Carolyn Haines: Point Of View And Structure


CarolynHainespic-150x150Happy Friday, readers!  Today we’re hearing from Carolyn Haines!  Carolyn is the author of the Sarah Booth Delaney Mississippi Delta mystery series. The 14th book in the series, BOOTY BONES, will be published May 20 by St. Martin’s Minotaur. Haines is the author of 67 books in a number of genres. She has been honored with the Harper Lee Award for Distinguished Writing and the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence. She also writes gothic chillers as R.B. Chesterton.



A writer makes two very important decisions before he/she ever puts a word on the page. Whose story is it? What point of view will you tell the story from?


Sometimes, the writer doesn’t consciously decide these things, but it is certainly worth spending some time thinking about this.


There are rare books where the protagonist isn’t completely clear. MYSTIC RIVER is the best example I can think of. I taught this book and my students were split, interestingly enough down gender lines, when I asked whose story it was. The women believed it was Dave’s story, while the guys believed it was Jimmy’s story. For the most part, though, a book will have a clear protagonist. A young writer’s mistake is often to try to tell two or three stories in one book. Best to simplify and follow one character for the major turning points of the plot.


If you’re writing in the 1st person, that’s often clear from the outset. The “I” is almost always the protagonist. The exception that comes to mind in this instance is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s wonderful tales of Sherlock Homes. Dr. Watson is the “I” of the stories, but Holmes is the protagonist.



I have written two “dark” tales as R.B. Chesterton, both are first person and both first person narrators are the protagonist.

The second person (the you) is not a good option for an entire novel, at least in my opinion. It has booty bones-1been done (BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY—Jay McInerney) but I am not a fan. I’ve read some great short stories in the second person, but it’s hard to do well, and it can quickly become very tedious to the reader.


Third person limited is often the POV chosen for fantasy stories (except YA fantasy, which is often 1st), because this allows the author to give readers insight into a number of different perspectives or cultures.


Assigning a character a point of view is a big decision, and it should be weighed and considered. It’s my theory that multiple points of views should be visualized as a tapestry. If you have the protagonist’s POV and he/she gets the preponderance of page time, this would be like red in the tapestry—a pure strand of color that becomes the basis for weaving the other POVs from more minor characters around it. But keep it balanced. It’s often traditional in a thriller for the book to open from the POV of a victim who soon dies. Fine, but balance it with other victims, or bookend it with the victim who survives. Think about the points of view as creating a symmetrical tapestry.


This, of course, is a general rule, and rules are made to be broken. But a writer should always know when he/she is breaking a rule. One thing I don’t understand, as a writer, is a third person limited novel from only one POV. There are many fine novels and writers who do this, but I always want to ask them—“Why didn’t you just write it first person?” Because the first person has such power, such access to voice, if there is to be only one character’s thoughts, why not use the “I”? But I’m sure these successful writers have a very good answer.


My natural voice is first person, but I’ve written novels in third. FEVER MOON comes to mind. It hasFever Moon_cover-1 four points of view. The primary is Raymond, a sheriff’s deputy in New Iberia, Louisiana, in 1944. There is a brutal murder and a young woman who is ill confesses to the killing because she believes she is possessed by the loup-garou, the Cajun werewolf, essentially.


Raymond knows better. So we have the POV of the investigator, then Florence Delacroix, the town prostitute (she knows secrets that I want the reader to know, but not Raymond), Father Patrick, a priest who loses his faith, and Chula Baker, the postmistress of the parish. These diverse points of view allow me to explore the murder and the impact of this killing on an entire parish. FEVER MOON is a crime novel, not a mystery. I put a lot of thought into my point of view characters, because I needed for each one to bring something unique to the story. While this is a crime novel, the same concepts apply to fantasy, horror, or any other genre.


It’s only logical that point of view will affect structure. In 1st, the “I” carries the story and a strong 1st person voice can power a story along. In 3rd, the POV from diverse characters has to build tension and manipulate time to serve the story.


While I am naturally an “organic” writer (I hate to write a synopsis), I do spend a lot of time thinking about the plot, structure, and point of view before I begin writing.











7 comments to Carolyn Haines: Point Of View And Structure

  • For my current WIP, I started off in 3rd person, with two main characters alternating chapters as the viewpoint characters. As I wrote, though, I realized that one of the characters was much easier to write, and eventually she sort of bullied her way into being the only main character. It dawned on me that the story I wanted to tell was really her story alone, and that it didn’t make sense to have multiple points of view, so I’m now rewriting it in 1st person. The story is much better now, but I wish I’d known this before I started! Did you ever realize you’d chosen the wrong point of view, or does your planning take care of that?

