That Point of View Thing

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.

Later,

Gil

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “That Point of View Thing

  1. But POV has never been about what’s trending or what a writer is comfortable with. It’s always been about what works for the book.
    Take LotR, for example. Let’s say that, in a fit of madness, Tolkien decided to make the whole thing first person from Frodo’s perspective. You would have lost half the story. The end would have been like this:
    Frodo: So… what have you guys been doing?
    Aragorn: Well… Boromir got killed, Gandalf came back to life, and we had an EPIC, GENRE-REDEFINING WAR. But you were kinda busy, so… yeah.
    Frodo: Ohhh. Did you win?
    Aragorn: Yeah! Yeah, we did.
    Frodo: That’s nice.
    (Beat.)
    Legolas: So who wants waffles!

    Obviously, LotR needed third person. And as a side note, you’re not gonna find any inspiration unless you sit down and just write. Even if it’s just rambling.
    Best advice I’ve heard: “Sit down, shut up, and write.”

    And what’re you talking about? Victorian novels are easy reads. It’s the 1600s that are a bit obfuscating.

    • I loved your dialog there. It gave me a good laugh, which I need right now. I was never aware that Legolas liked waffles lol (you forgot to have Aragorn mention that he was crowned king of Middle-earth, though. Modest guy, isn’t he?).

      Yes, LOTR needed third person, which was part of my point. I found this kind of thing out the hard way years ago with a series of fantasies I was writing about a bounty hunter. I involved him in some world-shaking events but, because I’d written them in first person as if they were his memoirs, I found myself limited later when I really needed some things from the POV of other characters. These are actually the ones I refer to in the post as being the ones I wrote back in the Nineties that were my first serious efforts. I’ve been thinking of reviving them because I like the idea and the setting, I just can’t decide on a POV for them. If it stays first person, the story will have to change drastically, and that might not be so bad anyway because he got involved in a quest and those aren’t selling very well these days. They have been kinda done to death.

      Maybe POV depends on the genre, but the stuff I’m reading these days, especially the urban fantasies, is either first person or very tight third person, and the writers’ group I’m in, which has two published fiction authors (and a few others who write stuff for pubs like the Chicken Soup for the Soul series) stresses telling everything from a very subjective POV. And we have a smattering of genres in our group, from mystery to thriller to two of us who do the sf/f thing. Also, a lot of the insider stuff I’m reading stresses this as well. Readers, these days, for the most part, want to really get into the skin of the character and see things from their POV only, rather than a head hopping or objective/omniscient one. Just as description has now been pared down to its bare bones, POV is limited to allow the reader to more closely identify with the character(s). In my opinion, the reason for this is because most readers these days read in small bursts rather than actually sitting down and spending a couple of hours or more diving in. There are simply too many other distractions, so readers read on the train to work or on lunch breaks, so they want these small sections with minimal description (the kinds of things you’d notice when you walk into a room, for example, rather than describing everything that’s there.

      This last tendency is what I was talking about when I mentioned the Victorians. It took me several tries to read both Dracula and Frankenstein because of this, and I gave up on The House of Seven Gables because I got tired of him telling me what every shingle on the house looked like. For me, the Victorians are dense, as they should have been then because that’s what readers demanded. For my modern mind, though, they move too slow, and I suspect popular writing today may feel the same way one hundred years from now.

      And that’s really what my post was all about. I realize that, in some respects, POV should depend mostly on what’s good for the book (and on the writer’s capabilities), but the unfortunate truth is, if you want published, you have to do what’s trending. At least the first couple times around. I have a friend who says you should do everything strictly by the book until you’re published, but I don’t buy that. For one, I’m not suppressing my voice and the quirks I like to throw into my prose. That’s what makes me an individual, and I believer that if that’s good enough publishers will take it as good writing that they can sell, regardless of whether or not you follow every rule to a T. Editors/agents aren’t robots, and I believe they’ll know talent when they see it. If I follow everything to a T, guess what? I end up sounding like every other writer out there and I refuse to do that. But I will follow a majority of what they say I should to show that I’m paying attention and am aware of what’s going on out there in the market. I’ll deviate more when I’ve got some credentials to back me up.

      Now for my wrap-up/side note: I just read part of an interview with Alice Walker (The Color Purple) and she said that she always sets aside time each day to write. She doesn’t always manage to actually write, but the very act of setting aside the time makes it more likely. I understand sitting down and writing stuff even if you delete every word of it the next day, but sometimes it’s difficult to get past those blocks.

      Thanks for your comments.

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