree with Megan B., you have to be careful when head hopping or the whole thing can end up in one jumbled mess!

  • Diana> Interesting. I ended up choosing third-limited because of the info dump problem (for me) with first person. I knew I had stuff that I wanted to have happen, and I wanted the audience to see it, but they couldn’t with first person. Both pieces that I’m working on are third-limited with two pov characters. In one it’s the protagonist and the antagonist (though not the big bad). In the other, it is two protagonists at cross purposes who keep butting heads. (the big bad is working to destroy both of them–though in the second one, the second protag looks like the antagonist for a while).

    I don’t mind reading first person novels, but I’ve never done much with first person–even short stories (except one flash piece) are in third.

    One quick question. I edit. I’ve had authors say “I blushed” or “A blush crawled up my face” or “A blush crawled up her face…” (first or third) and I’ve had line editors and other editors say “that’s a pov switch–she can’t see her own face.” And my thought was “I don’t have see my face to know I’m blushing.” What do you think?

  • Adam: me too. I just naturally fall into third most of the time. But sometimes the story drags me elsewhere. It’s not just the mess. A lot of editors simply won’t accept headhopping.

    Pea_faerie: I agree with you. I know when I blush. And I notice because it’s uncomfortable usually–embarrassment or humiliation or whatever. Now if you say something like, I had food caught in my teeth, and the character hasn’t looked in a mirror or can’t feel it there, then it doesn’t work.

  • Julia

    Diana, I like Carol Berg very much. I thought Transformation was a breathtaking novel, but I had entirely forgotten that it was written in first person. Of course, once I read the first few pages again, I realized the story utterly depends on Seyonne’s voice.

    It seems to me there’s a particular quality of voice that I like in first person — wry or sardonic, quite self-reflective, and occasionally standing at a bit of a distance from the events being narrated. Reading the first few pages, I found myself particularly caught by lines like, “When one is standing naked on a slave-auction block in a wind cold enough to freeze a demon’s backside, one is unlikely to have a fair impression of anyone.” It seems this is actually a judicious bit of second person, thrown in with the first. Also, it seems that Berg often lets her first person narrators give ample, thoughtful description. We’re not riding so close in their head that we only see them…

    I absolutely agree with you about strong-voiced third person narrators — Max is a wonderful example! Yet I find myself thinking about what I might call “distant first person” for the new project, so this has been really helpful. Thank you.

  • Julia: You are so right about Carol and pinpointing what lends some breadth to the voice that some first person points of view can accomplish. Thanks for that because that really articulated it for me. I hope that your distant first person works. definitely let me know, please?

  • Julia

    Diana: Will do! Thanks again. Your post and our conversation here has really helped me articulate what I’d like to do with this narrator.

  • I have mostly written close third person throughout my career, but I’m just now going back to a long-standing project written in first, and I have to admit that I LOVE writing first person POV. I thought about using it for Thieftaker, but with all the historical stuff I had to explain, close third seemed the better choice. Thanks for an interesting post, Di.

  • Razziecat

    So glad you mentioned Carol Berg. I would have if you didn’t. I’m a total fangirl for her work.

    I’ve started a story in first person just so I can play with it and see if I like it. For me, it depends on how the character first “speaks” to me. I also like to use first person to jog the story loose when I get blocked; I’ll go to a blank document and just let the character talk. It helps me get to know the character better, as well as figure out his or her thoughts & feelings about what’s going on in the story. I’ve done this with one of my space opera stories, and I may end up keeping some of the first person stuff, maybe one per chapter, to give bits of backstory. It’s tricky to work in, but if used judiciously it can complement the third-person stuff very nicely.

  • Julia: Glad to help. You’ve made me think too.

    David: I look forward to seeing what you do. I sometimes like first, and sometimes it’s painful when I can’t do all I want to do with it. tradeoffs, I guess.

  • Razziecat: me too. She’s phenomenal.

    I’m starting something that’s right now in first, but I’m not sure it will stay that way. I’m just exploring at the moment, and like you, just letting the character talk and tell me things. Then I’ll hopefully find out enough to actually make a story.

    That is tricky. Impressive when it works, too.

  • The Mathelete

    Fantastically interesting post, Diana. I also struggle with 2nd person. I find it works only in video games and only rarely in them. I’ve never read a 2nd person book I liked.

    I’ve been experimenting with POV a lot recently, having just recently completed my first 1st person POV MS, and (as a highly trained computer scientist and mathematician and relatively untrained writer) I really struggle with the distinctions in 3rd person. It seems like people think that there’s either 3rd limited, 3rd omniscient, or 3rd probably wrong unless you’re a god and can magically make it work.

    I’d like to propose a 3rd Person Local (like omniscient but only with a constrained set of POV characters and time-frame to invade) and a 3rd Person Prophetic (like omniscient but second hand and slightly flawed). I should explain.

    3rd Person Local is head hopping with tight constraints. As you pointed out from Weber, that’s totally head-hopping, but it’s constrained to a few people in a specific situation. It works because it isn’t how the majority of the story works. If you’re constantly doing that, it just becomes confusing and frustrating, but in a small, local area or time, (aka. Local Omniscience) it can be really fun for a reader to know that character A is as confused about character B as B is about A. Etc.

    For 3rd Person Prophetic, I point out “The End of Time” in Dr. Who. There’s this seemingly omniscient narrator who talks about the fall and rise of Gallifrey, but there’s an edge of a mystique. A not quite certainty that makes all of us go, “But, no, that can’t be quite right!” It’s non-deterministic and without absolutes. It FEELS omniscient, but we all know from the style and the prior narrative that it really isn’t. It’s prophetic, and we all know prophesies always come out the way we think, right? 😛

    What has tickled my writing senses lately is merging POV. I have a basically 3rd limited book where I’m adding 1st person journal entries for certain characters. I find it surprisingly stimulating as a writer. Maybe, possibly, are we limiting our creativity too much when we lock a whole manuscript into a POV? Abrupt changes are rough on a reader, but at the same time, maybe we can find a way to soften them with different sections, chapters, or even books that exhibit different POV within the same story line? Maybe, even then, we can make our characters even more exciting and real for our readers?

    Anyway, a thought for all before the extra day. Happy Leap Day, MWers.

  • Unicorn

    I’ve been thinking about point of view a lot recently, because I’m quite certain that when I revise the novel whose first draft I’m writing, I’m going to have to change the point of view, completely. I’m a teenager writing a YA epic fantasy from an adult’s point of view. Yeah, I don’t think it’s going to work, either. The POV character is an instructor in riding and swordsmanship and most of the characters he interacts with are teenagers, but still, what kind of a kid wants to read a story about a grownup? And what kind of a kid can accurately think like a grownup?
    This is also the first novel I’ve written in first person for years and, though a few months ago I *never* wrote in first person and always stuck to third person limited, I’m finding it refreshing and quite exciting. The POV switches from character to character (in separate chapters), staying in first person, and I love the way the characters’ voices are coming out much more strongly than in my other stories.
    I would never be able to write in an omniscient POV. Keeping track of one person’s thoughts is bad enough. Oddly, though, I quite enjoy second person; I’ve never read an entire book in that POV, but I enjoyed the second person short stories and flash fiction I’ve read. It felt so much closer, more like being the character than reading about him/her.
    Thanks for a fascinating post.
    Unicorn