Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Writers’ Questions: What is Point of View (POV)?


I’ve been blogging about novels for the last six years, but, in 2020, my own historical novel, Brontë’s Mistress, will be published by Atria Books (more on this here). Writing a novel can be a lonely process so, over the next year, I’m using this series, Writers’ Questions, to share some thoughts and advice about the writing and publication process.

This week we’re getting technical. We’re talking about point of view (often shortened to POV), which is something that often trips up newbie creative writers.

So many ways to tell a story... (my bookshelf)

So what is point of view?

Simply put, point of view is the perspective through which readers will experience your story. Whose eyes will they see through? Whose thoughts will they have access to? If this were a film where would the camera be?

The movie analogy is a good one, but it raises the spectre of one of the most common issues I see with beginners’ use of POV. Video is so pervasive in our culture that we are very familiar with a cinematic point of view. This moves between characters and zooms in and out, to first paint broad settings, before suggesting emotions through close and personal shots.

A novel can achieve the same effect but this is not the norm. Fiction (and especially character-driven fiction) is more about interiority than film or TV. And this will affect how you approach point of view. So let’s look in turn at each of the most common approaches to point of view in fiction.

First Person

What is it?
A character narrates the story directly using the pronoun ‘I’. Readers see/hear/experience only what the character does and are ‘present’ for scenes this character is in. Usually the reader has total access to the character’s thoughts and feelings (unless of course the character is lying or unreliable…).

In most cases this character is the protagonist (main character), but this is not always the case. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is the quintessential example of a novel in which the narrator (Nick) isn’t the protagonist (Gatsby is).

What are some other examples?
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

What are pitfalls/things to consider?
Readers often want a compelling reason why this person is telling their story—e.g. Is it confessional or persuasive? Are they writing from their deathbed or passing on the tale to their grandchildren?

Readers enjoy a distinctive and interesting character voice if they’re reading in first person (think Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye).

Readers can’t know anything your first person character does not. This means that first person narrators often end up in passive situations (e.g. eavesdropping on a conversation) as writers struggle to convey information their protagonists aren’t privy to.

It can be tricky to vary sentence structure enough (don’t start every sentence with ‘I’!).

If your character dies, writing a death scene in the first person can be a challenge. While, if your character lives, the very fact that they’re telling the story could give away your ending and reduce tension.

Filtering language (also known as ‘thought verbs’) can creep into your prose, distancing readers from your character. E.g. There’s no need to say “I felt cold”. Instead say “It was cold.” Try replacing, “I thought he was an awful man” with simply, “What an awful man”.

First person is more common in specific genres and target ages (e.g. Young Adult fiction is often written in the first person).

Second Person

What is it?
A rarely used form, addressing the reader as ‘You’ and putting them at the centre of your story.

What’s an example?
The opening of The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern (review here)

What are some pitfalls/things to consider?
It’s rare and some readers HATE it.

It can give your novel a video game feel (for good and bad).

It’s immediately striking and immersive, so is good for pulling readers into an unfamiliar environment.

Third Person (Close)

What is it?
Also known as third person limited, close third person is the most common form of modern storytelling, but it’s one that beginners often struggle to execute.

The writer uses ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’, as well as characters’ names to tell the story—not ‘I’. However, as with first person, readers still experience the novel through only the main character’s perspective.

In practice, this means that we only go ‘inside the head’ of one character. The other characters’ motives, thoughts and feelings are as opaque to us as they are to the protagonist.

What are some examples?
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
Most of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling

What are pitfalls/things to consider?
Close third person has many of the same problems as first person: an inability to share information your MC (main character) doesn’t know, protagonists acting as an observer in some scenes vs. having an active role, and the creeping in of filtering/thought verbs when drafting.

You may find repetition of your protagonist’s name and pronouns gets irritating.

It’s easier to ‘forget’ your limitations when writing than it is in first person: remember, if you describe a setting, the narration should share only the details the protagonist notices, if the villain does something suspicious when the hero’s back is turned, readers can’t see it either etc.

Third Person (Omniscient)

What is it?
An all-seeing, God-like narrator knows everything each character does and more, and can dive into the brains of different characters at will.

The pronouns are still ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ but no one perspective acts as our filter on the world. This approach can work well in sweeping epics and multi-character novels and is also great for creating irony and suspense.

What are some examples?
Bleak House, Charles Dickens
Middlemarch, George Eliot

What are pitfalls/things to consider?

It can read as old-fashioned.

The narrator’s voice can seem intrusive.

Many modern readers have a preference for close third and first.

Readers can get confused about whose head they’re in at any given point, especially if you are often ‘jumping around’.

Readers don’t develop as deep an emotional relationship with your main character.

Third Person (Fly on the Wall/Cinematic)

What is it?
A third person perspective where readers have no access to anyone’s thoughts/interior life. They see only what a fly on the wall would see. While rarely deployed, this is the closest perspective to the one we’re used to in Hollywood blockbusters.

What are pitfalls/things to consider?
This can be effective for a scene but can get dull and make readers feel distanced from the story and characters.

If you’re leaning towards writing this viewpoint ask yourself whether you're sure you wouldn’t prefer to write a screenplay.

Can you move between different points of view?

I’ve written about each of these points of view in isolation, but often they are combined, with alternating chapters or different sections of a novel being written in different ways.

For example…
Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White utilises multiple first person narrators.
Hazel Gaynor’s The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter (which I recently reviewed) moves between different first and third person sections.

You can mix and match between different voices and perspectives, but it’s important that, as the writer, you know why you’re making the choices you are.

What POV is Brontë’s Mistress written in?

My novel, Brontë’s Mistress, is written mostly in the first person from protagonist Lydia Robinson’s perspective. However, it also contains letters (also in first person) from other key characters.

I’d love to hear what perspective(s) you love to write in and why? If you want to let me know, or suggest future topics for the Writers’ Questions series, contact me—you can comment below or on Facebook or tweet @SVictorianist. You can also now follow me on Instagram @finola_austin.