Friday, July 10, 2009

POV - Yours, Mine, His, Hers...

Point of view is the foundation of your novel, how your imaginative story is told to the reader. It can keep your ideas focused or, if used incorrectly, can clutter and confuse the plotline, pacing, and goals. If you want the reader to actively take part in your story, you need to give POV your undivided attention.

First, understand the different approaches to POV. Type those three little words into any search engine and you will have more than enough reading material to wade through in this lifetime and the next. You will also have multiple definitions, enough to make the newbie author throw down her pen in despair. Browne and King in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers pare it down to three approaches: First person, omniscient, and third person.

In first person your story is told from the point of view of one character, usually the main. This is the "I" story. It gives the reader a deep intimacy with your heroine (or hero, depending on which character is chosen to tell the story). If you decide on this strategy, you have to remember that your main character must be strong (and quirky?) enough to carry the entire novel. He or she will be front and center and your reader will be living that viewpoint. Not exactly the best for a romance, but it can be done (Stephanie Bond's My Favorite Mistake does it very well).

Omniscient viewpoint is the exact opposite of first person. This is the storyteller, as Elizabeth George explains in Write Away. The narrator knows all and relays that information to the reader. The strategy allows for a huge perspective in telling your story, but it lacks an intimacy. And in romance, what is there if there is no intimacy? Readers want to enter a world unlike their own, experience events unlike any they would, or experience them in a way they would never dare. They want to feel for the hero and heroine.

Third person point of view can give the reader just that. It allows the reader inside the head of your character, experiencing the story through thought, emotion and action. It gives you, the author, the opportunity to let your character take an active part in the telling of your story. Third person is the most used point of view in the romance genre. Think of it in movie terms - the camera is the character telling the story. What does she see, hear, taste, and feel? It's all about her, from her terminology to her observations, from her insecurities to her passions. The reader is immersed in that story.

Because third person is the most widely used vehicle for telling a romance, here are a few guidelines, questions, and violations you, the author, should keep in mind. First, decide how many stories you are trying to tell. Tara K. Harper suggests that if you have two main characters (and every romance has a hero and heroine), you then have two stories. That would translate into two points of view - no more. Then decide which scenes belong to which character. The main character in that scene is the one taking an active part, the one telling the story, the one with the most at stake.

Remember, that third person does not restrict you to only that character - although, I have hinted at that. Your point of view character has the power of observation. Robert J. Sawyer said it best "…emotions are usually betrayed by outward signs." Is your hero angry, but you are unable to tell the reader that because it is not his scene? Then have your heroine observe his anger. His jaw clenched tightly, his hands balled into fists, his eyes narrowed, his voice lowered an octave - all signs easily interpreted by your main character giving your reader insight into the other character's state of mind during that scene. Alison Kent reiterates the idea, suggesting that by showing another character's feelings through the eyes of the observer, the author is providing the reader "…an emotional identification with both characters…" and, thereby, eliminating the need for giving two points of view per scene.

Spend an hour or two on one scene from your novel. How many points of view have you used? Rework it so that it is told from one perspective only. Now, look at it closely. Browne and King suggest making your POV clear at the very beginning of a scene, bringing the reader on board immediately and getting your scene off to a quick, sharp start. Elizabeth George suggests that your character's tone and voice should shine through, use relevant words and terminology (Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible is an amazing example of tone and voice). Now, check out your viewpoint character's actions. If he or she spends most of the time within the scene reflecting on others' actions, then maybe you need to rethink the passage. And, lastly, look for emotional tags that have no place in the scene where you main character is front and center. If the reader is in the character's head, then there is no need for "she felt, she thought, she wondered". 'She felt a shiver of apprehension whisper over her skin' is more simply conveyed with 'A shiver of apprehension whispered over her skin'.

Point of view is a huge topic with a multiple range of definitions, guidelines, suggestions, and opinions. Most good "How to…" books dedicate full chapters to point of view. Most writing websites have point of view topics, exercises, and even message board discussions. The wealth of information available to authors is vast. Take the time to study point of view, including how your favorite authors deal with the issue, what you learn will only enhance your writing and make your story that much better. Writers as artists literally draw pictures with words and effective point of view makes the image much more vivid.

