Tuesday, 19 April 2011

P is for Point of Who?

Which is the best Point Of View to use? First Person? Third person omniscient? Limited third? (if you’re interested in Second Person you’re on your own, and good luck to you). 

The POV of a story is a major decision, one that will affect the rest of the story. But why one POV is preferable over another has got little to do with that POV itself, and more to do with the writer’s personal preference.

A simple story can be told in any POV equally well. If a man on a mission, encounters obstacles and overcomes them with fortitude, then that story can be told in many ways, and will make sense in all of them. The writer can choose a particular POV to emphasise an aspect of the story, for example the man's determination to avenge the death of a loved one  might be enhanced if the story was written from a first person POV — we really feel his pain — but revenge for a clear wrong is not particularly hard to understand and a skilled writer would be able to be just as effective using third person. So why choose one POV over another?

A major difference between POVs is distance. How close do you want the reader to be to the character? Right inside his head, seeing the world the way he sees it? Or from a distance the way you would watch people in real life? Or maybe from an all-knowing vantage point that puts the hero in the context of a sea of external forces he has little knowledge of but that impact his life in numerous ways? Each has pros and cons (for a breakdown of different POVs click HERE).

A first person POV allows the reader to see the story from one person's perspective. But that character better be interesting, or involved in interesting stuff, because we’re going to be spending a lot of time with him, and only him. 

Multiple third person POV has the advantage of allowing you to see the same thing from different perspectives. For multiple POVs to really work you still have to get into the head of each of those characters, like an actor playing numerous roles. It’s not easy making them all sound believable and distinct.

The other thing you can do, which is roundly frowned upon,  is mix POVs. One chapter in one POV, another in another. And why not? Harlen Coben does it in many of his books, the hero written in first person in one chapter, and the villains written about in 3rd in the next. It works very well. Helps if you have a gripping story that people are too busy reading to worry too much about the technicalities (although that generally helps is every situation).

If the story is a simple one then using a particular POV isn't going to spontaneously add depth and interest to a story. A cliché seen from close-up, or at a distance, is still a cliché. A fantastically exciting action scene is going to be equally exciting from any angle. In most cases the story can be told equally well in any POV. 

Where the choice of POV becomes important is when you’re dealing with complex issues, where it’s more than the battle of good and evil, right and wrong, love and hate. If the bad guy kidnaps the girl, does horrible things to her, and then the good guy kills the bad guy and rescues the girl, which is the best POV to tell that story in? The answer is, it doesn’t matter. Whatever POV you use there’s nothing extra you’re going to be able to impart to the reader because there is nothing extra that needs to be explained. It’s all very clear already. On the other hand, if the good guy kills the bad guy and then kills the girl ... now you’re getting into an area the reader isn’t so sure of, and that’s when you can manipulate that uncertainty using POV.

If, for example, I was going to have a character do something heinous that would normally turn off readers and make them hate him, I could write it in first person so his views and commentary, his jokes and insights, would be presented in an intimate and friendly manner. When he then commits the repugnant act, it’s your friend who’s done something stupid, not a psycho you can’t relate to. That difference between how you react to a stranger doing something awful, and the same thing done by a member of your family, that’s a complicated thing to explain. 

It would be simplistic to say that any deviation from consistency leads to the reader throwing down the book in disgust and stomping off. That’s just an easier way of getting a novice writer to focus on what they’re doing. You certainly shouldn't change POV’s randomly or for no good reason, but no rule is unbreakable. You have to understand why you're doing it, well enough, be able to tell others when they ask you. You don’t have to, but you should be able to.

Contradictions and vagueness confuse readers. But a subtle shift in POV will only be noticed if it serves no purpose in a story with nothing going on. 

From Hunted by Elmore Leonard:
The BMW was coming around the near end of the circle. In second gear. Rosen could hear the revs, the engine winding up. He heard the tires begin to screech, the BMW coming through the circle now toward the café, Rosen looking directly at the grille and the broad windshield, thinking that the Arab had better crank it now, and knowing in that moment that the dark face under the kaffiyeh looking at him through the windshield had no intention of making the curve. Rosen pushed the table as he lunged out of the chair. He saw the owner standing inside the café and the expression on his face, but Rosen did not turn to look around. He was to the walk space between the café and the tables when the BMW jumped the curb and plowed through the first row of tables and kept pushing, taking out part of the second row before the car jerked to a stop and the dark man in the kaffiyeh was out, throwing an end of the scarf around the lower part of his face and bringing the heavy Webley military revolver from beneath his coat, aiming it as the owner of the café dropped flat to the tile floor, aiming at Rosen, who was inside now, running toward the back of the place between the counter and a row of tables, and firing the heavy revolver, firing again down the aisle, steadying the outstretched revolver with his left hand and firing quickly now, three times, before Rosen banged through a doorway and the door slammed closed. 

In the first part things are very much from Rosen’s POV. After he turns around and runs for it, he can’t know what the gunman is doing or what kind of gun he has, or see the cafe owner dive to the floor. All that is out of his POV — but does it really matter? I don’t think so and the reason is this. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on, and I have no problem following any of it. As a reader that’s where my loyalties lie, and I’m only going to start noticing the technical stuff if it’s very intrusive, or if the story is boring.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for commenting on my blog. Since I hadn't yet visited yours, I decided to hop over, and I'm glad I did.

