Thursday, December 18, 2014

Point of View Considerations for Writers

Dan is here today to talk about an often-overlooked area of writing craft: point of view. POV is one of those topics covered mainly in the introductory fiction writing class alongside theme and tense and other literary terms. There's not a huge amount of debate and discussion on this topic outside of MFA programs. Yet POV can make or break for a novel, and many new authors handle it poorly. Sometimes without knowing it.

Initial POV Decisions

When starting a new project, the author must make several decisions related to point of view. For example:

  • Will the story be told in first, second, or third person POV?
  • Is the narrator be omniscient or limited?
  • If first person POV, who is telling the story?
  • Are there multiple POV characters? 
These questions all deserve some consideration, because changing the POV of an existing manuscript usually requires a complete rewrite. That's a lot of work for any writer, and thus POV decisions should not be made lightly.

First, Second, and Third Person POV

This point of view choice may be influenced by the age category and genre in which the author is writing. For example:

  • In epic fantasy, the point of view is almost always third person. Admittedly, there are some wonderful exceptions to this unwritten rule (such as Robin Hobb's Assasin series) but the predominant form is third person, multiple POV.
  • Many young adult (YA) novels favor first person POV. As long as I'm pigeonholing this category: the narrator is usually a snarky teenager.  
  • Second person POV is rare, and (from what I've heard) difficult to do well. The only books I've enjoyed in this POV are the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which come to mind because the publisher of that series, R.A. Montgomery, recently passed away.
The decision here has a number of consequences. Writing from first person POV, for example, usually means that you have only one POV character, that the story is told in his or her voice, and with limited (not omniscient) narration.

Writing Multiple Points of View

In the fantasy genre, novels with multiple POV characters are common. As both a reader and a critique partner, I've learned that telling stories from multiple points of view is difficult to do well. One problem is the disruption of continuity: at the beginning of a book, we're just getting grounded with one character's perspective when the narrative jumps to another character. It's like hitting the reset button. I often feel that the author should have done a little bit more before changing points of view.

Another issue is character sympathy: some characters will appeal to certain readers more than others. In the first few books George RR Martin's The Game of Thrones series, for example, I groaned whenever I came to a chapter about Sansa. She didn't do anything interesting until book four.

Limited or Omniscient Narration?

Most of the books I've written have a limited point of view; in other words, we have only one character's perspective in each scene or chapter. Yet I've enjoyed reading some truly masterful works of fiction -- James Clavell comes to mind -- with third person omniscient points of view. Clavell hops around into lots of different characters' heads, even within a single scene.

I think it works because the characters are all so damn interesting, and also because the novels take place in Asian cultures (feudal Japan, 19th century Hong Kong, etc.) in which people often conceal their thoughts and emotions. As I said, I don't use omniscient narration, so I'd love to hear from an author who does.

A Writing Tip for Tight POV

I generally write first person or very-tight third person (limited) point of view, and I have a suggestion for new authors who do the same: when you're in such a tight point of view, there's very little need for the italicized thought. For example, in a first person POV story, a line like this:
The dragon was five hundred pounds of teeth, muscle, and claws. That thing is going to kill somebody, I thought.
...could be written like this instead:
The dragon was five hundred pounds of teeth, muscle, and claws. That thing was going to kill somebody.
See what I mean? There's no need to clarify that the statement is a character's inner monologue, because we're already in his or her point of view. Every line of narration is from his or her perspective; saying so would just be redundant.

What Are Your Thoughts on Point of View?

I've shared some of my thoughts on point of view, but I'd love to hear yours. What types of POV do you prefer? What do you struggle with? Finally, what advice can you share with fellow authors?

Lisa: I write in predominantly 1st person simply because that's how it comes to me. This is probably because characters exist for me before the plot does. Normally when you think of plot first, it goes something like this: She was going to break up with him--had even told him it was over, though he didn't believe it. That was before his parent's went missing, and no one can make a break-up stick when parents are missing.

In direct contrast, here's how my thoughts go when I am brainstorming: My name is...Farah? No, I have a tougher name because I'm a badass, frizzy-haired girl who drives a motorcycle. O'Ryan is my name. What situation could I be in that would conflict with my personality? Got it, I'm stuck in a relationship. Whoa, I'm not the type who'd stay with a guy when it's no good anymore. Not normally, but I'd be a big douche if I broke up with him considering his parents have gone missing.

So, my thinking is to write the story how it comes to you and not force the "voice" into something it's not. I did and ended up writing 15,000 words of trash. The reason I was trying it was because I'd read enough opinions saying third person was the more mature, advanced, intelligent way to write (and my professor in college felt the same way). Those opinions may be wrong and the may be right, but it doesn't matter when it comes to my writing. People would much rather read my first person narrative rather than my awkward and winding 3rd person fumbles. I do have an epilogue in Moment(s) that is in 3rd person because that's how it came to me. I heard it all in my head as if someone else wrote it. So I guess that's the only way third person works, when my other personality takes over my head. And now you all think I'm insane. It's okay, we don't mind. :D

Seriously, my advice is to write how you hear it in your head, how it will flow out of you in the smoothest way. Because the flow that worked so well in your head will read that much smoother for readers.

Caitlin:  I adore writing in second person when it's flash fiction. (My flash fiction collection is called Your Room...heh). But I agree that it would be hard to sustain an entire novel that way. It's one of my long term ambitions to try it though! So far, I have only written novels in the first person. It comes a lot easier to me, and is pretty standard for YA (as Dan mentioned!) and New Adult as well. One novel idea I've been kicking around for years has a male protagonist. When I think of those scenes, they're in the third person. But, I think, for me, it's because I'm "afraid" to get closer to that character, and, perhaps, sexistly, I'm afraid to write in a male voice. I think once I'm more comfortable with the idea, that book will also be in the first person.

Karlie: I've never been brave enough to attempt writing in second person - and first person doesn't do that well for me either. As you pointed out, Dan, epic fantasy is usually written in third person, multiple POV, and that's how it works best for me too. The one and only time I attempted a novel in first person…that was a learning experience, which is another way of saying it turned out to be completely trash. (funny how you and I had absolutely opposite experiences, Lisa!). I wish I could think that way, but it just doesn't click with me. So, for me third person is my go-to POV.

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