Thursday, September 1, 2016

Editor's Notes #23: Points of View Part 1—How Do I Choose?

I have this glass (from one of my favorite websites, Despair, Inc., home of demotivational everything), and in addition to always making me smile, it reminds me that different people can look at the same thing in a variety of ways. Often, this helps to fill out the bigger picture of an issue. Other times, it only serves to confuse things, like when writing a book.

It takes real talent to write from multiple points of view. Some people do it without even realizing it, but that's not what we're discussing today. Well, maybe we'll use those people as bad examples, but for now, the ones we're talking about today and next time are those writers who actually do it on purpose.

When an author sits down to put pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard, or crayon to napkin, or Sharpie to forearm—the story that flows usually takes on a voice that's easily discernible. Sometimes it's in the form of a first-person narrative, sometimes a third-person "outside voice."

There is no "right choice" that an author can make for every occasion. Each book's POV choice should be as individual as its plotline. It all depends on what you hope to accomplish, and that's where a few guidelines help.

I recently read an article featured on the Writers After Dark website, titled "The Complete Guide to Point of View," by Harvey Chapman. Not only did the post feature the two most common points of view (first person and third person), but it linked to another article (same author) which explained the logic behind the different choices. According to Chapman, many authors are tempted to skip the fundamentals and simply look at the pros and cons, but there are a few things which should be understood before choosing.

The theory and logic behind choosing a point of view boils down to the roles of four people: the author, the narrator, the viewpoint character, and the protagonist. Now of course, the author is the author, but the narrator (the one who tells the story as compared to the one who writes the story) takes on a different role, depending on the POV chosen.

In the first-person POV, the narrator is also the viewpoint character. We see what he sees, but only what he sees. This can keep things simple and focused, but can also be tricky in a few ways. Anything that happens "offscreen," so to speak, can only be learned through conversation or eavesdropping. In other words, if the main viewpoint character wasn't there, it didn't happen . . . unless the event is discovered through other means.

First-person narrative also has the tendency to give us a not-so-objective "truth" as we read along. Think of any occasion where there is more than one person. There will be, of course, more than one opinion, and each person is sure his is the right one.

Chapman's article points out another interesting aspect of the first-person narrative: because a first-person narrator/viewpoint person is retelling something that happened in the past, the viewpoint may change, depending on whether that action or event happened in the immediate past or many years ago. As he states, ". . . if a forty-year-old adult tells us something that happened to him as a thirteen-year-old kid, that makes the narrator twenty-seven years older than the viewpoint person. And which of us can claim to be the same person at forty as we were at thirteen?"

The first-person narrator/viewpoint person may also be the protagonist, but this not a hard and fast rule. The person telling the story may just as easily be recounting a tale that happened to his best friend.

The important part is to know why you're choosing the point of view you're working with, and the rest should sort itself out much easier as the writing progresses.

Part 2 of this post will explain these roles (author, narrator, viewpoint person, protagonist) in the context of the third-person point of view.

Do you have a favorite POV to write from, do you have to think about it at great length, or does each book just present itself to you with a POV already chosen by the characters? I'm curious.





15 comments:

  1. I usually write as a third person narrator, but I generally pick a protagonist and don't reveal things until they happen to him or her, or he or she is told about something, etc.

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  2. Interesting. Just the other day, we were talking about an event that happened to me at 7 years of age that caused me to mistrust schools and all their officials for the rest of my youth. At 7, I didn't understand why, I just felt the way I felt, and acted accordingly. At 67, I understand all the psychological ramifications, and can now only see that event with my 67-year old eyes. How, I wonder, would one convey that flashback in a work of fiction?

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    1. The article I referenced here had a link to a sample the author provided, where, as a middle-aged man, he recounted his first kiss as a thirteen-year-old at the movie theater. As the adult telling the flashback, he transitioned (smoothly, if I may say so) from adult-sounding observations of his surroundings that day to the teenage-appropriate language style of the experience itself.

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  3. So true we don't think now like we did when we were kids. Not to mention memory becomes hazy over time.
    I always write in third person, usually from two viewpoints but I have done it once from three and once from one. It's comfortable and I don't want to get inside that character's head THAT much.