So, People of Blogland, how do you approach point of view? Have you written exclusively in third person or have you tried your hand at first person? Do you stick to main characters only or do you bring in a secondary character to give a different perspective to your story? Are you guilty of Head Hopping?



Captain Hook said...

Great post, Janet!

POV problems were my worst failure when I first started writing. I used third person almost exclusively then and headhopped like a maniac. So I started limiting myself to first person only.

Using first person really helped me learn what can be seen, felt and told through the POV character. Once I had that down pat, I switched back to third person. Since the switch back, I've almost never had the problem with headhopping that I had before.

As to which I use now, most of my WIPs are in third person with between 2-6 POV characters, but I do have a few WIPs that are first person. I even have one (Do Over) that switches back and forth from first person (the FMC as an adult) to third (the FMC as a teenager).

Hayley E. Lavik said...

I don't think I had too much trouble with headhopping when I first started writing, but I did wander out of character pov now and then. In my older fiction, I think things were more omniscient. When I started Eventide, I knew I wanted the one pov, but sometimes I might overlook the difference between describing someone else's body cues and describing their inner emotion, or between a character looking at the protag, and the protag seeing them look.

I think you know my views on pov pretty well, Janet. I have no problem with multiple narrators if it's done well, but it's so often not (alas, one of the downsides of fantasy, wandering into everyone and the dog's viewpoint) so I tend to grow suspicious if an author jumps a lot in the beginning of the book. I don't mind secondary characters coming in as narrators (more uncertain about villains, again they get used poorly) if the character's pov is worthwhile, but often I find it's just a way to have a third party wax about the main characters since they can't rightly praise themselves in their own narrative. On the other hand, though, I've read some excellent short stories (few novels) where narration flowed somewhat between past and present tense, and different 'persons' in a manner that felt a lot like oral story telling.

And of course, I'm in the midst of exploring first person for essentially the first time. It's been really pleasant to write, and the effect on my protag is really striking, but in other ways it's like starting from scratch again. Just as I didn't always notice the differences between limited third pov and omniscient (as I mentioned above), now sometimes I don't catch the problem with something that sounds more third than first. That'll come with time though.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
Excellent post! Like Captain and Hayley, I think using more than the standard 2 POVs (hero/heroine) is okay, as long as it's done well. I've also read a couple that slip from first person to third for different characters. I think a lot of ways of doing POV are possible if they're well done. That's the kicker.

Generally I stick with two POVs, although I will switch to a secondary character briefly if the situation calls for it. However, I do try to stay with one POV per scene. Whenever I've slipped into another POV it's usually been unintentional, something I find frightenly easy to do.

I try to avoid head-hopping. I don't like it in other writers (perhaps with the exception of Nora Roberts, but then she can do no wrong). I find it really confusing. Who's head are we in? Did he think that or did she? We lose the intimacy with the characters and their deep feelings.


Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Janet, I don't have a habit of head hopping although occasionally I'll do it just to keep my critique partners (CP) on their toes. :)

I have a tendancy to add thoughts I think belong to my character but my CP or a contest judge say it's the narrator's POV and shouldn't be there.

Plus, I read once where a writer likes to use 2nd person POV to throw her readers off balance in short stories. I had to look this up but I understand it's when everthing is 'you do this' or 'you did that' as opposed to 'I did this' as in 1st person or 'she did that' as in 3rd person.

My preference is 3rd person. I usually stick to 2 POV's although with this suspense, I'm dancing around the thought of using a 3rd POV for the antagonist.

Excellent post, Janet.

Ban said...

My main WiP is in 3rd but, as Hayley said, I have the tendency to throw in some omniscient - when I go back to edit, I'm sure I'm gonna find truck loads of examples ... :(
Personally I enjoy 3rd person with multiple PoVs in fantasy (though not exclusively) as there are usually more than one 'main' character and there are usually overlapping plots.
Oh, and Hayley, I love this line: "but often I find it's just a way to have a third party wax about the main characters since they can't rightly praise themselves in their own narrative." That is soooo true but I find it even more so in Romance where the author tries to build up the beauty of the heroine or the rugged good looks of the hero :D I won't deny I've fallen into that trap a few times myself - it's just such a temptation !!!
All that said, I do have a few side stories that came to me as first person, which I notice, has become quite popular as of late ...

Janet C. said...

