Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What Your Point (of View)?

The POV of this picture is from outside the mirror wall

 When we write, we need to choose a point of view (aka, POV.)  I like to write my blogs mostly from a "we" POV because I feel that we are all together in this, sharing our love of writing and working to polish our skills.  However, I try to claim my blunders from an "I" singular perspective, because mistakes I manage quite nicely all by myself!

What is POV?  It's who's telling the story.
*First Person  (I, me, myself, or, in the plural, we, us, ourselves.)
*Second Person
*Third Person (limited, subjective multiple viewpoints, or omniscient)

First Person

 From Me, Myself and I by Cheryl Wright: 
You want to write first person - it's easy, right? Anyone can do it, at least that's what everyone tells you.

Not quite.

First person narration is becoming more and more popular, and this is being recognized by many publishers, including some romance publishers, who are now open to submissions using this point of view (POV). Silhouette Bombshell are one such publisher.

The trick is to eliminate most of those nasty "I" words that sneak into your prose unnoticed. Just because the story is being told in first person, does not forgive starting every (or every other) sentence with "I". The alternatives are endless.

For example: I glanced at the clock
Becomes:My eyes darted to the clock
Or: The constant ticking drew my glance toward the clock
Reworded, the meaning is not lost, but that repetitive "I" is gone. 
Each time you start a sentence with "I", cross it out in red, circle it, or underline it. Do this every time "I" appears on the page. You will quickly tire of this no-win game. (Here's your new mantra: nasty, nasty, nasty!)

Another shortfall many authors of first person have, is to make the reader privy to information not possessed by the narrator. As with most forms of writing, this unforgivable (and annoying) habit can definitely be perfected with practice.
An example of this could be:

Tripping as I entered the room, I landed heavily on my knees. His gentle touch was beyond anything I'd experienced before, but all eyes looked my way. I was blushing so profusely, he must have thought me insane.

Did you pick the error? The narrator cannot see herself blushing, so she can't describe it to the reader.
from this POV we can see the creature has legs and feet
Since I've written this kind of thing myself, I can feel myself blushing, at my literary clumsiness.
Imagine yourself stepping into a room. It could be a ballroom built in 1820. Notice the beautifully carved ceiling. What about those magnificent paintings, hung perfectly straight on the wall?

And of course, you would have admired the chandelier; it takes centre stage above all else, with its two hundred tiny lamps and fifty crystal droplets.

You did see the light bouncing off them, didn't you? Of course you did! 
Did you also notice the masked man coming up behind you, a gun in his left hand, and a black bag in his right?

If you did, you must be my mother. As far as I know, she's the only person in the entire universe to have eyes in the back of her head.

The lesson here, is that a first person narrator cannot see what she cannot see.

What? I've still not made it clear?

The most important thing (or rule, if you prefer) with writing in first person, is to visualize yourself as the narrator.

Stand in that doorway to the ballroom. Look down at your Cinderella dress (if you're a guy, you just became a transvestite - sorry!), look toward the ceiling, to your left, your right, straight ahead. If you don't see it through your human eyes, then my friend, it don't exist. (Please excuse the grammar!) 

For the rest of this great article, go here.  Cheryl's rule about the rule of what the character can see, also applies to third person limited.  If it (whatever "it" is) is happens "offscreen," as it were, the only way either the first person narrator or third person limited narrator can know about it is because someone has told us/them, or because the narrator can hear, for example, a plate dropping on the floor and breaking.  We cannot make our narrator psychic to events happening outside his/her vision or hearing (unless they're psychic through the whole novel!)

from this viewpoint, we can see the egg

Second Person

from Men with Pens:
Second person point of view is rarely used unless you’re creating an instruction manual, a table-top role-playing game or a LARP (live-action) game.
Second person, simply put, is “you.” The author or narrator tells you what you are doing and what you see. Here’s an example:
You see a wood-frame door with teeth marks low down on the right hand side. When you touch them, you can feel the splinters in the wood. You see that there is blood smeared on the carpet… What do you do?
Second person perspective is controlling and dominating. It reads awkwardly and lacks imaginative flow with freedom of creativity.
from the inside, you can see different custom tiles

You can make second person POV work in a very short story or essay, but it's difficult to read as anything with substantial length to it.  Plus, "you you you" can come off preachy or condescending, if someone is saying "You need to" or "you should."  Regardless of whether the advice has merit, whenever I hear "you should" or "you need to" I tend to find something else I "need to" be reading or doing.

