MIND MELD: Point of View in Genre Fiction (Part II of II)
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
In writing, point of View matters. So we asked a large handful of authors these questions:
Q: As you see it. What are the strengths and weaknesses, for character, worldbuilding and setting in using 1st or 3rd person (or even 2nd?) Omniscient or limited? And how about the time frame of the tense, past or present or even future?
What kinds of Point of view do you prefer to write in? What types of POV do you like to read?
Note: Due to the large number of responses received, this is Part II of the Mind Meld Part I can be found here.
About a decade ago I had a breakfast meeting in New York with a US editor who’d just bought three of my novels and wanted them slightly re-edited them for the American market. There were a couple of politically tricky points (climate change for global warming, etc) but the main request was that I edit a handful of scenes to make them more obviously from the hero’s point of view. Over coffee she told me she just didn’t get why European writers couldn’t do pov; all that going back and forth between the heads of different characters, often in the same chapter and sometimes the same scene was like watching tennis. She seemed slightly disbelieving when I said we liked it like that. It wasn’t incompetence on the part of European writers, as readers we were used to povs that switched… Recently – within genre – the introduction of a combined US/UK edit – which aims for something that works within both markets – has ironed out loose third and almost abolished omnipotent (at least that’s how it looks to me). For the moment first person and tight third rule.
First person grabs the reader from the off and drags her/him through the action at the same pace as the main character. However, the advantage of first is also its disadvantage; the reader can only know what the main character knows. Single character tight third allows us to wander a little from the character’s shoulder, but action happening elsewhere has to be kept to a minimum.
If you’re a great writer like James Lee Burke (changing to a different genre for a second), then you can combine first, with tight third and occasionally slip into omnipotent, as he does with the Dave Robicheaux novels, but you have to be very good indeed. Multiple tight third, which is what had my US editor ordering extra coffee, allows you some of the freedom of an omnipotent pov without actually using omnipotent.
Having just written a historical novel that alternates between first person present and first person past, sometimes on the same page and often within the same section, depending on how deeply the main character is immersed in the story he’s telling, I think tense is down to what works for that particular novel. Sure, there are rules but they get broken. I remember an editor, a very good UK one, saying he couldn’t imagine epic fantasy written in the first person present. I’m pretty sure a number of people are doing that now.
Jamie lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and two children.
LUKE: A certain point of view?
OBI-WAN KENOBI: Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.
I was thinking of this quote from Return of the Jedi while pondering my response to the question because I think it applies to story-telling. Many of the truths we cling to in a story depend greatly on the point of view from which they are told. In the most general sense, point of view can be thought of as the lens through which we see the story and that lens can go anywhere and do anything. Part of the art of story-telling is to give limits to that lens in order to increase tension and make a better story. With those limits in place, we have our “truth” at any given moment in time.
So for me, point of view is a mechanism for increasing tension in a story. It isn’t the only mechanism, but it is a useful one, especially if tension doesn’t exist in other places. And remember that point of view is about a character or characters in the story and so point of view must be considered from each. In a first person story, you the reader knows only what the narrator is willing to tell you. This provides opportunities for increased tension because you don’t know what ‘s behind that closed door, just as the narrator doesn’t know. The same might be true for a close third person point of view.
But that is not the only way point of view can increase tension. More omniscient view points can increase tension in the story by giving information to the reader that one character has but another character does not. We might know that Paul is walking into a trap because we’ve already been in the head of the character who set the trap, but Paul doesn’t know that.
Point of view also stakes out our distance from the story. First person puts us right in the story as if we were one of the characters in the book. We see everything through the narrator’s eyes. In second person, we are also a character in the book, but a character at a slight distance from the narrator. There is an important but subtle difference between first and second person point of view. In first person, I (the narrator) can be telling you (the reader) a story that happened, as if we were sitting around a table gabbing. I (the narrator) took part in the events I am describing, but you (the reader) did not; you are simply hearing them from me. In second person, you (the reader) are being told a story, not as a reader, but as a character in the story. That said, I’ve seen few second person stories that couldn’t have been told better from another point of view.
Third person provides the greatest distance. In third person, we are an audience and it is the closest thing we have to watching a TV show, movie, or play.