Great idea, Captain. I like the idea of using first person to really get the feel of POV (intimate, up close, personal) and then going back to third with much more confidence and ability. Thanks for the tip. I know I used that for writing my query letter - writing the short blurb from Lady Bells POV really helped me narrow down the important events that would intrigue an agent. Never thought of using it to become a better writer, period.

I don't think you've mentioned Do Over before. The switching back and forth sounds like it would be a perfect fit for a memoir-type novel. I've read books with different POVs - most noteably Sue Monk's The Mermaid's Chair where the POV switched from the heroine in first to the hero in third - and have loved them.

Janet C. said...

You're lucky you were never a 'head-hopper', Hayley. My first draft of Lady Bells had everyone (and the dog, ha) involved in the telling. To really focus that down into two main characters was really, really hard - but a learning opportunity.

Interesting you mentioned the third person usually granted a voice in novels - the villain. I believe most writers use that character to bring the reader up to speed on the mystery/suspense that's taking place outside the main characters' life. Most times, I enjoy the experience, especially if the villain is extremely corrupt/despicable (what can I say?). I toyed with writing my antagonist's view point - but then used my main characters to portray the nastiness that happened in the past.

I can't wait to really sit down with Alkaia and read your revisions in first person. I have the stuff you sent to me on my laptop, ready to go when I get finished packing and no longer have Internet. I'm sure by the time I get back to you, you'll have moved past that point and my critique will be useless - but that's ok, I still plan on doing it. And I believe your 'voice' is perfect for first person :)

Janet C. said...

We lose the intimacy...

Great comment, Jana. When we get deep into a character's POV, we become intimate with them. That is a reading experience! And I believe with that we become deeply connected with the character - in fact, those books that I love are ones where the POV is powerful.

And that comes back to your point of a writer doing something well - that's brilliance.

Janet C. said...

Hey, Anita. It's hard to distance ourselves as narrators when that really is what we are. But our thoughts/tirades are not warranted in a work of fiction. I need to remind myself of that on many occasions as I get on a soapbox and pretend it's my heroine with the issue :)

I'm interested in your decision about giving your antagonist a view point. Hayley mentioned villains, and I replied stating that when it's done well, it's memorable. Is your choice based on trying to show the suspense as opposed to telling us? Will it advance your plot? Does it allow you to plant some red herrings that may otherwise be absent without this person's POV? And lastly - will your reader know that this is the antagonist (ie - are you naming your 'bad guy' right off the bat, or is it a Whodunnit)? Looking forward to your answers - I love to hear how others come at a project, like I said yesterday, learning how their creative juices flow.

Janet C. said...

Ah, editing! What we find when we go back and read what we've written, eh, ban?

Interesting that you mentioned the popularity of first person, ban. I've noticed on a lot of young adult authors' blogs that the trend seems to be first person. Speaking with Lesley-Anne McLeod at one of our SRW meetings, she mentioned the move in regengy from a more omniscent view point to third person. And, forgive me if I'm wrong, but that seems to be how literary fiction has evolved. Will we begin to see more first person in adult fiction as the trend transcends genre? Do you think the popularity of memoir will have the same influence on genre fiction? First person is very intimate, more so than third - so as we move toward a more 'me' society, will our POV reflect that culture?

Oh, this is getting very philosophical! But I'm interested in what others think of this theory - come on, what else do you have to do on a Friday afternoon in July? (Not you particularly, ban - the general you who would be reading and commenting here on The Chicks)

Hope the weather has improved, ban, and you're enjoying your rustic locale :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Janet, re my antagonist's POV. You said, '...are you naming your 'bad guy' right off the bat, or is it a Whodunnit)?'

That's exactly what I'm looking at:

If the reader is being distracted by trying to figure out who the antagonist is, then they're not concentrating on the romance but the mystery.

Or, if the reader already knows the antagonist is living right there with the family, will the reader have an emotional tie to the H/h and try to communicate with them who the antagonist is? IE - Will the reader be thinking, 'Look in the box' or 'Don't drink that,' or whatever?

My wip is a suspense and I actually think the latter will be more suspenseful for the reader but when I discussed this with my hubby, he just shrugged.

What do you think?

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Janet.. and Anita :) Popping back since I can't resist a good discussion about villains.

