Get Some Perspective: musing on different points of view

I have a really great idea for a big fantasy novel. It’s got a nice concept, a whole developed magic system, a huge cast including three main characters who are flawed and sexy as all get out and two more decent ones who provide the moral and emotional grounding. It’s had two partial drafts adding up to 80K words so far, and it is stuck as a pig because I can’t find the right point of view to tell the story.

Seriously. I can’t make this story work because I have set about telling it from what turns out to be the completely wrong perspective, and it is killing me.

Let’s think about points of view, and if I don’t have a revelation by the end of this blog, I expect someone to solve it for me in the comments.

First person

Written as ‘I’. I’ve done this a couple of times, in my free ghost/romance short story and in my forthcoming romantic suspense Non-Stop Till Tokyo. It’s immediate and direct, but it’s confining, in that you have to nancy around a lot to convey things the narrator doesn’t see/know, and it can be alienating to the reader if the narrator’s quirks and flaws are too prominent or unappealing.

It’s possible for first person to be distancing. The stylistic device of an ‘I’ telling the story can be very present, reminding you that you’re reading a book. (My narrators always end up addressing the reader and commenting on their own stories. That works in some cases, it wouldn’t for this.) Ditto where the narrator is unreliable or flawed, and the pleasure lies in working out what’s really happening.

Often the viewpoint character isn’t the main character of the story. To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, where Scout is really only a witness to the adult action, narrating an experience that the reader understand more than she does. Again, it works in some cases, not all.

I’m not, generally, a massive fan of first person in romance, even though some of my favourites (Widdershins and Glitterland) are first person.  Mostly, I prefer to watch. And I find it a bit weird to have first person in thrillers, where the question of whether the main character will survive is generally answered by the fact she’s narrating her past adventure, unless you’re reading one of those really tiresome books narrated by a dead person. (You may ask why I wrote a first person romantic suspense, given all that, and I can only answer, Shh.)

Second person

You go to the shops. On the way, you see a kitten die, alone. You are oddly unmoved.

However, you are not a poncy American novelist c.1987, or a Fighting Fantasy choose-your-own-adventure author, and you reject this as unnecessary showing off with no obvious benefits. You really can’t imagine how this would work for a romance novel, especially one with sex, though you feel a sudden unholy compulsion to try, which you tread on heavily if you have any sense. You start to feel slightly badgered by the author telling you what you are thinking. You wish she’d get out of your face.

Single viewpoint tight third person

All told from one character’s in-head perspective. I love tight third. You get all the benefits of first person – immediacy, a single perspective leaving the other characters as mysteries – while being able to look around a bit more, and without the stylistic awkwardness of first person. It makes it a lot easier to write characters who aren’t very self aware, to comment and supply backstory. But it has the same problem as first person in a large-scale story: you only get a restricted view of the action.

This can be what you want, of course. I used single tight third for A Case of Possession, the sequel to the alternating-viewpoint The Magpie Lord, because in the first book I needed to track what was going on in both characters’ heads, while in the second, one character was the focus of the emotional development so we needed to stay with him. My forthcoming Think of England uses single viewpoint tight third because much of the story depends on that character not having a clue what’s going on in his love interest’s head, and the reader needs to be on that emotional journey with him rather than ten steps ahead.

Both drafts for my godforsaken Problem Project are in tight third, from the POV of a character who isn’t actually turning out to be the dead centre of the story (as with To Kill a Mockingbird but in third). I did this to handle the worldbuilding – introducing a character to a new world and have people explain stuff to him, and thus to the reader – but I am just now realizing why that was an incredibly dumb thing to do: Tight third has to be a character right at the heart of the action. You can’t have a witness narrator, s/he has to be a key actor. Otherwise you have two layers of distance – the author talking about Bob talking about Florence.

Multiple viewpoint tight third person

Switching from one head to another. This is useful when you need more than one perspective. Benefit: you can get deeper into the characters, from inside and outside, seeing them as they see themselves and as others see them. You get a broader view and can cover a wider story without the need for other characters filling in what’s happened offstage. Risk: head hopping.

Bob smiled. He liked it when Florence got angry and he hoped to make her even angrier in a moment.

Florence glared at Bob, wishing he would stop smirking. ‘Please pass me the paintbrush,’ she said, wondering if she could jam it in his face.