As a reader, the best possible point of view is the one best suited to generating the requisite pitch of tension in the story. I find that this is either a first person story (where I only know what the narrator tells me); or a third person story with multiple points of view. Those points of view can play off one another to increase tension (think of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books). Stories that are third person with only a single point of view are a step lower on the tension ladder for me. And second person stories are the lowest on the rung because once I have been brought into the story, I find it much harder to suspend my disbelief.
As a writer, I prefer first person. First person is often considered the easiest form to write in because you are writing as if it is you telling the story. I disagree. First person gives me the opportunity to be an actor as opposed to myself. It seems to me that an actor does not act in the third person and what makes a character believable is the actor’s ability to become the character. I think the same is true for writing.
As for time and tense, I tell stories, and, for me at least, stories have generally happened when I’m telling them. With a few exceptions, I prefer to use the past tense in telling a story. I just sounds more natural to me. I enjoy reading stories in present tense but I don’t enjoy writing them as much. To me, a story in present tense is happening now as opposed to being about events that happened earlier. I find present tense most useful in more complicated stories, as a device to indicate a shift in time from a present telling and past actions (or flashbacks).
What it all amounts to, for me, is the equivalent of how a director wants you to see the finished film. I suspect that our use of point of view in popular literature has been influenced (to a greater or lesser degree) by movies and television. I suspect that this is where some of the immediacy of present tense comes from, because movies happen as we see them and flashbacks are generally clearly semaphored.
As you see it. What are the strengths and weaknesses, for character, worldbuilding and setting in using 1st or 3rd person (or even 2nd?) Omniscient or limited?
I love the immediacy of first person, and I think that readers love it too. Some of the greatest literature ever is in first person — Moby Dick, Jane Eyre, among others — and none of those books ever get criticized for too narrow a point of view. I have noticed, however, that in modern first person, the focus on the main character can detract from a wider look at the world. I think it’s difficult to write immersive fantasy or science fiction in first person. I sometimes wonder if it’s not an easy way out for authors unless they take special care to really grow their world, their secondary and other characters, and their plot.
Having said that, I write such close third person that it’s practically first person anyway. My characters think a lot, and what they think, I write. I often use multiple point of view characters and like to get in the heads of all of them, something which is difficult with one character in first person. But I think it can be done; I just haven’t done it. And it’s important that it’s not a trick or a writer being too fancy with the tools; it has to work for the story. One of the best uses of first person in a multi-viewpoint book was The Jane Austen Book Club.
Omniscient pov is one of those stylistic tricks that has fallen out of favor with modern readers and writers, much like the epistolary novel has. I don’t know why it’s considered old-fashioned and Not Done, but it is. Even head-hopping, which is widely accepted in the romance genre, is very different from omniscient, because even though the author Knows All, the author doesn’t let the reader know everything.
And how about the time frame of the tense, past or present or even future?
I’m a pretty traditional storyteller, so I use third person, simple past.
What kinds of Point of view do you prefer to write in? What types of POV do you like to read?
I mostly write in third person because I like to write from the perspective of several characters. I’ve been writing some recent short work in first person, which has been fun because it’s different. I can explore different ways to tell a story. Also, the immediacy of first person lets me jump right into storytelling. Sometimes the story cries out for one particular voice. I have changed from one to the other if the story isn’t working out, and if it clicks, I know I did the right thing.
I have never rejected a novel based on whether an author has chosen first or third person in which to tell a story. Second person doesn’t do it for me though. I might not quit reading it outright, but it always feels like a party trick.
anthologies. Five Star Speculative Fiction published her first novel, The Z Radiant. She dreams awake, has visions asleep, and enjoys tea
and artful cocktails while living in Austin, TX with well-groomed cats. For more about her fiction, visit www.storyrain.com.
The strengths of first person pov for the writer are a certain ease of voice, I think, especially if the pov character is compelling for you. Character conveys strongly through first person–at least pov character does. World building can be a little trickier, but a loquacious first person character conveys his/her/its particular sense of a world and the other beings in it pretty readily. It’s kind of like critter cam, though–it gives you a view of the world from a very specific and limited perspective. A good writer uses that perspective to tell the reader more about the world than the pov character is conscious of knowing.
