Every time I hear someone discuss POV I feel like I’m back in Portugal and around the kitchen table with a bunch of women arguing over what to name the baby.
Opinions are tightly held, make no sense, and are supported with a lot of stuff about how this is the only ONE TRUE NAME you can give the baby.
Some people say you shouldn’t write books first person because that’s amateurish. Yeah. Them and the donkey they rode in on, with pineapple on top and a funny hat. Go look at, oh, They Walked Like Men, arguably Simak’s best work. Go on. I’ll wait. Noted the person in that, right? Now go and pick up any book by Heinlein, Rex Stout… In fact most of the books of science fiction and more than a few of mystery. Not all, just a majority.
Now you can tell me those books lacked sophistication. I’ve heard NYC editors diss Agatha Christie (who wrote mostly but not exclusively 3rd person) to make themselves sound cultch’ured and all. Let me tell you, the woman sold more books of her worst book than most of the mega successes have sold of their best books.
So, is first person amateurish? Depends. Is it being written by an amateur?
As someone who read a lot of fanfic in her day, all povs can sound amateurish. The thing to watch out for when writing first person is to make sure you’re not writing YOU. Not unless you are the most interesting man in the world. (And we know you’re not. That’s MGC’s own Peter Grant, sorry. His wife is the most interesting woman in the world. So you’re at best a poor third.)
But then in the third person you can also write yourself, and I know someone who writes himself extensively into his third person books. So—
If you’re writing first person it requires something like acting talent. You need to put the other person on and let the voice come pouring out of your fingers.
One of the hazards of this is that people who aren’t professional writers will assume that you ARE the person you’re writing. The number of people who think I’m Athena, from Darkship Thieves, is astounding. (And wouldn’t last if they knew I’m both afraid of heights and have no sense of direction.)
What first person buys you is a sense of… reality. You’re being told a story by this real person sitting across from you. That’s great if your character is engaging. It’s also REALLY useful if you need to lie to your reader.
Lie to your reader in third person, and the reader is going to be REALLY upset. But lie to your reader in first person, and the reader is going to not notice he’s being lied to, because the head he’s in didn’t see things that way.
This is particularly useful in mystery where the character might casually mention the bloodied knife, then go on to obsess about hair curlers. The pointing finger moves and the reader with it, completely forgetting the knife, particularly if the person goes “that knife had jam on it or something, but the hair curlers weren’t in the bedroom.”
So first person, if you know how to use it, gives you greater narrative control and a greater chance to play with the reader’s mind. OTOH it takes away your ability to do certain things, like show someone from an unbiased (not your character’s) perspective.
For that you need third person. Third person exists in three forms. The first is omniscient and it’s rarely used in traditional publishing any more. By omniscient you should understand it is the POV of the eternal observer. You see into everyone’s mind and heart, and know what is happening everywhere in your world. You careen from head to head shamelessly and you tell us things none of the characters know. This is often used in Romance, btw, but nowhere else in traditional publishing.
It reads something like this: Bob snarled, but in fact he was scared. Mary didn’t know this and thought he looked very disagreeable. Little did both of them know that they were only being used in a tiny little example, and that once the author was done mentioning them, a meteor would hurtle out of nowhere and pulverize them.
Again, this is not used anywhere but in romance in traditional publishing. However, it seems to do well in indie, and hey, it was the default telling mode for decades when books were doing far better than they are now. If you want to give it a spin for your indie book, take a whirl.
The other pov is what I call “third person close in.” This means that while telling that character, you confine yourself to his/her thoughts as though it were first person. And you render thoughts directly or in Italics. Like thus: I’m such a loser, Bob thought. Here I am at last, after years of apprenticeship in the head of a real writer, and she’s only using me for an example. He sighed, as he pushed aside his coffee cup, accidentally spilling coffee all over the cover of his How To Be A Real Character manual, which he’d bought on discount on ebay. He thought the book would never be the same and sighed. It was just like him to mess this up too.
This is different from third person objective which is more like: Bob set aside his manual on how to be a real character and glared at it as though he hated it. He picked up a notebook and tore open the first page. “Dear Mary,” he wrote. “I’m tired of being a failure. No one will ever write our immortal love story. I’m sorry. Bob.” Then he crossed the room in long steps, opened the window and jumped out onto non-existence.
Now the disadvantages of a third person somewhat mitigated by the close-in is that you can’t really lie to the readers very easily.
The advantages is that you can show the story from multiple points of view and thus escape the point where the story gets slow.
Say you start with Bob:
- Bob jumps out the window and discovers he’s inside Sarah’s computer.
(there follows a boring part of Bob actually wandering around touching things, but that’s not where you need to be. Instead you go to: )
- Mary is wondering where Bob went. She casts a spell to find him.
(Mary actually has to grind some ingredients and stuff, which is boring, so you go to Bob: )
- Bob manages to crawl out through my thumb drive and gets chased by a cat.
You see what I mean.
When you’re doing multiple points of view, here is some things to remember:
- Remember to have a main character or at most two main characters. You might very well have eight points of view, but the main characters should stand head and shoulders above in both interest and the time they take. We should know what the principals of the book are.
- All characters should be interesting. The secondaries shouldn’t be so interesting they upstage the main characters, but they should still interest the reader. This means they must have:
- They must have their own challenge, their own ideas, their own desires, their own something to accomplish by the end of the book.
- In the interest of maintaining the emotional integrity of your book (remember that books are self-contained bits of emotion – a packaged emotional experience, if you will) have the characters’ journeys parallel each other. For instance Rome and Juliet is a tragedy of haste. All the characters have/want different things, but they’re all in a hurry to do/get/become something.
- In the interest of the self same emotional experience, have all the characters hit high and low points in quick succession, particularly with the lowest point (black moment) and the climax.
- Remember to take advantage of multiple POV. Not just to leave people hanging, as in: Mary screamed tied to the rail road ties. // Chapter break// Bob was running down the road, wandering where the scream was coming from. And was that the sound of a train?
Also, show the antagonist setting the trap. It’s much more suspenseful to see the girl combing her hair if we know the evil gobbling is hiding under her vanity with a sharpened stake in his hand, ready to pounce.
That is all that it occurs to me to tell you about POV. And at this point I’m going to throw it open to questions.
What else do you need to know about writing a novel?