Though I have studied writing for perhaps fifteen years or so, I have to admit that I’ve not really taken it seriously until the last three years or so. Like John Lennon said, life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. Busy with work and other interests, I kept intending to get serious about this writing thing “someday.” Know what I mean, Vern?
So now that I’ve gotten into it in a more serious way, it seems that the standards have changed considerably and I’m constantly having to re-learn things. And one of the things I’ve been having to pay very serious attention to is point of view (POV). POV, in case you’re wondering, is how you allow the reader to see the story. Are you telling it from the viewpoint of the princess or the frog? Or both?
Standard writing books will tell there are several POVs to choose from: first person, second person, third person, third person omniscient, third person head hopping, and objective third person (I stole all these from Writing Fiction for Dummies). First person is “I.” Louis L’Amour was fond of these, the idea being, I suspect, to make you feel more involved in something that happened at least a hundred years ago (much more by now). Second person is quirky and not many people use it because it is “you.” You do this and you do that. The above-mentioned book points out that second person is risky because you’re making the reader the main character and you have to be careful to keep your actions within the actions the reader would carry out.
No thanks. I’m not getting into that can of worms, thank you. Sounds to me like a good way to get sued (“There’s no way I’d ever kiss a frog. Gross!”)
Third person objective is, to put it simply, God. The writer, and thus the reader, knows everything that is going on, but never really drops into the head of any particular character. Handy, I suppose, but kinda jarring for the reader.
Third person head hopping is a technique that used to be much more common, and I’ll touch on it again in a moment. Suffice it to say that, in this POV, the writer tells you what both the princess and the frog are thinking at any given moment. Mario Puzo does this in The Godfather if you’d like to see it done effectively (in other words, without confusing your audience).
Third person is what we see in most novels now. Well, let me restate that a bit: third person and first person are very common. Regular third person, however, differs from the other third-person types in that, rather than being objective or hopping from one character to another, the writer gets into the frog’s viewpoint and stays there in a clearly defined way. The author can still go to the princess’s POV, but he must clue the reader in somehow, such as a chapter or section break.
I bring all this up because I am most of the way through a re-reading of The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, and it’s been quite an adjustment to read.
Let me explain.
In the last few years, it has become a standard that readers don’t really like POVs like third person objective, omniscient or head hopping, simply because these POVs make it hard to identify with any one character. Sure, you know what’s going on throughout the entire setting, but you really don’t find a good reason to care unless the author really knows what he’s doing. By using third person or first person, the reader is able to identify with someone and thus have an investment in the story. Stand on a tall building and watch people walking by on the street below. Kinda interesting, but it gets boring after a while. But go down on the street and start talking to someone (let’s forget for a moment that it might get you committed these days) and suddenly you begin to care about what’s going on.
In older books it was very common to read third person, with head hopping being the most prominent. This allowed the writer to tell the scene from several different POVs if he desired, sort of like a camera filming several actors’ reactions in a scene. I have to admit that, in some ways, it’s handy.
Problem is, as I’ve stated, it’s hard to care about the characters when you’re jumping from one to another, so you, as the reader, don’t become quite as invested in the story.
Jump to third person (or first) and everything changes. Now, the frog sees the princess out for her daily walk and you the reader begin to dip into the frog’s head and hear his thoughts. Where once authors used italics to identify thoughts, now it’s hardly used because we’re already so deep inside the character that everything is that character’s perception and, therefore, thought. Without trying to be egotistic about it, I think I do a pretty good job of this POV in the story “Crosstown Traffic,” which you will find elsewhere on this site (and I would have to add that the readers in my writers’ group say the same thing). It’s called stream of consciousness, and it’s a wonderful technique. In “Crosstown Traffic,” I don’t try to sound like Gil, I try to sound like Mike, my protagonist. So I use phrasing and language that I imagine he would use.
It hasn’t been easy for me to achieve this. I started reading back in the Seventies, when books like The Sword of Shannara were new to the market and using that head hopping method was the norm. So, up until quite recently, I tended to write that way as well. Yes, when I first started semi-serious writing in the Nineties, I used first person, mostly because it helped me to immerse myself into the story and character. I’m writing a crime novel right now that’s told in first person. But I don’t stick with it for the same basic reason Terry Brooks uses the head hopping POV in Sword: it’s limiting. I have only one character to tell all the events through, so the disadvantages here are pretty obvious. I have to have my protagonist be present at every important event, which stretches the suspension of disbelief thing considerably, and since the reader sees that the character is telling the story, it’s kind of assumed that he does survive. How else could he be telling the story. I get around this to an extent by having my protagonist tell his story to a reporter, so we know right up front that he survives. This shifts the tension to how he survives. Thankfully, this setting is the perfect vehicle for that kind of story.
Thing is, now that I’ve spent so much time unlearning the head hopping method, reading Sword has been a bit of a chore because, now that I’ve adapted, that POV throws me out of the story. In other words, I can ‘t quite forget that I’m reading a story. To be fair, this was Mr. Brooks’s first book, and I saw one review on Amazon that states that Sword is a pretty obvious ripoff of LOTR. Well, I don’t mind that. A lot of fantasies were LOTR ripoffs in those days because Tolkien set the mold for generations of fantasy authors, even the more-practiced ones (witness Quag Keep by the venerable Andre Norton). These stories were ripoffs in the sense that they were all quest fantasies, the stereotype of fantasy. But back when Tolkien wrote LOTR, there weren’t any templates to steal from.
But I digress.
To be honest, I thing that re-reading Sword may be partially responsible for my brain lock. Like many other authors, I tend to gain inspiration from whatever I might be reading at the time, though thankfully I’ve learned not to start writing exactly like the author I’m reading. That was a big problem for a while. But with this book, as much as I like it, I’m thrown off a bit by the POV. Now, I have to be completely honest and say that this isn’t the entire reason for my brain lock, but it could play a part in it.
Mostly, I’m just in a good old-fashioned slump.
Well, I thing I’ve probably wandered and rambled and missed the point enough for one post. Didn’t intend to go on quite this long, but maybe writing like this will get my creative energies flowing again.
The last point I’d like to make in the way of summing up is that, with the way things are going, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we as readers reach a point where anything other than third or first person will be difficult to read simply because it’s so old-fashioned, like many of the Victorian novels of the 1800s are so hard to read these days because of their extensive description (at least that’s my sticking point for them) and antiquated dialog. At the current pace, I might well still be alive to see if it happens that way.