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The Craft of Writing III: Point of View

September 24, 2010

The Craft of Writing III: Point of View
(or I Am He As You Are He As You Are Me and We Are All Together)

Point of view is probably one of the most important decisions you’ll make about your story. Point of view dictates whose eyes the reader sees the story unfold through. Sometimes, point of view is a natural choice as no other voice sounds right as you begin to write, but other times it can be a sticking point for an author.

There are three points of view:
First Person
Second Person
Third Person

Now, Third Person is the one point of view that also has sub-categories: limited, subjective, and omniscient. I’m going to go over each point of view, their pros and cons, and some suggestions for writers regarding them.

First Person
I walked into the room and sat down. My eyes scanned the various patrons, looking for a particular face. When I spotted him, I smiled and crooked my finger, inviting him to my table.

First person tells the story wholly from the narrator’s point of view. It’s one person’s view, and only one person’s view. The reader is limited to the information the current narrator can obtain. The reader only know their thoughts, their motivations, and their impressions. This seems to be a popular point of view in the M/M erotic romance world, and I think it’s because authors assume this is the simplest way to write.

It’s not.

First Person is a tricky narrative with many pitfalls that a lot of authors fall into. In the first place, you’re only in one character’s head. This character has their own perception of the world, their own biases and prejudices that will color the narrative. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s easy to do wrong. The first person narrator is only going to relate to the reader what they know and how they perceive the events, whether their perception is right or wrong. The danger for a less experienced writer is having their narrator report events using the author’s attitude. An example of this would be writing a historical figure in First Person using modern terms (like a white man during the 1700s calling a negro an African American, since, at that time, negro was the polite term to use, as ‘African American’ did not exist, and ‘black’ was deemed offensive). It is important in First Person to be in your character’s head, not yours.

On the other hand, the limited perception of your narrator when done well can be an asset rather than a liability. It’s easier to surprise and shock your reader using First Person because the character is genuinely not aware of what’s around the corner. A lot of thrillers and horror works make good use of this, as do mysteries, since the clues unfold naturally to the reader as the narrator discovers them. Another benefit you have to a First Person narrator is that people lie. Agatha Cristie used this to its fullest in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd where in an unprecedented (at the time) plot twist the narrator was the murderer and concealed that fact from the reader until the very end.

Another downfall of the First Person narrative is that your perspective is limited. In other words, if the narrator isn’t there to witness the event, we as the reader don’t know it happened. This can be difficult to overcome in stories with a large cast. All of the characters are necessarily going to be together the entire time, and so anything that happens outside the narrator’s view is lost. For example, in The Harlequin by Laurell K. Hamilton, the narrator is incapacitated and unable to accompany the other characters to what had been built up as a fight against a formidable opponent. As a result of the narrator not being there, the entire fight is reduced to ‘We got there, we kill one, and one got away,’ as one of those characters relates back to the narrator. In the end, such scenes feel like a writer cop-out; the writer puts their narrator into a position where a difficult scene to write is not witnessed, and thus the writer is under no obligation to actually write the scene.

However, what you lose in external perspective, you gain in emotional intimacy. The emotion, the conflict, and the plight of the narrator are all laid bare before the reader. The reader experiences all the surprises, disappointments, fear, and hope the narrator does because the First Person perspective lends itself to drawing the reader in and making them a part of the narrator’s innermost thoughts. This cannot be accomplished with any other perspective, and it is the overriding, most definitive aspect of the First Person perspective.

Because the story is from a single point of view, recounting a single person’s experiences, the timeline of the novel is easy to keep straight. It is most often a very linear progression from beginning to end with little deviation. This can be a great boon for beginning writers in that they only have one narrative track to be aware of. The downside to this is that it can feel so much like you’re telling a story that you end up telling the story. By that I refer to that old chestnut of showing versus telling. Being in the narrator’s mind gives the writer the excuse to say something like, ‘I was angry’ rather than showing how the narrator expressed that anger. Just because the narrator has the ability to tell the reader how he or she feels doesn’t mean that the author should take that easy way out. It will lead to a bland story that sounds like your grandfather telling you for the 73rd time about how he and your grandmother met.