I've heard differing opinions on this topic--some say there is only one perfect POV to tell a particular story. Being a novice, I don't yet have an opinion on this, but I was very glad to read your ideas and insights. Thanks for this! Good post!

KM Nalle said...

I have never spent a lot of time thinking about which POV I should write in. For some reason, the stories start in a specific POV and I continue from there. Maybe I just naturally gravitate toward the commonly used POV for the genre I'm writing in. I should consider it more carefully.

McKenzie McCann said...

I love writing in 1st person because I like to write about complex character problems. It just doesn't work in 3rd person. I've tried. I've failed. I'll stick to 1st.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mooderino, first time visitor. The original release of my book was in the Omniscient POV, but I re-edited it in the Third Person POV. There was just too much head hopping in the former.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I went with third person POV, but only from the point of two characters.

Author Joshua Hoyt said...

Great post I think POV is a powerful tool that as I learn more about I am able to get a more powerful story. Thanks so much for the wonderful information it is very helpful.

Paula Martin said...

Interesting post, mood.
Am just about to post my own thoughts about POV plus some advice from an editor which I'm using with her permission.

F said...

I think the important thing about POV is not to let it get confusing or distracting. There was one book that I started recently that alternates short second person segments with third person narrative. It does not work for me, it tries to hard to be "literary" and loses my interest.

Carol Ervin said...

Agreed. Especially about distance.

This has been an interesting series. I'm looking forward to what you do after "Z".

Hart Johnson said...

I have a strong preference for 3rd person limited. I've written first person, as some stories seem to call for it. I don't like omniscient either as reader or writer, as there is no 'surprise' to it except the contrived kind (it can work for some genres, but not mystery or suspense). I DO like to alternate view points at section changes, though. Each perspective is limited while I'm in it, but then you get the story from a couple angles.

mooderino said...

@JMLeotti - welcome, glad to have you here.
@KariMarie - I think strong instincts are usually the best way to go, saves all that messing about.
@McKenzie - knowing what works for you is half the battle.
@Stephen - welcome. Looking forward to checking out your blog too.
@AlexJ - unless you're writing George RR Martin style epic I think most stories only need a couple.
@Josh - thanks to you for stopping by.
@Paula - will be checking out your post for sure.
@Frankie - Second doesn't do it for me at all.
@Carol - I'll be interested to see what i come up with too!

mooderino said...

@Hart - I think suspense is hardest in first person, the ability for the reader to know what the character doesn't is hard to do if you're writing from the character's own POV.

Alex Villasante said...

thanks for visiting my blog, it brought me over to yours and I'm glad it did. I'm always keen on hearing people's thoughts on POV because it's something I struggle with. I'm an aspiring, newbie writer, so when I choose a POV it's to learn from it. The limitations of each POV, those restrictions, inform and shape the narrative. Each POV presents different challenges and advantages. But I do agree, in the hands of a skillful writer, any POV can be used, as long as it's done well.

scribbleandedit.blogspot.co.uk said...

I'd never noticed before that Harry Potter is written in passive voice. :O)

mooderino said...

@magpie - glad you dropped by. I think good skills can overcome problems much better than switching between tools.
@madelein - okay. Not sure how that relates to POV.

Perri said...

I can't do First Peron POV-- just can't stand all the I, I, I. I bore myself with it. But I often write in a very close third person limited. I like the way the prose can change tone and sort of stand in for the character. (If that makes any sense at all)

Laura Josephsen said...

Very interesting points. Point of view can completely alter perspective of characters and I love how that can work. I think the only POV I really have trouble with is omniscient. I may see more of the plot, but I tend to feel more disconnected from the characters. (Well, I might have trouble reading second person POV--I don't recall ever reading one in second person, so I can't say for sure, but I think I'd find it distracting.)

P.S. I'm passing on a blog award to you. You can find it on my blog if you're interested.

Ella said...

Thank you this was really informative and helpful~

Elizabeth Mueller said...

I love this post. When I first started writing, I used omniscient all the time. I loved it! But I had no idea it was not a good one for first time writes. So I'm using strict 3rd and once 1st. Thanks for the fun read!


Jennifer Shirk said...

I love to read all kinds of POV, but I found first person very hard to write, because if your reader doesn't like your main character you're kind of screwed. LOL

Arlee Bird said...

I find it easier to write from the first person, but I prefer to write from the third. I haven't yet tried for the omniscient viewpoint--seems too complex and difficult to keep track of. First person sometimes a bit too uncomfortably close--maybe readers would think I'm really writing about myself.

Tossing It Out
Twitter hashtag: #atozchallenge

Dawn Embers said...

Great post. I'm not very good at first person and in general don't care for reading it either. I have a harder time getting into the first person main character even though it should be easier. So, I mostly stick with third person limited.

RosieC said...

Great insights, Moody. Thanks for your thoughts.

East for Green Eyes

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