Points Of View

by limebirdster

One of the many Rules of Writing that I’ve been told and that I’m careful to stick to, is keeping to the main character’s point of view. So, not jumping backwards and forwards between different characters thoughts even if that means that the reader is as confused as the narrator for a while.

It’s something that my tutors at Uni insisted on but also something that I’ve been told by professional editors: Be careful that when you’re talking about this character, that you don’t accidentally slip into their point of view. It’s something that is actually very easy to slip into for a line or two, any longer than that and you must be doing it deliberately!

But it was one point that a friend of mine made after reading something that I’d written. That it would be interesting to have certain parts narrated by different people, that way you would see the parts of the story that your main character doesn’t. I thought about it for a while, but the only way to do it for that one scene would involve having to go back through the rest of the 130,000 words and adding in loads of other scenes from other people’s perspectives so that it didn’t look out of place!

Because doing it once is sloppy writing, but doing it constantly is a style of writing. Take someone like Jodi Picoult, she writes pretty much a book a year and is incredibly successful. And no two adjacent chapters are written by the same character. She rotates through five or six characters and each chapter is written by one of them, giving the reader a very complete understanding of what is going on.

Quite often a prologue or an epilogue is written from a different perspective, but if your story is told from one persons point of view and you deviate from that for a page or two it’s very obvious and it can break up the flow of the story. Unless you do it constantly and it’s a conscious decision to include different perspectives. I think, in the case of my earlier example, Jodi Picoult jumps around between characters because her stories always involve a court case and the original character just doesn’t have the knowledge to explain the entire story.

Personally, I like to stick to one character and write everything in third person, which used to be much more popular than it is! Everyone seems to be writing in first person these days, especially in YA fiction, there’s barely a third person narrator around anymore!

What perspective do you prefer? First person, third person, second person even? One character, many characters? Not decided yet?

36 Comments to “Points Of View”

  1. Great post Ster,

    I agree, one shouldn’t jump around by accident.

    Last year I read the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness. Incidentally, for those decrying the lack of reading in the modern world, I was reading The Guardian on my Kindle, there was a review of the third book in the series and, a minute later, I’d bought the series and downloaded them! Anyway – in the series; the first novel is narrated entirely by Todd, the second is told by both Todd and Viola, and the third book is told by Todd, Viola and The Return. The Chaos Walking series is YA and successfully uses the technique to stick with the preferred first person viewpoint, but give us more angles to see from.

    I tried the same in my (uncompleted) NaNoWriMo novel (soon to become a novella) last year “The UnMedicated” is told through the eyes of the four main characters (plus written reports from CCTV surveillance, interrogation reports etc.). I chose to do that as I needed to contrast the views of people under the influence of the society-controlling drug, those going through cold turkey, and those who were off it.

    Switching points of view can really help to give the best of both worlds, the immediacy of first person but without the restrictions of one person.

    • Thanks Dennis, it sounds like multiple points of view is definately the best way to go with a story like that, I think you would lose quite a bit of the story if it was all told by either the drug controllers or the drug takers.

  2. Oo, I love this post because I was thinking about exactly the same thing over the weekend. I think I find it easiest to write in first-person and always from the main protagonist’s point of view. I think this is because you can really get into the emotions that the main character is feeling, the smells they’re smelling, the sounds they’re hearing, etc.. However, I’m really enjoying reading Game of Thrones (George RR Martin), in which every chapter is written from a different character’s perspective – all third person, too.

    I think each style has strengths and weaknesses…

    • First person is becoming much more popular, I’m pretty sure that it was frowned upon at one point but I think more people are using it for exactly the reasons you say, you can really get into what a character is feeling if you’re inside thier head!

  3. Point of view is everything in a story. It is who you are connecting with as a reader. A single point of view is much easier to create in a first person narrative because the narrator is telling the story and the writer, in a sense, is that character.

    It’s easier to slip out of a single point of view in a third person narrative because you are referring to all the characters in the same way and can easily become the all-knowing narrator voice.

    • Hi Paul, it is easy to slip between characters in third person, especially for the odd line. I wouldn’t nessisarily say that it’s more difficult to create, but it is much easier to fall out of!

  4. Great post Ster! My biggest problem has always been with deciding on the guiding narrative voice to begin with. Is it first or third? Should it change? How reliable is our narrator? What level of bias are they creating? In the third person its harder to attach to the passive voice I think. And the relevant tense. I struggle with tense all the time in regards to narration. I always see the narrator as telling the reader about something that HAS happened, rather than a blow for blow account of what goes on as it happens. I get why writers do that, but for me, I’m on the camp fire ilk – telling a story that happened before the present. That’s just completely me though and there is no right or wrong. Maybe because I’m just no good at remembering the present tense and slip back in to past! Oh well. Thanks for getting me thinking about this – it is so important. Especially with NaNoWriMo on the way! LBC x

    • I know what you mean, Cat; in “Talatu” it was first person, but past tense as I wanted the main character to be able to talk from some knowledge of the situation (I had her write a report on her experience for her commanding officer).

