Sunday, August 03, 2008

My Point of View on POV

Point of view, or the perspective from which a story is told, seems to be something that causes problems in most of the writing samples I’m seeing of late. Also, of the comments and e-mails we’ve received on that post, almost all of them had to do with POV. Because of this, we decided to cover some of the choices available to you. Please understand that whole books have been written on this subject, so we have just brushed the surface here. If you would like to learn more about viewpoint, consult your local bookstore, Amazon, or see Writer’s Digest Books for more information on this very interesting, very important and valuable subject.

First person: The first person narrator is probably the most popular first choice of beginners because we write like we talk and, therefore it seems more natural to be in first person. It’s easy because this is how we first learn to write. In this viewpoint, we don’t have to think beyond ourselves, or at least it seems that way. In nonfiction, this is true; however, in fiction, first person requires becoming the main character and taking on their characteristics in some cases instead of the other way around. This can make it one of the most difficult POVs to use if done correctly (which is ironic considering it is usually viewed as the easiest by new writers). First person has other limitations, one of which is how does the main character describe him or herself to the reader? In the early use of this perspective, the character used a mirror to describe him or herself, but, as can be easily seen, this becomes cliché quickly as using the same device increases in popularity.

Another problem with the first person narrator is that seeing everything from one character’s point of view can become very limiting and unimaginative—something of which a novel should not be accused. Therefore, because there are other narrative choices that work better, a writer should choose the first person point of view only when no other choice will work. In other words, if there is no justification for using first person, then choose another viewpoint from which to tell your story.

In this point of view, the author often forgets to use all five senses and relies only on one, usually that of sight. Also, first person can smack of ego and that ego echoes over and over again because of the word “I”---“I’m going here and I’m doing this,” until your reader wants to choke the narrator. As can also be seen, first person has a habit of being wordy and boring if the author doesn’t actively maintain the main character’s perspective and instead injects his own.

One of the problems with this POV is that it can get tiring when overused in a genre. Chick-lit is a good example of this. The formula for the genre dictated the voice and many readers got bored with it because it was the same type of person over and over again. Lots of people, it was discovered, have the ability to have the “chick” voice, but it became very difficult to find authors who could take this in a new direction or make their voice stand out. This is one of the factors that helped the genre become stale fairly quickly.

Third-person omniscient: The omniscient narrator is one that sees all and knows all. It’s sometimes referred to as “the voice of God.” This narrative voice was popular in the 19th century and was the choice used by such classic authors as Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, in which he used the now famous opening line, “It was the best of times…”

The omniscient viewpoint is the voice of the author, as the author is the only one who knows all that’s going on in the novel he created. This viewpoint works well as long as you can make your audience believe that you know everything—that you are infallible and not capable of mistakes. This is very difficult to do in a society full of skeptics such as ours. In earlier centuries, authors or people who could write, were few and far between, so they had a sort of authoritative air about them and this POV would be accepted. However, fiction and all its elements grows and changes—remember, people is publishing and publishing is people—and so as society evolved and as the number of writers grew (and their air of authority diminished), this POV became less viable (less entertaining to the reader).

So, as can be seen, this point of view does not work well in modern times and therefore is rarely, if ever, used throughout a novel. It is, however, useful in novel openings where the author wants to achieve a wide-angle view of what is happening to things on stage. Steven King uses the omniscient viewpoint many times in his novel openings, as do many other thriller novelists. Omniscient eliminates many opening problems as it puts the reader in the middle of things and allows him to look around at everything onstage.

Third-person limited omniscient: Limited is the modern narrative point of view of choice for most seasoned writers. Limited Omniscient gives the writer all of the benefits of first person with none of the problems inherent with that narrative voice. It’s easy to write and, because of multiple POV versatility, it eliminates most of the drawbacks inherent in other POV choices.

Limited is more lifelike, as the reader sees, feels, touches, smells and hears things directly from a character’s thoughts as he or she witnesses them rather than from the author, as in omniscient, or from a one-dimensional shadow of a character as in 1st person. Things that are not apparent to the narration character are not known to the reader. In other words, the reader is immersed inside of whichever character in whose point of view the story is being told and the author has a choice as to how deeply the reader is immersed.

In real life, this is the way the world is seen, so third-person limited emulates life and thus a story and its characters become more believable when written in this voice. Of course, as with any point of view, there are drawbacks. One of these is that the story can be easily taken away from the lead character if another, more interesting character appears on stage. So care must be taken with your choice of lead characters. Also, too many points of view become confusing to the reader, so there should be a limit to how many narrators are allowed in a single story. The more main characters, the less power each exerts in the story.

However, other than that, third-person, past tense, limited omniscient point of view has too many pluses to be overlooked when choosing a narrator or narrators for your next novel.


Scott Jensen said...

What about second-person POV?

pagecrazy said...

Wow, that is a lot to take in. Can a non-fiction work well without using 1st person? I am still deciding if I want my MS to be a memoir or if I should fictionalize it. If I go with fiction I have more flexibility, but I am not sure that it feels right. So much to take into consideration.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Second person? Are you kidding? It's rarely used in fiction so we decided to not address it. However, for those who are wondering, you use "you" in second person. Who in the *^%$#* would ever use "you," for gosh sakes? Only those in certain types of journalistic nonfiction and totally experimental fiction. This POV has extremely limited uses.

And there you have a presentation of you (big bow, exit stage right). :)

Gary Corby said...

Scott, second person means a book written like so: "You did this. You did that. You did the other thing."

Weird, isn't it? The reader is the main character. Nobody reads books like that.

For anyone interested in POV, Orson Scott Card wrote a book called Characters & Viewpoint. Read it.

Merc said...

I really like the explanation for why unlimited omni isn't so popular (I'm not a fan). I've never thought about it that way (that the authoritative air about it was more accepted back when it was used most often), but it makes a lot of sense. :) Thanks for that!


P.S. Second person is just bizarre most of the time (I instinctively rebel against what the writer tells me I should be feeling :P), even if I did like those Choose Your Own Adventure books when younger. ;)

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Second person is often used in magazine articles, most of which are informational in nature. It works very well in this form as the reader takes part in the discovery of new knowledge. I tend to use second person here, sometimes, even though I do rewrite often to avoid using it.

Merc said...

In non-fiction second person makes perfect sense, especially if you're writing a how-to article. In fiction I think it's a different story. ;)

Sandy said...

Alicia Rasley has a brilliant book on POV that recently came out from Writers Digest -- The Power of POV. Thanks for the helpful post.

Sandy J said...

First person can be really tricky for several reasons. You've only got one pair of eyes to "see" the whole story. It's very easy to switch between tenses. (I see that quite a bit in contest entries I judge.) And if you don't immediately like the protagonist, you just walk away from the story. I think editors frown on first person because it's so easy to screw up. The irony behind that is that the first book I sold was the only one I've written in first person.

Go figure. :-)

Sylvia Dickey Smith said...

A lot of writers say that in 1st person you can get deeper into character development than 3rd person limited. I disagree. If a writer really knows their character, 3rd person POV is just as powerful.

I also like 3rd person because it allows the writer to develop other significant characters in a work. I'm nosy--I want to know ALL the main characters--what they think, what they smell. :-)