Sunday, January 23, 2011

It's all in your point of view

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Growing up, I wasn’t a writer. Oh, I could write (my mother will tell you I wrote really well, because that is what Moms do) – but my dream was to sing and dance on stage. It never entered my mind that I could or should write a book. Which in retrospect is funny because I read all the time. I’m not joking about the all the time part. My friends from my grade and high school years can tell you I always had a non-school book at the ready. Next to singing, reading was my favorite hobby. Still is.

As a reader, I never really thought much about point of view. Sure, I understood the concept, but as I read I never thought about the point of view the story was told in. The story was written in the point of view it was supposed to be written in. End of discussion.

Or is it?

Point of view can make or break a great story idea. Should you use first person or third person? (I’m told there are novels out there in second person, but I can’t say that I’ve read any that didn’t involve choosing my own adventure. Have you?) The point of view a story is told in can change everything. I started writing in third person because a great number of books I read are in third. After several manuscripts in third, I switched to first. This was not a conscious decision either. It just kind of happened. I opened up my computer, started typing and realized – huh, this is in first person. Cool!

Both points of view have pros and cons. In third, the reader gets to see the story unfold from multiple points of view. The writer can also give the reader information that the main character is not privy to. This automatically ups the tension and the pacing. Awesome, right?

But like all good things, third person has drawbacks – at least for me. Third person sometimes gives my story too many options. With so many character points of view to choose from, it’s easy to lose track of whose story I’m telling. Also, the word choice in third person can make the point of view almost omniscient which distances the reader.

In first person, I get to tell the story from only one point of view. That eliminates pesky decisions about changing into another character’s point of view! It also allows me to look deeper into a character’s head. Yay!

Alas, this point of view also has pitfalls. Because first person is telling the story through one character’s eyes, the reader receives only the information that the main character has. Yep – challenging. On top of that, it’s easy to fall into the trap of starting ever sentence with the word “I” which makes a character feel self-centered. Sigh!

So what is a writer to do?

I decided to write in both. No, not in the same story. I admit that while there are books that mesh first person and third person in between the same covers, I am not one who can perform such a feat. However, I have learned really important things about my own writing from practicing with both sets of points of view. First person helps me go deep into a character’s head. Third person shows me every character needs to have their own personality and way of looking at a scene. I try to keep the lessons of both in my head no matter what POV my story is in.

What do you think? Do you favor one point of view over another when you write? If so, do you stick with one point of view while writing or do you sometimes switch just to see where the story will go or if it can be told better?


Dana King said...

It all depends on the story. PI stories work well in first person because the PI is everything in those stories. Good ones are as much character studies of the detective than mysteries.

I like third person for stories that need more scope. Changing POV from chapter to chapter allows the reader to know more than any character. This builds suspense by allowing the reader to see where a character is about to go wrong, because the reader knows things she doesn't.

Anonymous said...

Following the example of Andre Dubus III's HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG I tried writing a couple of novels--PRIVATE SHOWINGS and DEVIL'S TOLL--where the POV shifts with every chapter. I figured, hey, Oprah likes it, right? It's a cinematic approach, a way of having it both ways. The master at POV shift in my opinion is Elmore Leonard, whose novels read like screenplays anyway. I'm re-reading his ROAD DOGS and am amazed at how he brings it off so well.

Scott D. Parker said...

I think it depends on what the author is trying to do with the POV choice. Like Dana said, PI novels work great with 1st POV. The second person POV--the most famous example I know of is Bright Lights, Big CIty--seems more gimmicky to me and offers little. Third person POV has a few flavors. Dan Brown uses the omniscient POV and, like Malachi said, lets the reader know more than the characters. What I find most interesting is Limited third person POV. J. K. Rowling did this with the Harry Potter book. Other than chapter 1/book 1, it's all from Harry's POV. If he doesn't experience it, the reader doesn't know it. The next question would be this: why would an author choose first person POV vs. limited third? Interesting.

I've started novels in one POV and gotten stuck. I shift the POV and voila! Things just flow.

The only novel I know that mixed 1st/3rd is Michael Connelly's The Poet. It was a little weird at first when you first encounter the shift, but then you just roll with it.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

When One Man Dies by Do Some Damages own Dave White mixes 1st person POV and 3rd person POV