I think the ease of first person pov, however, is also the potential weakness and limitation of it–that ease can lead to a shallowness in a book overall, to a kind of running at the mouth that isn’t necessarily conducive to depth or care in story telling. I think that’s especially true of first person pov present tense. It can be very compelling, both to write and to read, but mostly I find it too facile for my own fiction writing. The same applies to reading it–I’ve enjoyed quite a few things written first person present tense, but after too many narratives in that mode I find myself longing for something with more heft and depth. Most of my favorite books, the ones I’ve read more than once, have been in third person, either third person limited or omniscient. First person rarely has the depth to draw me back for a second read–unless I really love the first person pov character’s voice.
There are always exceptions. I’ve read Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy many times (as just one for instance) and that’s first person–in past tense, not present tense, though. There’s an ephemerality to first person present tense that just lacks gravitas. It’s fun for snack reading, but only occasionally rises to the level of deeply satisfying repast. Storytelling’s natural mode is past tense–’this happened to me’ or ‘this happened to her/him/them/.’ Past tense implies a passage of time, a weight of life and reflection, a patina of importance–’this happened and it was important enough to remember and to tell you the tale.’ Plenty of writers whose work I love have written in present tense, I’m by no means slamming it or saying it’s never good–but it seldom feels natural to me as a writer. When it does, it can be a very powerful tool–this story is happening, is unfolding now and you, the reader/writer, are in it. But that very same urgency can be exhausting, and again, it’s not conducive to depth or reflection in a work.
(Second person can work in short form, but is seldom more than an experiment, useful and interesting, but not something that maintains well–for writer or reader–at novel length. The only piece I’ve ever really liked and enjoyed in second person is Carlos Fuentes’ AURA.)
Third person, for me, as both a writer and a reader, is the strongest pov, and third person past tense the strongest mode of all. It is the most flexible, powerful–yet intimate–vantage from which to enter and navigate through a story. As a reader I often find a limited third person pov more compelling and intimate than an omniscient pov. A good trusty third person pov is like home. And while I’ve enjoyed third person pov in present tense, past tense feels deeper and more textured to me, as both a reader and as a writer.
Omniscient, of course, when done right, is the mode for a lot of what are acknowledged to be our great works of literature. What third person omniscient allows for is a larger framing construction–of whatever philosophy is particular to a work–to support and permeate the story, the world, the characters’ lives; but this also means that third person omniscient often feels a little more distant and cooler than a close-in limited third. It depends on what the framing philosophy is, and how it informs the omniscient voice. Being able to describe a world from every vantage within and without it is a powerful tool, more ultimately flexible than any other mode of storytelling. There are novels I want to write that require an omniscient third person, but those are novels I’m not ready to write; I aspire to the sort of omniscient third person pov that opens a world wide and deep, from great sweeps of history and events to intimate moments and touches. Omniscience without sacrifice of intimacy and warmth is what I admire most.
It always comes down to what serves a particular story best; as a writer I think it’s good to challenge my own comfort zone, so I’ve attempted the modes less natural me, and will continue to do so when it seems like that works for the story. As a reader I’ve enjoyed all combinations of pov and tense, but my home comfort happy zone is still trusty past tense third person limited pov.
The importance of point of view in written fiction cannot be underestimated – it’s one of those surprisingly complex factors that has both obvious and hidden components, and certainly there is a lot about point of view and how it works that I never noticed until I started to write novel-length fiction myself. Point of view, it seems, is a sneaky sod.
An argument can be made for first-person to be the strongest when it comes to characterization, because you’re inside the head of one of the characters, maybe even more than one, seeing what they see, hearing what they think as the events of the narrative unfold. This access to a character’s own mind can make for some fascinating writing styles as well – The Wowzer, by Frank Wheeler Jr, is told from the first-person point of view of Jerry, a county sheriff’s deputy in the Ozarks region of Arkansas, and as a result the whole book is told in a very regional patois. Admittedly, this can be a barrier for some readers, but one that, once overcome, can result in a very satisfying reading experience.
However, I think you can achieve much of the same level of characterization with a third-person limited point of view, one centred on a single character – we still hear their thoughts, learn how they see the world and what happens in it, but we’re hovering over them, watching, rather than sitting inside their head for the ride.