Now, there’s a little area of conflict with First Person narrative I want to briefly touch on. There are many people who say First Person narrative should always be viewed as the narrator relating the story first-hand to the reader, and so things like killing off the narrator are a big No-No. I disagree. In tales like Interview With the Vampire, yes, because the author set up the book as the narrator actually narrating it, but then you have books like the Anita Blake and Harry Dresden novels where there is no obvious person the narrators would be telling the tale to, and it’s more just an internal narration the reader is being subjected to. My advice is to either be clear that the First Person narrator is actually narrating to someone or write a very compelling First Person tale so that the question just disappears in the back of the reader’s mind as they’re swept away by what the narrator is experiencing. Don’t worry too much about what is Right and Wrong, as this is fiction, and, quite honestly, anything is possible.

Pros:
* Unreliable narrator
* Intimate
* More linear storyline

Cons:
* Unreliable narrator
* Limited perspective
* Harder to show vs tell

Second Person

You stepped over the threshold, your feet sinking into cold mud, and you gasped as that chill seemed to settle right down into your very bones. It was strange, and your heart raced, but you swallowed back the fear, taking yet another step into the dark, cavernous hole.

All I want to tell you is this: don’t do it. Just don’t. But, it does you little good for me to just say that without some sort of supporting statement, right? Right.

There are times to use Second Person, but rarely in fiction. Typically, you will see it in non-fiction such as self-help books or DIY manuals or guidebooks and travel logs. In all these instances, the author is specifically addressing the reader, and so it is natural to say ‘you’.

Fiction, on the other hand, is typically someone else’s story, and so the use of ‘you’ is jarring to a reader. If the book says, ‘You walked down the hall,’ the reader is apt to reply, ‘No, I’m sitting here reading a book,’ and so the connection of book-to-reader is never made. One place where the point of view can work, though, is in the realm of interactive fiction. For example, text-based games and Choose Your Own Adventure novels (which, I think, every adult adored as a child). The intent of these books is to give the reader a personal experience and the engage the imagination by letting the reader ‘play pretend’.

In your run-of-the-mill fiction, though, don’t use Second Person. Your reader most likely won’t connect, even if they manage to trudge through the whole book.

Pros:
* Ideal for non-fiction and interactive fiction

Cons:
* Very difficult to get the reader invested

Third Person
Gina sat in the chair, watching Malcolm play on the carpet with the neighbor’s child, Molly. It was nice seeing her son so happy with the little girl. Molly giggled and snatched the stuffed mouse from Malcolm, and Gina frowned as Malcolm began to cry. She sank to the floor and took the mouse from Molly.

“Molly, we share. If you want the mouse from Mal, you need to ask,” Gina said, handing Malcolm the toy back. “And Mal, if Molly would like to play with the mouse, you should share him with her.”

Third Person is going to be the perspective that gives the author the most options. There is the ever popular Third Person Limited, the second most popular Third Person Subjective, and the difficult, least likely to be chosen Third Person Omniscient.

There is very little difference between Third Person Limited and First Person. Mainly, it’s just the use of distancing pronouns instead of personal ones. Third Person Limited perspective just places a small amount of distance between the narrator and the reader, and, in my opinion, that distance is rarely warranted. If you want to write from one character’s point of view, just write it in First Person. At least with First Person, the reader is afforded the intimacy of the perspective that is denied them in Third Person Limited.

Third Person Subjective is also known as ‘head-hopping’. Third Person Subjective must be used wisely, or else it winds up being jarring, jumping back and forth between characters’ thoughts and feelings rather than smooth transitions from one character to another. Generally, the focus should be on one character for the duration of a scene before switching to another, and an author should not attempt to keep track of too many voices throughout the story. This is my preferred perspective, and what many romance novels are told in when they use the Third Person point of view.

Third Person Omniscient is the choice of books with large, sweeping casts. In this style, the voice is not from any of the characters at all, but an outside all-seeing observer. When a novel is concerned with large historically significant events or tells a story that affects a large number of people, but without being strongly tied to anyone, Third Person Omniscient is a viable writing choice.

While Third Person does offer many options in perspective, allowing an author to do just about anything, it does have its drawbacks. The flexibility you gain can cause a loss of focus. The reader can only care about so many people and events in a story. No one ever accuses Charles Dickens of unforgettable characters. Also, because of the distance that Third Person generates, even in the Limited form, there’s still a loss of emotional intimacy with the character(s). A reader doesn’t necessarily feel as connected or involved in the events of a story as they would in First Person.

