Happy 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 been 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 has 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.