      This time around, for NaNoWriMo, I think that the character’s experience of inhabiting other bodies requires present tense in order to explore her feelings more fully.

      • I totally agree, Dennis. It’s all about the feelings! You can tell the same story from third person and first person:

        “She felt a heart-wrenching pain as she realised the extent of his betrayal.”

        “I felt a heart-wrenching pain as I realised the extent of his betrayal.”

        In the second case, I, as the reader, might find myself thinking (subconsciously) “Oh really, and how do you know?”. It’s all happening over there. I’m not involved.

        In the second case, I, as the reader, am being told of these feelings directly from the source. It’s happening right in front of me and I’m engaged and wanting to help (but helpless; at the mercy of the author).

    • “My biggest problem has always been with deciding on the guiding narrative voice to begin with. Is it first or third? Should it change? … I struggle with tense all the time in regards to narration.” Cat, if I wrote down some of my biggest writing problems, I’d be hard-pressed to write them as succinctly as you. It’s so nice to know that I’m not the only one struggling. Thanks! 🙂

    • Thanks Cat! I’m from the exact same camp as you, I’ve tried writing in the present tense but I always find myself slipping back!

      I think that once you’ve found where you’re comfortable that’s pretty much where you stay, stories can be told from any point of view really( I’ve had to re-tell a story from the dog’s perspective before!), so you might as well tell them from where you’re going to write them the best!

      Good luck with NaNoWriMo, just over a week to go!

  5. Like most things within writing, I think pretty much anything goes as long as it is done well, with conviction and with consistency. My instinct, like you, is to do one character’s point of view in the third person – that’s what comes naturally to me without having to think about it, but now I’m thinking I might like to try something different sometime!

    • My instinct is exactly the same but you’re right, anything goes! Good luck if you decide to try something new, I hope it goes well!

  6. I’m fairly traditional when it comes to POV — I like the third-person POV and I don’t like switching around a bunch of heads. I think more than 3 POVs is too many, but again, I’m old school.

    I think the story becomes too thin when we have a lot of viewpoints. Plus there’s more difficulty in springing a surprise on the reader without holding back info (Jodi Picoult is a perfect example of this).

    I also feel like a story is a story simply because we don’t know everything that’s going on. I think a skilled writer can show and tell us everything we need to know, and only need one to two POVs to do it.

    • I think the problem with more than 3 POVs is that the reader will always end up having favourites and then they’ll resent the chapters that they have to get through to read thier favourite narrators. That being said, if you can pull it off then it works great!

      I agree about not knowing everything that’s going on, if you give the reader all of the information available then there isn’t really a story to tell!

  7. Writing different scenes from different character’s POV’s is easier in third person and as long as it’s done consistently and as long as the reader knows whose POV it is, then everything should be fine. I don’t have a problem with jumping POV’s as long as I don’t get lost.
    Having said that, I read a book a while back that was a real first. Maybe this had been done before but it was new to me: A first person narrative told from 2 people’s POV’s. It confused the hell out of me until I realised what was going on after several swap-overs (which were clearly identified by chapters – it didn’t click for me, though). I guess my mind was closed to the idea that a first person narrative could be to from more than one person’s perspective. Dangerous territory, in my opinion.
    Going back the third person form, it begs the question when is it okay to change POV’s? Chapter? Scene? Paragraph? within a paragraph (No.)?

    • Good question, Richard. I’d be interested to read a thriller where the POV was first-person and changed between the main cop and the killer, or something. But you’re right that the author would need to make the change-over obvious. My vote would be for Chapter. Although, as Vanessa said, as long as it’s consistent and confidently done, maybe anything could work…

    • I have come across that before Richard but it can get confusing! I think perhaps it’s easier to follow in third person simply because the protagonists name will be repeated in the text enough that you always know who they are!

      As you said, changing POV during a paragraph is not a good idea! Chapters are the obvious place to change. I think that you can change between scenes as long as you make it clear, but to be honest if I was switching character I’d start a new chapter there no matter how short that meant that previous chapter would be!

  8. I think it really depends on the story. For me, I tend to write my short stories in first person and my novel in 3rd person. I don’t know why. I don’t plan it that way, but it seems the way my brain functions.

    In the first novel of my YA trilogy, I go back and forth between two characters, sharing their points of view as they both exist in two different worlds and for everything to come together in the end, the two POVs have to take place. I only pray it’s not distracting to the reader. Maybe I need to make shorter chapters. I’m still playing with it.

    • I’m you’ll be fine with two perspectives Jenny! It’s a great way to tell a story of two different places, to have a character in each place with parallel stories that can come together at the end. I hope it goes well!

  9. I’m comfortable with many perspectives. Actually, so far the novels I’ve written have not maintained a single perspective. One alternates between the POVs of the two main characters (Character 1 gets all the odd chapters while Character 2 gets the even ones), another I’ve written from first person perspective, and now the third I’m writing from third person perspective. I suppose it truly depends on what sort of story one is writing!