The biggest issue with Third Person I think authors face is the double-edged sword of being able to show all events that occur in the story. Yes, it’s wonderful to be able to show any event in the story you want, but it’s also a terrible temptation to show every event in your story. Some things are so trivial or unnecessary you don’t need to include them, but writers do. I can’t tell you the number of stories I have read where, had I been the editor with my red pen, I would have struck out scene after scene because they provided no growth for the characters or plot. They were just random events that happened to these characters that the author, for whatever reason, felt they had to include. While I know that happens in First Person point of view, I think it happens more in Third Person. You don’t have to show everything, only the events that drive the story, that move the plot along. Including the extraneous scenes only bogs down the narrative and pacing, so remember that, even though you have the ability to show every and all events, you don’t (and shouldn’t) have to.

Pros:
* Flexibility in writing style
* Wider range of experiences to show
* Ability to show all events

Cons:
* Can be difficult to maintain focus
* Loss of emotional intimacy
* Temptation to show all events

Multiple Points of View
Head-hopping. It can be a gift or a curse for a reader. It should be done with care, with style, and with skill. Never—and I mean never—randomly jump from one head to the next in your story. Unless your name is Frank Herbert, you’ll probably do it wrong and only irritate your reader. Going back and forth every paragraph is jarring, awkward, and generally frowned upon. Readers notice. Reviewers comment. Yes, you may want to show those back and forth reactions, but you really, really should just stick to one head per scene. If you want to do each scene from a different perspective, then by all means, do so. Use that scene break as a marker of shifting points of view.

The other popular method is to use a different point of view for every chapter. This is very common in romance novels where, depending on the chapter’s intent, the story shifts to either the heroine or the hero. It allows a reader—even in First Person perspectives—to hear all sides of the story. But, as with scene breaks denoting a shift in point of view, chapter breaks also allow a reader’s mind to reset, to note that the perspective is shifting.

Going back and forth between characters’ perspectives multiple times in a scene can seem sloppy, jarring, and unnatural. It’s an overload of information, and the reader won’t necessarily be able to do the back-and-forth without becoming exhausted over trying to keep track of who is thinking/doing/saying what at any given time. While it is not a hard and fast rule, head-hopping like that should be avoided.

Multiple points of view can be wonderful in a story. In fact, I almost never write a story from a single perspective. Otherworld, a book series I am working on, is told in First Person, but each chapter is a different character. I limit it to five characters in each book, though, as it can be distracting to manage a large cast from First Person, and there are two core characters whose point of view is always included in the books (leaving three spots to rotate characters through as books progress). You just need to exert a little caution and common sense when head-hopping as multiple points of view can be a great asset to a novel.

Mixing Points of View
Should you ever have a story that includes both First Person perspective and Third Person perspective? It can be done. Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice is a perfect example. When the events concern Lestat, it’s told in First Person from his point of view. When they are events he did not witness, they are told in Third Person Subjective by the characters involved. I wouldn’t recommend doing this often or without purpose, but if the narrative demands it, there’s no reason not to mix points of view.

(Just a little note, as I don’t want to get into a huge entry about this one little aspect of writing, which should be taken into account when deciding your point of view. Tense.

Use past. I know there are some very popular First Person books written in the present tense, but it takes one hell of a writer and subject to make it work. Present tense can be insanely distracting and unnatural to a reader. In my opinion as a reader/writer/editor/publisher sort of person, use past tense with all points of views you write. And never… never… mix tenses. Not only does it look sloppy, but it’s distracting and looks entirely unprofessional, as if the writer has no concept of tenses.

Again, there are popular books that mix tenses, but I don’t agree with the authors’ choices to do so. Your mileage may vary, but I strenuously advise you not to mix tenses in your narratives.)

Point of view is one of the most important—if not the most important—decision an author has to make with regards to the style of their writing for a particular story. It should not be made lightly, nor should they simply choose the perspective they think is ‘easiest’. Most good writers can successfully employ multiple styles. Consider the demands of your story and the intent you wish to convey, and then make the most logical choice (even if it’s a perspective you don’t usually write in).

Play list for this entry
Heather Nova – I Miss My Sky (Amelia Earhart’s Last Days)
Simple Plan – Welcome to My Life
Steppenwolf – Born to Be Wild
Crystal Gayle – You’ve Been Talking In Your Sleep
Rachael Sage – Ode to a Sailor
E.S. Posthumus – Pompeii
Blood, Sweat & Tears – Spinning Wheel
Alanis Morissette – Mary Jane
REM – End of the World
Vas – Inamorata

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