In fact, third person can really allow for a much broader view of the world and character – if we’re not limited to the point of view of a single person, we can move around and see what else is going on, becoming privy to the thoughts, motivations and needs of many characters. Unless a first-person narrative moves between different characters within the same book, we’re limited to one world view.
And actually, one of my favourite books this year did just that – The Testimony by James Smythe tells an apocalyptic horror story through no fewer than twenty-six first-person point of view characters, each retelling their own tale of what happened when they heard a voice saying “My children, do no be afraid.” What follows is a terrifying political thriller, of sorts, but – as a writer myself – whenever I stopped to consider what Smythe had managed to construct, my mind boggled: twenty-six points of view is twenty-six unique characters to provide voice to. That’s no mean feat, but Smythe – somehow! – pulls it off.
Third-person limited (i.e., single-character) point of view seems pretty popular at the moment, and for good reason. As a reader, we follow one character, learning about the world and the plot along with him/her/it, which makes us feel a part of the story. As readers we connect emotionally with the text, which is kinda the whole point.
Third-person omniscient used to be popular (someone will correct me on this), but it seems a little old-fashioned now. Certainly the books I read growing up seemed to be, on reflection, mostly third-person omniscient. Third-person omniscient is a different thing, I think to a third-person limited point of view that moves between characters – that might sound like I’m tripping up over definitions, but I think third-person limited still applies to a book where we get that character-based point of view, just from more than one character – it’s still “limited” to one character at a time.
Which brings me to head-hopping. I swear, the bulk of my first-pass edit on a new book is to fix head-hopping point of view! I write in third-person limited, although (as I describe above) I move the point-of-view around between chapters. Head-hopping is when the point of view switches characters between paragraphs, during one continuous scene or action without a break. To a lot of readers, this is jarring – suddenly we’re seeing the scene from another point of view – and generally it doesn’t work; when I stumble across it, it sets my teeth on edge… especially if it’s in my own work!
Having said that, another of my favourite books, The Five by Robert McCammon, is full of head-hopping. Which just proves that golden rule of writing – if it works, it works. And I’m not going to argue with Robert McCammon!
In terms of my own preferred reading, I really don’t mind – I like variety, and again it goes back to that golden rule I mentioned above. I haven’t read Rule 34 by Charles Stross yet, but I know that’s written in second person. I actually love second person, but for obvious reasons it’s exceedingly difficult to pull off. I once wrote a second-person short story, but that was only 500 words, which I think was long enough. For Stross to write an entire novel in second person… well, my hat is off to him!
Tense and point of view are connected, I think – past tense is the most common form, and is what I write in. I have tried to write in present tense, but found that it required a conscious effort to keep it that way – after a prolonged writing session, I checked back and discovered I’d slipped back into past tense without even thinking about it. Present tense gives a sense of pace and urgency to a book, which is no bad thing, although I get the feeling that it doesn’t really allow for pause and reflection, which past tense does. But again, some of my favourite books are present tense – Zoo City by Lauren Beukes and Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig, to name just two. And in fact, the former is first person present tense, while the latter is third person present tense. Both are compelling works worthy of your time, but mostly importantly, both styles work.
I talk about point of view with the smart, cool fifth- and sixth-graders whom I teach–eleven and twelve years old, and they get the basics and go far beyond them. When we first start writing fiction, we’re usually drawn to the first-person pov: that’s the most familiar from schoolwork, and it feels less risky at a time when we’re already taking several risks just by creating a story. But with experience we learn first person’s limitations and yearn to leave them behind. A first person narrative can make it really hard to show your readers anything the narrator doesn’t know. We like to identify closely with the narrators we read; we’re not omniscient, so the narrators shouldn’t be either if we’re going to feel kinship with them. Yet a non-omniscient first person narrator won’t be able to tell your readers certain things…things they may really need to know.
True omniscient third persons are a rarity these days, though a frequent strategy of the Victorian fiction I read for relaxation. Close third person is pretty much the current default, and that’s what my students and I spend the most time on. It’s as intimate as first but allows an author that smidgen of distance that helps you to realize you are writing as if you were someone else.
