Whose POV is it, anyway?

I’m struggling with point of view this week… and realistically I can look forward (!!!) to struggling with it for the rest of the writing of THE TRAVELLER’S TALE, since the POV is so intricate with this one that I have half decided to just bash it out any way I can think of for the first draft just to get the story down, and then start assigning POV in the next pass.

I think writers in general are fairly obsessed with point of view.   Like dreamers (meaning, people literally in the state of dreaming) we are promiscuous about jumping from one POV to another because we have to play all the characters in anything we write. 

Kristy Kiernan has a great blog  over on THE DEBUTANTE BALL this week about her first experience of that kind of real-life POV shift.

I have this sneaking suspicion that those are the moments that make us writers – those moments that we completely leave ourselves and inhabit another human being.

Example.  Some musician friends of mine live in this great, appalling house – you know the kind of party house I’m talking about – they’re musicians. There’s a basement with a full bar and a sound studio and all kinds of decadence going on at all hours. The couches in the living room are like enormous Venus Flytraps – people come over for a party and wake up three days later and still have no inclination to leave – and they don’t have to, because no one will mind, it’s all part of the flow.

Their house is the one blot in a very, very PROPER neighborhood.

And right next door to them is a very New England brick structure. SO well tended. Very nice family. Very nice.

Okay, so it’s party season, and this one day not so long ago I stumble out of the House of the Rising Sun at four in the afternoon on the way to some kind of caffeine… God only knows what I was wearing… and here are this very proper father and his maybe eight-year old son oh-so-diligently raking fall leaves off their lawn.

And this little boy looks at me.

Well, so does the father.

And I’m suddenly outside of my own body and inside that little boy, looking at me.   And okay, yeah, also inside the father.

And I suppose I keep moving, because I REALLY REALLY need coffee, but I’m not aware of it.  The synapses are firing and the questions are popping.

What the HELL is it like to live next door to a house like that, with longhaired great-armed boys toting guitars and cases of just about anything and marginally-dressed women going in and out at all hours, when you’re trying to be an upstanding citizen?  And more importantly, whose POV do you tell this story from? Is it a mid-life crisis in the making, or a coming-of-age story, or both? And what about the wife?  Who is she? What does she think about all these sexy Dionysian boys living right next door, when THAT’s her husband?  How long before one or all of these people snap?

These are the kinds of things that keep writers up at night.

There are stories, and then there’s the whole other issue of Whose Story Is It?

And just when you think you’ve got one of them down, the other one becomes the real issue.

So these are my questions for all you all (I have not been in the South long enough to be able to say “all y’all” with any kind of authority, and to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I’ll ever get there).

In your own writing, do you favor a certain POV: first person, third person, close third, omniscient?  And as readers, do you have a preference?   And what, in your opinion, are some great multiple POV books?  (especially on the dark suspense side… )

Because I could use some help on this one, for sure.

Alex

23 thoughts on “Whose POV is it, anyway?

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hey May. Maybe I am switching POVs when I’m stuck – I’ll have to take a look at that. I usually write close third, but this one is multiple third plus some first person for one character. Only it’s a weird first person because you’re not exactly sure who’s speaking.

    What I don’t like is switching third person POVs in the middle of a chapter – it’s usually done really badly… but I’d love to find examples of authors doing it well. Maybe I have to pull back further and be more omniscient.

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  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    B.G., I’ve never heard “y’uns guys”. That’s great!

    I keep trying to explain to my very California mother (a grammar fanatic) that “y’all” and “all y’all” (and now, “y’uns guys”) are plural variations. The point of grammar is to communicate specifically, and “you” just doesn’t cover the ground that “y’all” and incrementally, “all y’all” do.

    She just won’t buy it.

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  3. Guyot

    In my opinion, POV is one of the most important and most neglected parts of a novel.

    I hear so many inexperienceed writers say, “I’m going to write my next story in 1st person,” or “I’m going to try 3rd person with my next book” – without regard to whether it’s right for the story or not.