I've often found that throwing in a villains pov (again this is referring to fantasy genre and poorly executed versions) kills the suspense rather than ups it. Some books I've read where you get the villain's pov are situations where the only reason you're worried about the main characters is because you've already overheard the Evil Plan and you're the only one that's fearful, as opposed to being fearful alongside the protagonist.

Villains (and antagonists) can be damn fine point of view characters to explore, but I think it depends on a handful of things.. for my preferences at least. A villain's pov scenes need to be more than examples of evil doings, plots plotted, or explanation of motivations, they should exist in the plot the same as any other worthwhile pov character. Likewise I like a villain that offers more than a glimpse into a vile mindset, I like to spend my time in the pov of another human being, who also happens to be a murdering psychopath (watch/read American Psycho for a great example of that). And by the same token of finding the villain human rather than an evil caricature, I like to be challenged a little, to teeter on that line where I start to think maybe, just maybe the villain's view is valid and justified, and I can understand where they're coming from...even if they did shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

Of course, villains that just plain ooze charismatic, irrevocable evil are deliciously fantastic as well, but I find they're harder to enjoy in their own point of view. Better to revel in the moments they appear and dominate the scene, even though you're technically rooting for their downfall.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Blast.. Anita I meant to offer my opinion on your pov options in there as well, but you know me and villains :p

Personally I would vote for a Whodunnit, and give us the villain's pov without realizing it. As I rambled, I think a villain's pov can be great if they're a believable person, rather than a black-caped caricature. If we don't know who the villain is, lurking in several narrative points of view and growing suspicious of several possible suspects could be a lot of fun.

Just my two cents.. and of course this is without much familiarity with the suspense genre.

Suse said...

Wow, this is what I get for coming late to the discussion. There are so many things to comment on.

I like reading first person and third person pov, and I'm okay if they happen in the same book as long as each scene or chapter is limited to one pov.

It's interesting that you mentioned Elizabeth George - I just finished reading her Careless in Red novel. She had at least 6 pov characters, all 3rd person. At first I had trouble keeping all the characters straight until I figured out their role in the story.

I also just finished Red Hot Lies by Laura Caldwell. The heroine's pov was 1st person and everyone else's was 3rd. By doing this, I think Caldwell emphasized who was the main character in this novel.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a YA novel in 1st person and I quite liked it. In any romances that I've written, I've always stuck to 2 povs, hero and heroine, in 3rd person.

With this new book I'm contemplating, it will be more than a romance, so I haven't totally decided how this one will play out. I think I might experiment with the heroine in 1st person, and the other characters in 3rd. But since I'm only in the planning stages, I don't have to make a decision just yet.

Now to get philosophical, I wonder if YA in particular and some adult novels are popular in 1st person because people don't spend a lot of time with each other in person, but rather connect through text messaging, IMing, etc. Maybe they need to connect more intimately with their characters because of this, or maybe that's how they do feel they connect with their friends in the techno age.

Anita, I like the idea that the reader knows the antagonist is living with the family, and they'll be "watching out" for the hero and heroine. It might be a fine line that you draw though to keep the suspense up while moving the romance forward. Will your reader stick with the story if she knows too much, or will she stick with the story because she really cares what happens to the hero and heroine?

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hi Hayley - I will be giving my antagonist character traits which I hope will endear the reader to him/her. :)

My problem is that I've never written a suspense before and don't want the 'mystery' to be the main focus of the book. I've already deleted a character which leaves me with 5 to play around with. To make it a true whodunit, I'd have to add more characters not less. But that would dilute the story.

Better watch it, Hayley, or I'll be sending it you for Beta reading. *evil laugh*

Janet C. said...

Just got back from work and discovered a great discussion taking place! I think, Anita, that finding the true nature of your story will help to decide the POV question. Like you said, this is a romance so you don't want the mystery to overshadow the h/h getting together for their HEA. That being said, you want to entice the reader into turning those pages in true suspense fashion. What to do?

I like that the antagonist is close to the family - and agree with Hayley that they should have some endearing qualities that make the reader believe for a brief moment that maybe, just maybe, this person is really a good person. I think (and remember, this is my opinion only) that when an antagonist is known to the reader, and the author has created intriguing, heart jumping scenes, that the reader will bite her finger nails in suspense of "Don't open the door!"

