A while back, I posted on point of view (POV), a primer on what it’s all about and the basic navigation principles for mucking about with it. Read it here, and come back to this post, so you’ll have some grounding if POV trips you up sometimes.
As I said in that post, POV is about which characters’ heads you will enter in order to tell the story and how closely identified the narrator is with the POV. Thus if you’re using “I” to identify the person who is thinking, then the narrator is very immediate and you’re using the first person POV. If using “he/she,” you have stepped back a tiny bit in emotional distance and you’re using third person POV. (This does not diminish the emotional impact you can have. It’s the difference, say, between hearing a tale whispered in your ear or told around a campfire.) To me, there is a slightly voyeuristic aspect to the first person POV (using “I.”) It’s almost like reading a diary.
Note: when the third person POV ranges across several characters, sometimes it’s called the limited omniscient POV, meaning, really, the third person POV spread around.
The best point of view
Do you want your book to feel like a diary? Do you need more than one POV? I dunno. There is no better or best POV. Look carefully at your favorite books, and those most similar to yours. What do readers expect? What is traditional and comforting to your core audience? And once you know that, ask yourself, what suits your story best regardless of custom?
Note: If you are not reading widely and across genres, including literary, you’re going to be a naive writer. Read the best authors as well as the most successful ones, and learn, learn. You’ll also see what editors are buying, and best not to be naive about that, either. Aspiring authors OFTEN think they can skip the extensive reading. Plain wrong.
Having said that the POV choice must be dictated by your story, I will state that the third person POV, limited omniscient, is my usual mode. When writing science fiction and fantasy, which tend to tell more sweeping tales, it is helpful to have a number of characters who can present perspectives across time, landscape and loyalty.
It’s curious to note, however, that my best selling work, The Seeds of Time, had a third person limited POV. I stuck with Clio Finn’s head throughout this long book. It helped that she was paranoid as hell. But I can testify it was very tough to pull off a big story with only one person narrating.
Emotion on the page
Point of view is where your story gains heart. Gains emotional truth. Where the emotion hits the page. It may be stating the obvious, but for the reader to feel things the POV character must feel them first. The character may understate (as in The Road by McCarthy) but that is as much a device for conveying emotional truth as is direct statement.
Therefore give point of view to the characters going through meaninful trauma and those who will change the most at the highest cost. There are some exceptions to note:
- Sometimes the character is inherently interesting for being surprising or quirky. We can enjoy these POVs. For my reading tastes, I don’t like them to be the only POVs.
- You can toss the POV to minor characters for a moment. For a free-ranging example of multiple POVs, see Best Served Cold by best-selling author Joe Abercrombie. If you’ve read that book your assignment is to figure out why Shivers is a more interesting character than Monza. We can argue it here!
Why do we care if a story is emotional? Isn’t it about a fascinating plot and dramatic action? OK, yes, sometimes it’s about fun and plot. If you’re writing an inventive and stylistic romp, then maybe the reader doesn’t need to engage emotionally. Know your goal. Otherwise, get the gut-reactions down on the page. Maybe your first draft won’t deliver this. Revise, asking yourself how often you feel a lump in your throat, a thrill of danger, a fierce longing. Not there? Ask if your POV character feels it authentically and deeply. ‘Cause, she or he is your only hope to move people. (And by the way, to move them to force the book on their neighbor!)
The naughty pleasures of POV flexibility
Be careful of POV wisdom delivered as a set of rules. Here are a few I routinely break, and haven’t served time in jail yet:
Changing POV mid-scene.
Yes, you can. The trick is to do it without confusing the reader. Do you have to skip a line to “show” the reader you’ve done it? You can, but you don’t have to. Just make it a smooth, logical hand-off, and most readers will go with you. They may notice. But sometimes the writer’s artifice isn’t hidden. Don’t get too fixated on the old adage, “don’t bump the reader out of the story.” Readers won’t protest if you are giving them something they value. And what they value is a great story. ” The reader can handle “noticing” if they’re fascinated enough.
Keeping secrets: the unreliable narrator.
Can your POV character keep crucial secrets to himself? Yes. People aren’t thinking about everything at once! What the character is sharing at any one moment can be off topic. The author can withhold thoughts and information. The author can come at the topic aslant so the reader understands he’s thinking about the crucial thing, but still not saying it outright. Does it feel manipulative on the part of the author? Yes, a little. But so what? If this idea seems like “cheating” to you, you may want to reexamine your attachment to this rule. Maybe it won’t work in a particular instance that you have in mind. Just be aware that old “rules” of POV are changing. You might try backing into more flexibility by making the withholding POV character a bit paranoid, secretive, preoccupied. That helps the reader accept that the POV may be slightly unreliable. Or, be fearless. Read Best Served Cold for successful examples of secrets in POV.
Go forth, learn point of view basics, enjoy your authorial power, and wield the sword of POV. Er, taking care not to stab yourself in the foot.