Of course then you have to make sure that character has enough access to events and background that it works for you to recount things from their viewpoint. With some kinds of stories–science fiction and mysteries in particular–that’s a difficult choice: how much knowledge is too little? Too much?
One strategy available more to novelists than to those working in short forms is switching it up: writing different chapters or portions of a book from the viewpoint of different characters. Or in different narrative voices, even: first person, different thirds. I’ve done this in short stories, too, but it tends to be frowned on and labeled as experimental. (I got news for you, folks: It’s *all* experimental. I’m constantly trying stuff out.)
The first novel I finished (it’s not yet published; an editor is–I hope–reading it) has two viewpoint characters. Both are clones of a single person. Passages narrated by the older clone, Panther, are written in close third person, in the past tense. Passages narrated by the younger clone, Mo Kree, are written in first person, in the present tense. I did this because Mo Kree has a deeply damaged understanding of how time passes, and her inner experience of the world around her is a central concern of the novel, while Panther’s understanding is much more like consensus reality. To make my book (It’s called The Blazing World, after Margaret Cavendish’s novel) commercially viable I then added a foreword in second person future. Yeah. I’m holding my breath.
As I said earlier, I read Victorian fiction for relaxation. If it’s not first person it is frequently omniscient third. I like that, probably because I have no idea how to pull it off. Look out–I feel more experiments coming on.
Lots of people ask me why I chose to write one protagonist of The Whitefire Crossing in 1st person and the other in 3rd person limited. Why risk alienating readers? Wouldn’t it have been better to write dual 1st person narratives, or else stick to traditional 3rd?
Either of those might have been the safer choice, but I’m convinced it wouldn’t have been the better choice. Not for this story, and not for me as an author. As for why…the answer lies within the strengths and weaknesses of 1st and 3rd person POV (as I see them).
I adore 1st person for snarky, opinionated, highly active characters. Cat in Joan Vinge’s Psion, Gen in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, Valen in Carol Berg’s Flesh and Spirit…protagonists who may be clever, but who are outward-focused and rarely spend a lot of time in introspection. I personally find that when you’re in someone’s head as deeply as first person allows, it’s all too easy for the narrative to get bogged down into a morass of indecision and angst if the character is an introvert by nature. That’s not to say 1st person can’t be used for quieter characters – goodness knows I’ve seen it done beautifully (e.g. Anne in Carol Berg’s The Soul Mirror) – but I think it’s much harder to pull off.
It’s also a lot harder to keep secrets in 1st person without the reader feeling cheated. Again, you can do it – Megan Whalen Turner’s YA novel The Thief is a stellar example – but wow is it hard. (Honestly, I can think of few other novels besides Turner’s that pull it off well.)
For my own novel, I wanted the closeness of 1st person for my sardonic, scheming mountain guide; but I wanted the greater emotional distance of 3rd person limited for my traumatized, secretive young mage. That allowed me to capitalize on the strengths of both POV choices while keeping the narrative moving briskly along. It worked so well for me (and I had so much fun writing both POVs) that I’m happily continuing on with the same dual-POV scheme for Whitefire’s sequel The Tainted City without a single qualm.
But whenever you choose to use POVs besides straightforward 3rd person limited-past, you’ve got to accept that you’ll alienate some readers. Some people hate 1st; some can’t stand present tense. (1st-person present is hugely popular these days in YA, and for good reason; often it works quite well to provide a breathless sense of immediacy to the story.) I myself grind my teeth when reading 3rd-person omniscient with rapid “head-hopping” – it drives me absolutely crazy.
But I firmly believe authors shouldn’t worry about what readers may or may not think. Go with what your gut says the story needs. After all, if nobody took risks, we wouldn’t end up with books like Genevieve Valentine’s stunning Mechanique – which shifts fluidly between a variety of POVs and tenses, and is all the more wonderful for it.
You can play all kinds of games with viewpoint, and completely change the direction and tone of a story by changing the identity and mode of the character who tells it.
For me, the most intimate mode is third person limited. I find that most transparent, though it has its own quirks (on which more below). First person would seem to be the most direct way to get into a story, wouldn’t it? But it’s not. As soon as your narrator uses that “I,” there’s a filter between the reader and the story, namely, the personality and viewpoint of the person telling it. Third person removes the filter, so it’s just the reader and the character–though the author can and will create a bias through word choice and selection of details, reactions, etc. And then there’s the gender question, which can get rather complicated rather fast.