    If you start writing in a particular POV without first making completely sure it’s the right POV, you’re doomed.

    See, folks, this post shows Alex knows what the hell she’s doing at the keyboard. She’s trying to figure out which is right BEFORE she decides to do it.

    Every story is different. A story that would work great in 1st person may completely suck in 3rd or Omni, and vice-versa.

    I know a writer who has a great idea for a novel, but I doubt it’s going to be realized because she has already decided she wants to write it in 1st person, and she’s trying to fit the story into that POV. As you can imagine, she’s struggling.

    Lee Child, a great writer who has written Reacher in both 1st and 3rd, has talked about this. He makes the decision based on the story, not what he feels like writing.

    I have no favorite POV as a reader. Again, it’s what works. I’ve read books written in 1st where, not only did I not care enough about the character, but for the story to work I needed to know what was happening somewhere else.

    I’ve read 3rd persons where, while the book was okay, I found myself really wishing I could get inside the protag’s head more.

    And then there’s the books that shift between 1st and 3rd. I’ve read a lot that were awful because of it. And I’ve read books where it was done brilliantly, and was the perfect choice. Crais’ LA REQUIEM is still one of the finest examples of this.

    And a post about POV can’t go by without mentioning the amazing LONESOME DOVE – where the writer breaks so many rules while writing multi-POV, and yet he is so good, so polished, and so AWARE of what he’s doing and why, that the book is as close to perfect as it caan be, and the best book I’ve ever read.

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  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks for that, G – I’m going to get LONESOME DOVE and LA REQUIEM right away. That’s exactly the kind of example I’m looking for. I just can’t tell this particular story without shifting, and my suspicion is that along with everything else I’m trying to do I’m going to have to start somewhat outside of this one character’s head but get more and more into her POV as the book progresses.

    Why do I do this to myself?

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  5. JT Ellison

    I write in multiple close third and enjoy the challenge of being accurate, knowing exactly what my characters think and feel. I know them well enough to know how they would react in certain situations, what they would say, how they would smile or frown. But I don’t have that level of confidence with first person. I bleed into the character.

    So I experiment with POV in shorts. I can create a relatively creepy 1st person tone from the criminals, and I try to translate into close 3rd in the novels.

    Do you first person writers ever get tired of forcing yourself to tell the story from the “I” perspective???

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  6. pari noskin taichert

    Alex,Thanks for this post. I’m struggling with the same issue and don’t know quite what to do.

    My first series is written in first person. It’s fun to write this way because you’re so completely in the character’s head. You don’t have to worry about how she looks or seems to other people, you discover information and clues right along with her.

    But, I don’t know what to do with the new series I’m developing. I’ve started it about 12 times, shifting between 1st and 3rd. In 3rd, it’s very dark and sad and the prose is filled with thick emotion. In 1st, the character either like a Jewish grandmother or someone that it too close to Sasha.

    So, I’m stuck. I’m scared to commit.

    And, for some reason, 3rd person intimidates the hell out of me.

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  7. pari noskin taichert

    J.T. asks if 1st person writers get tired of telling the story from the “I” perspective.

    Not at all. It’s a blast. There’s also the pleasure of learning how not to start every damn sentence with “I.”

    BTW: sorry for the typo on my last post. Too many latkes last night.

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  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    That’s interesting, Pari – I’m with JT – I can’t imagine doing a whole story in 1st.

    Your “Dark and sad and full of thick emotion” version sounds EXACTLY like a book I’d like to read, but I sympathize – it’s not as much fun to write. I have no doubt you CAN do it – I think it’s more a question of whether or not you WANT to do it.

    Maybe first person is inherently lighter. I wonder…

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  9. Philip Hawley

    Ditto what Guyot said. And I’ll offer up John Lescroart as another writer who tells multiple-POV stories with shifts in mid-chapter, and does it well.

