A Matter of POV — novel writing workshop

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?

39 thoughts on “A Matter of POV — novel writing workshop

  1. thats all well and good but i want to read the story about Bob who can get inside computers and Mary the spellcaster.

      1. Depends on which magic universe you’re assuming. For the Dresdenverse and some others, you’d be right, but there are some which are positively friendly with electronics, and in at least one that I read, magic came back and technology went belly up, and everything was being powered by magic.

  2. POV is the thing that makes me the most crazy. Tight third person works in so many ways. It can be gripping and emotional. It can let you share the character’s thoughts. However, in Techniques of the Selling Writer, Swain tells writers to give their story people tags (e.g., always clutching throat, pale yellow eyes, etc) so that the reader can both see and get to know the character. In tight third (and I assume this is a peril in first person as well) it’s very hard to keep mentioning someone’s curly hair when you’re inside their head.

    Part of the way these tags seem to work is through repetition. This is a problem when you’re in someone’s head. I have an important character in a book who is blonde. I managed to sneak in his hair color a good three times in 100k words, usually from someone else’s POV. A friend who read it assured me she didn’t know he was blonde. 3:100k is apparently an insufficient amount of repetition. It’s hard to have a male MC think about his blonde hair without feeling more than a little ridiculous. (ok, he’s not thinking about it, of course, but referring to it while in his POV is literally impossible for me)

    I’ve noticed some writers transitioning between tight and objective third person with varying degrees of success. Does anyone have any thoughts on how to do this? It clearly can be done, but it falls outside the general categorizations, which is emotionally traumatizing for me, and looks hard.

    1. If you’re inside their head, it would be better to have them have a particular word they stutter, or something about their hands which attracts even their own eyes, or they have something they constantly come back to thinking of, or a habit of some sort, or something like that. Habits in particular are a big thing for a lot of writers that I have read to include. Harry Potter is always adjusting his glasses, or trying to get his hair to behave; Harry Dresden has his Duster jacket that he’s always either putting on or forgetting to put on; some women are written as always fidgeting with their hair in some way; I can’t think of any more right now… :-).

      1. Yes, this is all good, but I want to make i clear what they look like (said in a very whiny voice).

        1. Hmm… it’s clear that it can be done, but it’s probably easier if we’re describing someone unusual-looking (or else someone who is SO ordinary that it becomes a stand-out attribute in the story). For instance, we know quite well what Harry Dresden looks like, even though it’s written in First Person, but that’s because he’s really tall and lanky, and it is a plot point in several places.

          Of course, I have very little personal experience writing this kind of thing, I’m only working from what I’ve read, but it seems like it would be difficult to include descriptions of an average-height person with nondescript features and hair color unless you lean back from your tight perspective once in a while and describe from a greater distance.

          1. ‘S OK. I just realized that there is 0, nada, no physical description of one of the POV characters in the next Colplatschki book. There’s a reason, but I didn’t realize it until this week.

  3. No idea on transitions, sorry. I seem to do either or. The Cat stories tend to be third omniscient to loose third person, while the Colplatschki books, the fantasy in progress, and the Powers stories lean toward tighter third, with a few slips of the pen here and there.

    Tighter third works better (for this author) when I don’t want to get bogged down in all that’s going on in the world (like, oh all the politics of WWI), but then trying to get information to the character and reader without a massive infodumpus like “he glanced over and saw a copy of the minutes of the Imperial War Cabinet meeting on the Colonel’s desk. Since he had a few minutes to kill, he idly thumbed through the tome . . .”

    1. I can do a post on POV breaks — there is a certain way they’re permissible. It’s one of the demons of workshops,i.e. things workshops will yell at you for, but that pros do all the time. Maybe I should do a post on those.

      1. Seconded on the please. We understand that we can switch POV with a scene or chapter break, but we want to know if it can be done inside a scene, and how? Sometimes it seems like you can pick feelings or visuals but not have both. Is there a way the camera can pull gracefully out from behind the MC’s eyeballs and pull back for a wider shot?