But, as a reader, I also love to solve the mystery - even in romance. I love red herrings. And I love going back and skimming over the book to catch all those darn hints I missed the first time around (a tale layered with teases that could go unnoticed or could give the reader another clue in the whodunnit question).

I'm such a fence sitter. Either way, you need to create characters that are believable and, to some extent, sympathetic. And either way, if done right, suspense will ooze out of your book.

Make sense? Geez, I just read it over and it's about the same as shrugging my shoulders. Sorry.

Janet C. said...

Hayley - so agree with you on villains. They need to be a character in the book - period. And characters in books are dynamic and interesting. I don't want to read evil machinations only - I want the human side to the villain.

And I don't want to the villain thrown into the fray of POV for the simple reason an author needs to show the evil plan.

I'm repeating your words - much less succinctly and eloquently than you. But I agree totally. I think my favorite villain recently is from McCarthy's No Country for Old Men - chilling, yet compelling.

Janet C. said...

Great to see you here, Suse! And great examples of different ways to use POV which obviously work (and haven't been rejected for being innovative :)

Good point of the first person discussion. I never thought of the 'tech age' issue with the POV. Really, the young adults are very much a 'me' society and what better way to tell a story than have it told from a me standpoint.

I'm intrigued by your new story idea. I know you e-mailed me, but so very few details. Can't wait to hear more about it. And I really think first and third POVs are good combination - like you said, it gives the reader the chance to get to know the main character better since it's her story to tell.

Interesting questions for Anita. It really does boil down to getting the reader to turn the page - and if you can do that, then you've succeeded, no matter which decision you make on the antagonist's role.

Janet C. said...

Question, Anita - you've never written a suspense before, but you've read them. Which way do you prefer - an antagonist who's been named and that you can follow throughout the story? Or an antagonist that is a mystery and to solve the plot crisis you must dodge the red herrings and be attuned to the subtle hints layered into the context of the story?

I think if you answer that question, you'll have your answer as to how to approach your story. Fence sitting here again, but either way if you make the romance the main plot issue, then the mystery becomes the subplot and perhaps an antagonist as well.

Ban said...

the first author that comes to mind is Stephen King - he wrote quite a few books from the antagonist's PoV and it always worked for me. but, he has an uncanny way of creating characters that FEEl real. (at least in the books I read :D still thinking of the stand, where he had several PoVs, including more than one 'villain'.

Janet C. said...

The Master Story Teller, Mr. King! Have you read his autobiography-ish, how to write book On Writing? Loved it - well worth the read if you haven't, ban.

I've never been a Steven King fan, but I think I need to read some of his earlier stuff for craft purposes.

Captain Hook said...

One author I think does a great job of throwing in periodic chapters from an unknown villian's POV is Nora Roberts when she writes as JD Robb. Even thought the chapters (or just scenes) are from his/her perspective, we are not told who it is. I feel that it really helps build the tension and mystery.

I don't think I've ever read another author who does it quite as well as she does, but I also haven't read a lot in the mystery/suspense genre.

Janet C. said...

First to post and now checking in late - nice to see you back, Sarah!

As Jana said, Nora Roberts can do no wrong - a brilliant weaver of tales!

I forgot about those authors that let us get a glimpse into the villain, but never reveal who it is. Kind of makes them more sinister!

Helena said...

Amazing how much discussion is generated by three letters -- POV!

And how many times have we talked about this? It's an all-consuming topic obviously. Trust Janet to give us a huge one to chew over. Of course I can see her mulling it all over again as she wends her way east in a few weeks time. You can do a lot of thinking as the scenery slides by.

After all those preliminary vagaries, I don't really have anything to add to what has been said already. Except I need to take some time to digest the comments everyone has made -- so many excellent points. Bottom line, in my opinion, is to know how you want to approach POV in your story and be consistent with it. As Hayley has mentioned, there are variations that are permissible if done well. Ah, there's the rub. Almost anything will work in fiction -- if done well.

Btw, Hayley, meant to tell you long ago that I still intend to comment on your switch to first person, but have not taken time so my thoughts might be moot by the time you get them, too.

Excellent post, Janet!

Janet C. said...

Thanks, Helena. I love when a post generates discussion because that's how I learn best :)

And to remind us, yet again, that anything works in fiction if done well and consistently. We've all heard the stories of authors who have gone outside the box and have sold!