    If we’re taking a poll, though, I prefer first- and third-person forms to omniscient (although Grisham has done pretty well for himself with omniscient!). And I’m one who believes that there is only one, true third-person form (i.e., limited, or close); to me, the “non-limited” third person form is simply an excuse to cheat and slip into the heads of other characters.

    But then, as my wife says to her friends, “Phil’s a baby doctor. You really shouldn’t take his opinions too seriously. I don’t.”

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  10. JT Ellison

    Isn’t that wild, Pari? I can’t imagine doing a book in 1st, it just seems too hard for me. Interesting that you feel the same about 3rd.

    I think you can manipulate the story with 3rd in ways 1st won’t allow. The story you’re writing needs that dark element. If you do it in 1st and it does tend to be “lighter,” like Alex said, then you may miss your mark.

    Just mh2c. I like third, so that’s my prejudice.

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  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hey, Dr. Hawley! You’re right, John LesC does that beautifully. Good excuse to reread.

    I tend to agree with you about close third vs. a more objective third. But then you really are stuck with telling a whole chapter (or at least, a whole scene of a chapter) from one character’s POV, and it can be hard to choose.

    Actually, Stephen King, who usually writes from close third, is a master at the mid-chapter shift. I’m thinking of THE SHINING.

    Man oh man, could I use a good survey class in this right now.

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  12. Bill Cameron

    My first novel is third-person. I have two POV characters, but the POV shifts are chapter-based. I spent a while deciding exactly where I wanted the POV to be. The POV is pretty tight, right over each character’s shoulder, and for a while I debated doing it in first person.

    What I found is the characters themselves simply wouldn’t tell this story. They lacked the self-consciousness necessary to be convincing first-person narrators. Beyond that, to tell the story I needed a layer between the narrator and the characters. I am strict in terms of keeping the POV within the range of their senses, because the story needs that degree of intimacy, yet it also needs distance. It would fail, I believe, in first person.

    My second novel is first person. I wouldn’t say it’s harder or easier than third, it’s just the way the story needs to be told. The character has a voice that’s essential to communicating meaning — he’s not completely reliable, but he is very self-conscious, very intimately engaged with his current circumstances. He’s not trying to be unreliable, but like anyone he has his blinders. What’s interesting to me in telling his story is how I use his voice in first-person to communicate things he’s not consciously cognizant of. As a story, I could probably tell it in third-person tight, but I think something crucial would be lost. His voice is critical to the telling of the story.

    One of my pet peeves is mid-paragraph POV shifts. I can be done well, but most often than not I find it clumsy. Multi-omniscient would be the hardest for me to write, perhaps because I often find it the hardest to read. Yet I’ve also read some wonderful multi-omniscient novels.

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  13. Louise Ure

    I seem to start every book in first person POV because I need that kind of intimacy to get to know the characters. It may change in the next draft, but I’ve got to get into their heads first.

    And how about Barbara Kingsolver’s POISONWOOD BIBLE for a brilliant take on multiple POVs? She writes it all in first person POV, alternating chapters between the doctor’s wife and four daughters. But the voices are so distinctive that you’re never at a loss to figure out which character is speaking.

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  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Bill, I like that – the characters don’t have the self-consciousness required to tell the story. I think that’s often the case. I’m not exactly sure what you mean about a layer between the narrator and the characters, but I kind of get it.

    I hate mid-paragraph POV switches, too. That’s what I’m trying to avoid at all costs.

    Louise, I agree – POISONWOOD is a tour de force – I love that book. But still, it’s easier to do multiple firsts if you break them down by chapter.

    All these responses are being so helpful – they make me realize that I was basically whining this morning because –

    Writing is hard.

    Now there’s a news flash for you. Alert the media.

    Okay, fine, I’m just going to suck it up and DO IT.

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  15. Bill Cameron

    Alex, I think that layer between the narrator and the characters can be many things. In a tight-third person, it may be very thin and expressed only through the he did/she did rather than I did construction. It’s the place where the narrator can make the reader aware of things that the character may not see or understand. Not that it’s didactic, of course. But in essence, the third person creates an opportunity for the narrator to reveal information to the reader not immediately or readily available to characters.