  10. In this post, Limebirdster makes some great observations and asks some good questions about Point of View. POV can be a slippery slope for writers. I think it’s because we want to tell everyone’s story … it’s hard to stay with just one character. For the most part, we’re probably better off sticking with one POV per scene or chapter. This was the approach I took for my novel Winter Sniper. The story is told in third person omniscient, so that the reader gets inside the heads of several characters.

    There are a few very skilled writers who can “pull off” a POV shift within a single scene or paragraph. A writer like Patrick O’Brian or Richard Harris manages to take the reader from head to head without creating confusion, even on a single page.

    I tried this is recently with the YA novel I’m working on now, The Sea Lord Chronicles. The punctuation may not relay in this post, but the second paragraph is largely in italics to reflect that the POV has shifted from the main character to Professor Hobhouse:

    “Alexander glanced to his right and took some reassurance from the big figure of Biscuit lumping along with Rigley at the reins and Professor Hobhouse wearing a silly floppy hat and goggles, all the while scanning the skies. Hobhouse was undeniably scholarly, yet he had a surprising skill with sword and pistol. Alexander would have bet his Sunday dinner that Hobhouse hadn’t always had his nose buried in a book.

    What he couldn’t see was the death grip the professor had on the saddle pommel. I wouldn’t have thought myself so timid in the air, Hobhouse observed to himself, not for the first time. These flyers take to the skies daily without a thought, so it is perfectly safe. Yet if I should be so lucky to feel the ground under my feet again or the deck of a ship it would take a direct order from the king himself to get me airborne again. He gulped, blinked against the sunlight gleaming off Rigley’s helmet, and tried to ignore his hammering heart.”

    Could it be that writers feel a bit like Hobhouse when we try to be tricky and shift POV?

  11. In the example I used above, the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness, he puts the character’s name, centred in brackets, at the start of any change of POV. Also, he uses a different font for each character (an approach that I haven’t seen before).

  12. Oops, in my previous post that should be “Robert Harris.” That’s what I get for writing comments without having had a second cup of coffee yet. The novel I was thinking of was “Pompeii.”

  13. I have written stories from all perspectives, but I often don’t feel that I do the choosing. The story dictates the POV—that is if I let the story do the talking. The minute I try to bend a story to my will, I find that it begins to die. But I also have to say that I’m a Joyce acolyte. I think The Dubliners is one of the best collections of short stories in the world. It contains the story, “The Dead,” arguably the best short story ever. Joyce’s masterful POV switches are worth studying every day. I swoon, along with Gabriel, whenever I reread it.

    • Stories so have a habit of picking up thier own personalities somehow don’t they? If a new idea won’t fit within your story then it’s probably a new story in itself rather than a part of what you were writing!

  14. I always write in third person, but I write from several characters’ points of view. I find it allows me to bring out the story in a far more full way, so the reader knows everything and understands what’s happening, as it’s happening. Of course I always hold one or two things back for a ‘grand reveal’ at the end as I like shock twists at the end. I’ve tried writing in first person but found it very difficult, although very education for me as a writer.

    • Everyone seems to have thier preferred perspective, I think it comes down to what you want the reader to know. Several narrators frequently give a fuller picture, but then if you want to hold things back throughout the story then sometimes it helps to just have one slightly clueless narrator! A few twists at the end is always a great idea, I love reading something that I just didn’t see coming!

      I’m with you about first person, I find it very difficult! I always hated assignments at uni that had to be written in first person, it took far too much concentration to write that way and then the actual story suffered. But as you say, very educational!

  15. This post made me think of The Poisonwood Bible (http://www.kingsolver.com/books/the-poisonwood-bible.html). Have you ever read it? I couldn’t get through it because I really disliked one of the narrator’s voices to the point that I wanted to skip those chapters! It didn’t work for me. I like to get into the rhythm of one voice.

    • I haven’t read The Poisonwood Bible, but I have read a book where I disliked one of the narrators and actually did skip all of thier chapters! I probably missed some important parts of the story but I just couldn’t make myself read it!

  16. Great post, I find that each piece of writing actually requires quite a bit of thinking about to get the best story. I have actually done re-writes when I think the story requires a different POV. I think this is actually one of the hardest things to settle on with some stories especially when writing a novel. I really enjoyed this piece – more please.

  17. Good post, Ster. One of my all-time pet peeves is when writers (usually amateur ones, but a few pros, too) jump around in perspective all willy-nilly. It’s jarring!

    I understand the desire of 3rd-omniscient writers wanting to give a complete picture, with different points of view. I also understand the allure of 1st-person – the reader gets to know everything in that one person’s head. Both have their limitations and strengths. Personally, I like writing 3rd-person subjective (limited): a narrator privy to one character’s intimate thoughts and emotions. It allows me the best of both worlds (though it comes with many of the associative drawbacks, as well).

  18. I prefer first person because I am grounded in their head the whole novel. Though I did write a two-character alternating first person POV by chapter in another book. Third person always feels more distant and I don’t quite connect with it when writing. I can’t stand POV shifts in scene–as a reader it completely confuses me. If it’s a scene by scene or chapter by chapter I can click with it.

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