  4. Up until now, all my work has been tight third, training myself to it because of years of workshops where people always wrote POV! in the margins of my manuscripts. But I wrote Company Daughter in first, and it just flowed, which is odd because I’m the complete antithesis of the heroine. I suspect that deep inside me there’s a sixteen-year-old who hurls herself at life, and writing in first finally let a bit of her out.

    Having so much fun with her, I’m finally willing to experiment with new techniques. Or resurrect old techniques that never survived the POV! hammer.

  5. My big difficulty with pov is when I want to do a female pov. I have improved, mainly by talking to my female beta readers, but its still something very difficult.

    I had one fight scene in a novel with two female shape changers in jaguar form fighting a larger werewolf. I so wanted to get in the one gal’s head and work the fight from her point of view. But couldn’t get there. It wound up being omniscient.

    I have had a little success with the female pov when it’s time to make a fool out of the male in the scene. That actually wound up easy.

    But serious scenes? Still working on it.

    1. Cry me a river. I naturally write a male pov, which is less saleable these days and also make people think I’m weird. (SIGH.)
      I CAN do a post on how males see things (broadly, in stories — not real males) and how females see things, ditto.
      If you want to train yourself to write female POV read romances. Seriously.

      1. “If you want to train yourself to write female POV read romances. Seriously.”

        Oh dear. Must we suffer for our art?

        1. Heyer is actually pretty good. I especially liked the one, I think Simon Coldheart, with the English soldier in France. She isn’t Kratman, so someone whose eye was trained on his military fiction might have some issues, but her characters aren’t the PC wretches all too common in this degenerate age.

            1. Thank you Sarah

              But I think most romances are going to be pretty extreme for what I want to do.

              I’ve been thinking about re-reading some Patricia Briggs stuff. Her “Mercy Thompson” series is first person, but it is definitely written from the feminine pov. Then there’s the spinoff, the Alpha and Omega series. That’s also mainly female pov, but it’s third person.

              What Patricia does is character driven, but there’s plenty of action. So, even learning, it should be entertaining.

              1. what I meant by reading romances is not to imitate them, but because these are aimed solidly at WOMEN so they give you an idea of how women think. Mostly I skim them or listen to them on audio, but boy are they enlightening on what (American) women think and perceive in the world, what they dream of and what they are afraid of.
                Being raised as a boy by a family heavy on boys, I needed that.

          1. Thanks. I’ll probably hold off on female POV for the time being, but I put her in the library.

      2. Darlin girl, you are weird, but in ever so much a good way. One of several reasons that I consider you a sister from another mother.

  6. Just to keep you honest, your logic is faulty. I can grant the truth of your two statements. 1. Peter Grant is the most interesting man in the world. 2. His wife is the most interesting woman in the world. Your conclusion, that anyone reading, either male or female, is a distant third, is not supported by your arguments. I would have to say that stipulating the truth of your arguments, second place is possible for either a man or a woman. As the two most interesting people in the world may both be male…or female.
    See Ma, that high falutin’ college edjamacation stuck after all!

    1. Rolls eyes. Listen, bub, I write these here posts for no pay. And my edumacation is almost for sure fancier than yours.
      Don’t make me deploy “two doesn’t mean two” deconstructionist logic at you. I’d have to bathe afterwards, and I’m in CO and water is expensive.

  7. Oh dear.
    This is going to bite me in the backside.

    I’ve told a lot more stories than I’ve written. So my thought process defaults to a tight third person voice–with the narrator being unreliable.
    I hadn’t ever even considered that a reader might take that poorly if not approached with caution.

  8. Yes, I can’t remember who the writer was, but I remember some book where each chapter started out very objective 3d, as if we were reading about new strangers. Something would be described in the first paragraph as if from a distance. Then we would realize we were with our MC. I remember noticing it, but being unable to tell if it was effective. After all, I did notice it, but I tend to scrutinize such things because of the crazy-making.

  9. Might talk a little bit about the old approach of cooling off with a little resolution time, maybe wrapping up the last threads, versus the current tendency to end with a teaser for the next in the series, even if there isn’t any particular plan to have a next one. You know, like when the main character was relaxing at last, but there was a thump on the door. When he looked outside, the silver dagger was still quivering. (End of book)

    Actually, series versus standalone books might be interesting.

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