    A more remote third person may have multiple layers. Some information might be available to some characters and not to others. It all depends on how you’re communicating the story. We can get pretty meta in the handling of voice and narrator presence, of course.

    It can be so complicated and fun, and of course it’s one of the things I love about writing. Figuring out where the story needs to be told from is such a critical part of the process.

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  16. Elaine Flinn

    I prefer reading – and writing – multi pov – but you need strong characters to pull it off in order to keep their voices distinct.

    My hat’s off to all you writers who can pull off first person – I’d never make it. Besides – I’m too nosey – I want to know what’s going on all over the book.

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  17. Jason Summers

    My first novel was third person, with a couple of shifts – horrible, thing, it was.

    The current novel is first person for the protagonist, plus multiple third-person limiteds for a rotating set of secondary characters – bad guy, sidekick, comic relief, suspicious cop who knows the protagonist. I’m struggling with one of the comic-relief scenes, because that character comes up less frequently than the others, and while it’s third-person, his thoughts are harder to get into because he isn’t as familiar, and he is supposed to be funny.

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  18. billie

    Wow – our internet has been out since last night, and I come back to this!

    Wonderful discussion on POV.

    My first book is in first person. I actually rewrote it once in third person, then back to first person but past tense, then to first person present. I had initially done some difficult portions in first person present just b/c I was having trouble getting at it any other way, but my writing group loved it so much they felt the entire book should be told that way. I think they were right.

    Second one – first person but rotating between three different characters. A lot of fun after the first book, where nothing could come in unless the main character herself knew it.

    Third one – rotates between two characters and is in first person, and goes back and forth in time. A more complex structure too. Some days I feel like I am in the zone with it – others I can’t quite put my finger on how it all comes together! But it’s still first draft, so hopefully the second pass will smooth things out.

    I join the few who have said they’re intimidated by third person – I’m not sure why, except I’ve gotten so used to writing first, third feels unnatural now. I’d love to try the next book in third, though, if it will work that way.

    I love Poisonwood Bible. And admire greatly works where POV shifts are done seamlessly and work well. I haven’t mastered that yet. 🙂

    billie

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  19. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Jason, that sounds like an interesting book you’ve got going there because all those POVs seem to have really different voices. Just that aspect adds a whole thematic layer to your story. I’m glad you posted about it because it makes me realize in comparison that for my own story I’m trying to tightly control the POV, even though I’m writing from multiple POVs. I don’t want my characters to have too much leeway, here – so I’m realizing my POV throughout is more omniscient than I’ve been thinking. VERY helpful!!

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  20. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Billie, that must have been a hugely enlightening exerience – to rewrite a book in a different person AND tense! Talk about intimidating!

    Of course we’ve been leaving out present tense, which is a really interesting choice. I am so angry with myself for not keeping lists of books that are written in present tense/close third, multiple, etc. Now THAT would be a great reference to have right now.

    Okay, New Year’s Resolution: Keep a notebook listing the person/tense/POV of every book I read from now on.

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  21. billie

    Alex, it was enlightening by the end of it – during, though, it was mostly just… insanity.

    🙂

    I have pretty much discovered every single trap one can fall into with writing first person. Overusing “I” is the most obvious one, as someone noted.

    One thing I’ve struggled with in the first book is the main character being so hypervigilant about other characters and their gestures, what they’re thinking, etc. She constantly attributes meaning to everything around her, and for some of my crit readers, early on, it felt like I was flinging omniscient info in there, when really it WAS part of the main character’s make-up.

    I think the first person present helped iron that out – it is clearer now that it’s coming from her.

    I love your idea to keep a notebook listing person/tense/POV of the books you read. What a resource that will be as you need examples of certain styles. I think I might do it too!

    billie

    Reply

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