Third Person
 From Suite 101:

Third Person Limited

Third person limited means that everything is seen through the main character’s eyes and in past tense. A book written in third person has the phrases “he said, he thought,” all coming from the same person’s head. The reader sees, thinks and feels only what the main character experiences. There are no shifts at any other time to other character’s thoughts or emotions. Many detective novels are written in this simple, straightforward tense. This POV is comfortable, easy to read, and readily accepted by most publishers.

 Third Person Subjective Multiple Viewpoint

A change in viewpoint can heighten suspense. Many mystery writers use subjective multiple viewpoint to tell their story. In the Tony Hillerman Navajo mysteries, there are two main narrators, officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. When the reader is in Leaphorn’s mind, the viewpoint stays with Leaphorn until it shifts to Jim Chee in an alternating section or chapter. (Some portions of Hillerman’s stories, such as a murder scene, may also be told in an omniscient viewpoint, from no particular character’s point of view, however the larger portion of his work is seen through the viewpoint of one character at a time.)
Books written in third person limited or subjective multiple viewpoint
  •  The Case of the Daring Divorcee by Erle Stanley Gardener
  • A Taint in the Blood by Dana Stabenow
  • Cold in the Grave by Peter Robinson
  • Coyote Waits by Tony Hillerman (alternating narrators Chee and Leaphorn)

This is the view from inside the bird-creature
When we do third person multiple viewpoint, the challenge is to avoid  head-hopping.
From Writers' Digest on POV.  This is when you jump back and forth between different characters’ thoughts and feelings. For example:
Jack stared at the hill, which looked to him steep and uninviting. He felt punky, anyway.

Jill thought the hill looked inviting. Great, she thought. I’ll bet there’s a spring at the top.

Oh Christ, Jack thought, following Jill’s gaze. Is that a spring? Knowing Jill, she’ll want me to fetch a friggin’ bucket of water.
The problem with this passage—aside from it being astonishingly lame—is that we don’t know who to care about. This isn’t to say that you can’t switch POV in a story or a novel. You most certainly can. But you risk spreading the reader’s compassion too thin. You also risk confusing readers, who use POV to orient themselves. This is why I strongly advise against switching POV within a particular scene, and for the most part, within short stories.  

Third Person Omniscient (From Suite 101)

In the third person omniscient point of view, the author takes a panoramic, bird’s eye view of the characters and in describing the overall picture. The story is not shown through the eyes of any one character, but an invisible, all-knowing, all-seeing narrator. This point of view works best in a story with a complicated plot and multiple characters. Most of popular author Stephen King’s works are written in third person omniscient.
Novels written in Third Person Omniscient:
  • A Time to Kill, The Partners by John Grisham
  • And then There Were None by Agatha Christie

The problem with writing from an omniscient POV, is one has to be very, very skilled to maintain any suspense, because why doesn't "God" know who the murderer is?  Obviously, the writers listed above do it well, but for your average newbie novelist, it can be a challenge.  It can also be challenging to draw the reader in to emotionally connect with the characters, from that bird's eye view.

this view from the back shows the Queen's silver snakes

Sex Changes - Women Writing Male POV; Men writing Female POV:

ManUp from Fiction Groupie
Gender-Bending from Janice Hardy
from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books  (gotta love that title!)

How To Avoid Stepping Out of Character from Marg Gilks

The key to choosing POV is deciding what we, as the writer, want to reveal, and what the best way is to reveal it.   If we've chosen a certain POV and it's not working, we can always try another.  It may not fix the problem, but it may help us pinpoint it.

Photos © The Writing Goddess, from Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden in Escondido, Calfornia by artist Niki de Saint Phalle.

What's your favorite POV, and why?  
Leave a comment and let me know!