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    1. If I were to write a novel, I would most likely use third person, I think. It is more comfortable to read, and just seems more appropriate for longer works.

      Also, I'm just nosy. I would need to know what's going on in everyone's heads.

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  4. Excellent post, Lynda. The most interesting article I ever read about POV concerned Barbara Kingsolver and The Poisonwood Bible. It's my daughter's favorite novel, and one I admire. I'm dabbling in fiction and using third person because it feels right. It feels comfortable. I don't think I could write it in first person. Besides, I get tired of people who think that anything I write in first person is about me. Almost every time I write a poem I remind my readers that the voice is a poetic persona.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. I forgot to say that I adore your glass. I think Despair, Inc. started with me in mind.

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    2. That would drive me crazy, having people think every "I" story or poem is about me. It would make me want to write crazier and crazier stories just to see how far I could push it before someone asked if I was okay.

      As for Despair, Inc., it's one of my favorite websites to browse through, just for the laughs. Their demotivational work videos are hilarious. And the glass is a nice, solid, pub-thickness pint glass that seems to be perfect for every occasion.

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  5. I love that glass. Oh, also I love this post (I didn't just come over here to simply say 'what a cool glass!' and then run off like an inconsiderate something-something'). But what a cool glass. Also, that's a very tasty color of beer in there. Urine yellow? No thanks!

    For us, we just write whatever POV seems to fit the story better. With Tuck Watley, we thought it'd be fun to write from his view ONLY, since it's such a skewed, biased view of everything. I don't think his story would be nearly as funny if it was via third person. I love constantly knowing what he thinks about his world.

    But with that POV comes certain responsibilities. And you already touched on one of the things that we've tried to be careful with; if it's first person, then we can't get any omniscient third person details, because that wouldn't make any sense. I've read some first person perspective novels in the past, where the main character has said things like, "Jerome was feeling uneasy about what I was saying and didn't want to hurt me with the truth," and even though it's a very small detail, as a writer I think how the hell do you know what Jerome's feeling? How do you know what he wants and doesn't want? You're not him!

    Things like that are pretty minor, sure, but I also feel like they're pretty avoidable if you just apply some common sense to your writing.

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    1. First things first: the glass. YES! Beer should not ever, ever be urine yellow. Then again, I'm a Guinness person, so I'm a wee bit biased. And I would not have held it against you if you really had come over only to tell me what a cool glass I have. Because it IS cool, and I actually have two of them so I can be two-fisted kind of cool.

      I'm surprised at how many times I've caught third-person details in first-person POV books. Sometimes it's subtle (so of course I feel proud of myself for catching it) and sometimes it's glaring. You guys did a terrific job of Tuck Watley and his worldview that is quite unlike the reality around him. In that case, I totally agree that knowing his perspective on things is what makes the book hilarious. In fact, I need to make sure I say that when I write my review for it on Amazon. Don't let me forget.

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  6. Hi Lynda,

    I read your post with fascination, Lynda. This might seem slightly surreal, but a fair amount of the stuff some might think is written by me, is actually written from a famous dog's pawspective, um, perspective. I should add that I'm actually a fictional character created by Penny the Jack Russell dog and modest internet superstar!

    Penny's fictional human,

    Gary

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    1. I sometimes feel like a fictional character in my own life, so I can completely relate and am envious that you have Penny, the Jack Russell dog and modest internet superstar, to create some crazy situations for you to navigate. She always keeps you on your toes.

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  7. Fantastic post! Thanks for the mention ;)

    POVs are chosen by my characters. I actually re-wrote KINETIC (the first time) (don't laugh!) from the third POV. I felt Annie's personality would shine through better as first person. And then my OCD keeps the whole series in the same POV, because yes. I have other stories in different POVs (for now), but the next stand alone will also be first person POV . . . hmm, seems I have a preference after all lol

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    1. Hey, I'm just glad you and Raymond are doing the hard work of finding all these great websites and articles to share!

      When I think of first-person POV done well, I think of Annie in Kinetic. Seriously. I also think of The Devil's Hour and now I think of Tuck Watley: Freedom Fighter Fighter. I really do think certain POVs are dictated by the characters themselves.

      You crack me up. I can't imagine how many versions of Kinetic there were, considering how many versions of Static you went through before even thinking of edits.

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