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Yep. First book (still in revisions, blah) and 3 main-characters (it is a fantasy). And so far the character my beta-readers like best is the one with the fewest chapters… However, the theme that *I* have always been most interested in is that people are often not what they seem, or are more than they seem, so I could have gone with a single protagonist but it would have limited things in ways that would have made me unhappy.

    My next book (only 6 chapters drafted so far) is also fantasy but I’m pretty sure it will stick with a single POV throughout – but that’s going to be limited 3rd. I might someday end up finishing something in 1st person (I have started in it before), but I’m going to be very picky about the setting and the character if I do. I can’t articulate well why I resist 1st person…perhaps its because my story ideas are less character driven then some would prefer…

    My favorite song is written in 2nd-person, but I think songs are *much* more conducive to that than other writing forms are.

  • Razziecat

    For me, the specific story I want to tell as well as the character I want to focus on determine which POV to use. I’ve written in both 1st and 3rd, sometimes for the same characters in different stories. I can’t quite put my finger on why the same characters sometimes speak to me more directly, demanding a 1st person POV, and why other times I need that little bit of distance I get from using 3rd. All I know is, when I use the correct (for that character, and that story) POV, the words flow and the story moves along so much more smoothly. If I try to force the story into the “wrong” POV, I struggle with it and run into major blocks.

  • I’m a first person aficionado, but my newest novel will probably be told from third (still outlining as we speak). This is because I have four different points of view that I’m writing from, which, granted, is a lot. I would love to use first person and jump between them (unconventional, I know, but probably possible) but somehow that’s not working when I draft in my head.
    The first POV character, and the primary one, is my protagonist Amber. The story would possibly work (in terms of plot) if she was my sole POV character, but she’s not the kind of character you really want to spend a whole book with, at least not at first. Also, she doesn’t know that the country the other characters come from even exists, so it would make worldbuilding and plot considerably harder.
    The second is also a protagonist and main character, but does take second place to Amber. Elijah comes from the otherworld to which Amber is now introduced. He’s an incredibly likable character, flawed but for the most part a genuinely good guy. Too good to constantly be the POV character, but he tempers Amber’s more complicated voice well.
    The third is, in fact, my antagonist, known as General Hailcrusher. I don’t have the guts to write from an antag’s point of view for long but I had to have one scene from his POV to give him depth. His motive is very clear from the start of the story, but in this scene we learn the motive behind the motive, something which makes him understandable and very human.
    The fourth, Hosea, I might actually cut out. He’s one of the good guys, but a secondary character. I had to have him in there because in the story Elijah gets completely cut off by what’s happening in the otherworld, which is essential to the plot. Hosea is still there and through his eyes we learn the extent of the peril in which Hailcrusher places his world – and ours.

  • quillet

    What Razzie said. Me too!

    I think the answer to the question, why not use first person instead of limited third, is that some people just plain don’t like it. They don’t like reading it and/or don’t feel comfortable writing it. I am not one of those people, but I’ve seen their comments here and there. Some people won’t even read books written in first person. I think they’re missing a lot, but if that’s how they feel, that’s how they feel. *shrug*

    PS: Unicorn, that story sounds really cool!

  • Who write Fever Moon is a crime novel, not a mystery. Help us understand the distinction.

  • For Rogue 5, my sci-fi romance, I wrote third person limited, but switching off between the two main characters. About halfway through, I realized I wanted perspective from the big bad, kind of like Darth Vader in the movies, so I had to go in and add his viewpoint. It helped gel the big bad and give me perspective into his “soul.”

    With the epic fantasy romance, I started out in the hero and heroine’s head, then moved to the heroine’s brother’s POV and the mother. Book 2 I added the, I guess you’d call them the secondary characters, though they are important characters as well in the story line. Third book, I’ll probably add another character POV, though it’s still all about the two main characters. I’m sort of breaking tradition and still following the adventure and romance of the two main, but also adding new romance with each book. The first is the two main, then we still follow the MCs, but also have a romance with the two secondary characters and a budding of one with the brother and a woman he finds. In the third book, we have the realization of the romance with the brother and his love, and a rekindling love between the duke and the queen. And I’ll be switching between POVs throughout and figuring out what’s going on when at the same time. Fun-fun.