Second person is weird. It’s not standard, so there’s that little jerk of “Whoa, huh?” It’s nonstandard for a reason. When the viewpoint is “you,” there’s a sense of peremptoriness about it. “You go out. You see a light in the sky.” As a reader, my reaction is, “What if I don’t wanna? Do I still have to?”
Same applies to future tense. It catches the reader up short, and gets in the way of the direct experience of the story. “Urglbl will go to the place of the people and there look up at the sky.” Hesheit will? What if hesheit decides not to?
Present tense in our literary tradition is kind of showy. It comes in trailing hot pink marabou and declaring it’s so trendy, dahling. It’s trying to be immediate but it draws just a little too much attention to itself. Used well, in just the right story, it’s very effective. Mostly, the author is better off using plain old past tense. It’s transparent, it’s low-key, it lets the story do the talking.
Which brings us back to the handy third-person narrator. Omniscient used to be all the rage–”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”–but our headlong, rapid-fire, aggressively casual culture is more comfortable with a tighter focus. Everybody’s on a first-name basis, and we like our characters to be right up front and in deep. We also, rather oddly considering how ADD we mostly are, prefer to stay in one head at a time, and not jump around within a scene or even a chapter. Maybe it’s our one bit of stability in a constantly shifting world.
The thing about third person is, it can be tricky. It’s a little bit of work for the author to stay in that one person’s head, and not to slip outside or forget what that person can perceive or know. It’s also a challenge, if writing in a world or culture not our own, and if writing a character who isn’t a straight-out surrogate for the author, to inhabit that character’s entire culture and world view. That means not imposing our own views on the character. Not judging what the character does and what she thinks. Viewing the world as she views it–no matter how unreliable or biased she may be, and no matter how repellent her views may be to our own culture.
That’s really hard. Many writers aren’t even aware that they’re making judgments. They’re just assuming that their views and attitudes are universal, and taking for granted that all worlds and cultures will share those views. So you get anti-slavery crusaders in Republican Rome, when such a thing would not have been thinkable, or religious skeptics living in perfect safety in the heart of medieval France. Because, you know, that’s how everyone thinks and talks and feels.
But everybody doesn’t–then or now. As for those medieval skeptics, if they said the wrong thing to the wrong people, they could end up in serious trouble. Of the burned at the stake kind. And the people who did it to them would feel perfectly justified, because the word of God was the word of God, and these skeptics were challenging the fundamental principle of the world.
And then there’s another thing that third person can do for or to you, that can create a whole range of problems or challenges. The gender of the character will affect how the author writes him or her, and how the reader perceives that character. Just by changing the gender, the whole tone can change in the perception of the reader. Even a simple line– “X burst into tears”–conveys different cultural signals depending on whether it’s a male character or a female one. (With further layers depending on the world and setting–in the Middle Ages, tears were a manly thing, and the bold knight would weep copiously in situations in which a modern male would be more likely to go all steely-jawed and silent, or else put a fist through the wall.)
That’s where first person offers an out, and an advantage. It also presents an opportunity. You can set up your “I” in such a way that the gender cues given are in fact those of the opposite gender–thereby messing with readers’ preconceptions and either creating a surprise ending or leaving the gender ambiguous. It’s a good way to challenge assumptions, and to make readers stop and think and examine how they perceive gender.
That works especially well with aliens, but it’s effective for human characters as well. If a character is not gender-normative, or is in transition, third-person pronouns can really get in the way. They set up such strong expectations in such a rigid framework of cultural assumptions, and it’s so distracting to invent a new set of pronouns, that it can make more sense, and be more transparent, to go with first person.
I really think it comes down to being aware–understanding what viewpoint is, and how different angles affect the ways in which a story comes through to the reader. It’s a good idea to shake things up, too: change from third to first, or change (or mix up or remove) the gender of a character, to see what that does to the story. Sometimes it can shed a
much clearer light on the characters and the situation, and wake up both the author and
the reader to a different way of looking at the world and the people in it.
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