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.
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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