OK, let’s talk about point of view today.
Point of view (POV) might just be the most important mechanical aspect of a story. It’s certainly one of the most important early decisions you make in your project. POV is how your story is seen. It is through whose eyes the reader encounters every single aspect of your story. Together with tense (past or present), POV determines how your story should be structured and defines what is possible.
You’ve got plenty of options when it comes to POV, and you probably know the usual suspects: first-person, third-person omniscient, third-person limited. But here’s how I like to break things down:
- first-person single
- first-person multiple
- third-person omniscient
- third-person limited single
- third-person limited multiple
Now, God knows, you can do just about anything. Hell, you can write in second-person (“you”) if you want, but that’s not an easy thing to pull off at all, especially in fiction. It’s rife with pitfalls and readers really hate it, so why swing at that particular pitch? Let’s assume that you’re going to exercise exceptionally good judgment and avoid second-person like the plague. “What about those other options?” you wonder. “Why different variations of first- and third-person?”
Again, these are my breakdowns, but here’s how I see it:
In your story, if you go with third-person narration, you’re standing somewhat outside of the character(s). You’re using things like “He walked over to the bar” when discussing your main character, as opposed to “I walked over to the bar,” which would be first-person.
A third-person omniscient POV is when your narrator is not aligned with any particular character. The narrator can see anything, read any character’s thoughts, go anywhere, etc. In some cases, the narrator even understands that he/she/it is a construct of the novel and may refer to the book as a book and may even speak directly to the reader (using “you” or “Dear Reader” or some similar construct).
Now while many, many wonderful novels have been written in this POV, it is my opinion that it’s usefulness is pretty much at an end. In general, modern readers will not want to read a novel that is entirely written in such a POV. And I don’t blame them! Third person omniscient is (again, my opinion) flat, boring, and resists every reader attempt to engage the characters.
You may be wondering: Why does it matter?
It matters because, ideally, someone is going to read your story someday. Your goal is to be published. This means that strangers are going to read your novel. You want them to enjoy it, to be sucked in, to feel compelled to read the entire thing.
The best way to do that is to make them comfortable. You do this by putting the readers into someone else’s head and letting them live there. That’s why we read — to experience things from other people’s perspectives, to live in new ways.
Check it out:
Plots and plans rose from the back of Scampy’s mind; thoughts of how he would steal one of the Mack trucks without being seen, thoughts of where he would hide the truck while modifying it, and thoughts on how he would then drive the truck into the library. Scampy wrung his hands in joy, knowing he would soon be triumphant.
Now look at how I’ve rewritten it:
Scampy ran through it again in his mind. It was all so simple! Steal the truck, then hide it behind the old Jack in the Box while modifying it with the explosives. And then — yes, finally! — drive it into the library, destroying that accursed place forever!
In the original, we are outside of Scampy – it’ s like we’re reading a transcript of his thoughts, a dry recitation. With very little editing, I’ve changed the tone of the paragraph – we are in Scampy’s head. We are not told what he’s thinking and feeling – we “hear” it. We no longer need the detail about wringing his hands – we can tell he’s psyched from context.
I deliberately made the omniscient version suck, but all in service of illustrating a point: that’s the difference between omniscient and limited POV. In the one, since you can be anywhere, you leave the reader no sense of belonging to the story. Since your narrator is describing the action, you have a tendency to distance your reader. You kick the reader in the face with the fact that the characters are just constructs of ink and paper. So don’t tell us what Scampy is thinking. Put us in his head – make us think it with him.
So, what’s that about “single” and “multiple” and why are they both variations of third- and first-person? Simple enough: Single is when you focus on one character and channel the entire story through him/her, regardless of whether or not you’re in first-person or third-person. Multiple is when you sometimes shift POV throughout. Usually you would do this when a chapter changes — it just makes it easier for the readers to recall in whose shoes they are standing that way. You can also shift POV from scene to scene. I tend to caution against shifting POV within a scene. Yes, it can be done. There are technically no rules against it. But it takes a great deal of skill to avoid this:
Scampy snorted in derision at John. He couldn’t believe his old friend was holding a pistol on him. “Give it up, John. You won’t shoot me.”
John knew that was true, but he had no choice but to bluff. “Maybe I will.”
Scampy twitched his tail and bared his teeth. He didn’t believe John for a minute. No, sir — not for a minute.
Taken to its logical conclusion, that sort of back-and-forth ping-pong writing can keep the reader from identifying with any of your characters. It’s tempting to writers because it lets you show the story from so many angles, but I find it hard to pull off. It’s much better to stick with one POV per scene or per chapter. I know other writers will tell me I’m nuts for saying it, but God — I’ve read too many crappy stories that jump from head-to-head-to-head. If someone’s skilled at it, great. Otherwise, it totally wrecks the story for me.
You may wonder: Can you combine first- and third-person? Oh, sure. Brad Meltzer does it in The Zero Game and, in fact, uses the shift in such a way as to pull off a terrific plot twist early in the book. Melvin Burgess uses multiple first-person andmultiple third-person perspectives in Bloodtide. I found it a little off-putting, to be honest with you, but I can see why he did it and hey — I still read the book, right? (And enjoyed it.)
You’re probably wondering by now (if not earlier): “How do I know which one to use?”
The only wisdom I can offer you in that regard is this: Consider carefully the kind of story you’re telling and the kind of character(s) you want your readers to identify with. If your story is really — at its heart — about one person, consider going first-person. You’ll find that certain types of stories lend themselves to certain POVs. Most thrillers, for example, are in third-person limited, and typically the multiple variant. Why? Well, it’s easier to build tension if you can cut away to the bad guys, for example. It’s easier to do plot twists when you can “hover” above the action a little bit.
Slice-of-life stories work well either way, but most tend to the single variants because you’re usually focusing on one character.
These are just tendencies, not hard-and-fast rules.
How do I decide which POV to use? It’s never a conscious decision, honestly. I sit down to start the book and I sort of let the story and the characters dictate to me. All of my published books to date have been in first-person (single variant), but I’ve written some other stuff that differs from that, and I’m sure I’ll continue to do so in the future.
No matter what POV you choose, remember — POV is not a gimmick. POV is the way your character connects to your audience. Consider the character and the character’s thoughts, perspective, and history when you write. That will inform the metaphors and language you use. For example, in Boy Toy Josh is obsessed with baseball and baseball statistics. As a result, his narration is filled with baseball references, baseball metaphors, and bits of baseball trivia. When he notices the time, he immediately connects the same digits to an obscure baseball statistic. These are notions that are specific to Josh, so they communicate his character to the reader, while also conveying other necessary story information.
So what I’m saying is this:
You absolutely must write with POV in mind. POV should inform every word you place on the page. Doing this not only accomplishes your goal of greater reader identification with the character (and, consequently, deeper enjoyment of the book), but also creates a truly stand-out character that readers will remember. Consider POV early in your process. Nothing’s worse than going back through a book and rewriting it all in third-person because you decided/realized that first-person just didn’t work. (Well, brain surgery is probably worse, but you didn’t do that to yourself through lack of foresight and inadequate planning!)
Regardless of what POV you choose, remember to be in the moment. Don’t stand back and try to be an objective observer. Your characters are living what you describe. Remember that.