James walked in, thinking about his dog…

Editor, stat!

Omniscient third

Story narrated from a non-character perspective, which can tell us what everyone is thinking and feeling and doing. Probably the easiest way to handle a big fat sprawling multi-character epic. But it can be distancing (you’re not in someone’s head) or revealing (the narrator knows all and thus can tell all) and it can make it hard to find a voice.

Bleak House alternates omniscient third with first person, keeping us engaged with Esther Summerson and puzzled by her mystery, while supplying clues and action and storyline to which she has no access. Plenty of books switch between omniscient and one or multiple tight third viewpoints.

***

So where does that leave me with the Problem Project? I have several characters with multiple interweaving relationships, in geographically and socially different locations. Two whose real motivations have to remain a mystery. One who will betray everything and everyone, hopefully including the reader. And a lot of worldbuilding to convey.

It’s starting to sound like I need alternating tight third perspectives (no omniscient narrator knowing everything, because I need to keep secrets, but several different POVs to give the reader the wide view and all the info). I still don’t know exactly who should be telling this story out of the extensive cast (the problem of picking the person to narrate out of a large cast is a post in itself), but now I can start to see a structure that will let them tell it.

You may even get to read this thing some day.

***

What’s your point of view preference? First, third, don’t notice? Do you need a viewpoint character in multi-character books? Like unreliable first-person narrators? Think I’m making a terrible mistake and should write this thing in second person, future tense? Thoughts welcome! 

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14 thoughts on “Get Some Perspective: musing on different points of view

  1. It seems to me you need multiple third person unreliable narrators. Or at least some of then unreliable. You could have a lot of fun with characters who withhold information, maybe just hint at their secrets but don’t say them outright. You could also delve to different depths with different characters, showing thoughts and emotions of one, but sticking closer to the surface with the other. Nothing says the POV character needs to be an open book.

    I lean toward single person POVs, whether first or third–I enjoy the challenge of making the reader fall for the other protagonist through the POV character. However, single POV becomes impossible when the story has a complex plot and the protagonists have their own paths to follow. I found it challenging in my last paranormal mystery, and it’s not even a very complicated story.

    Reply
  2. That’s a really interesting thought. I’m thinking the betrayer will definitely be viewpoint but withholding. (cackles)

    I’m inclined to single POV too, but I’m just going to have to woman up if I’m to write this one…

    Reply
  3. Hmm. I’d say figure out which two or three characters you NEED to convey everything that must be conveyed. Those who change the most, or have the most to lose (plus witness the important events). But not anyone whose POV would reasonably convey knowledge you don’t want the reader to have. Nothing knocks me out of a story faster than something along the lines of “Then she told me something that revealed everything to me!” but the author wants to withhold the surprise so the narrator tauntingly doesn’t mention what it is until The Big Reveal. Now the narrator reasonably might not think of something right at that moment, or might misunderstand what’s going on, but in a tight third or first POV I think deliberately withholding info adds in that distance and directs the reader’s attention to the author behind the curtain.

    Now, when one character knows something (and the audience knows) and doesn’t tell the other characters, so the reader sees the train-wreck coming but must sit helplessly by while the characters march to their doom…that can amp up the tension big time!

    Just my two cents, of course! 🙂

    Reply
    • Yes, I agree. Even an established unreliable narrator not giving you vital info when it’s relevant is…showy. I mean, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (I surely don’t need to spoiler that, right?) is a purely genius piece of work as a detective puzzle but only works in the context of a genre where the author is actively trying to score points off the readers.

      Reply
  4. Well, it’s hard to comment without knowing the particulars but there are many viable ways of holding back information. Just because a character knows something, it doesn’t mean he is constantly thinking about it. He might not even realize the information is relevant.

    In Ginn Hale’s Rifter series one character loses a key and another finds it but it doesn’t come out into the open till much much later, even though the two spend most of the book together.

    Anyway, you have the skills to make it work. 😉

    Reply
    • Oh, yeah, that’s another cup of tea/can of worms (cup of worms?) altogether. That has to be really well handled by the author if the reader knows about it, otherwise it’s incredibly frustrating, but when well done it can be a brilliant plot-linker.

      Reply
  5. I’ve only managed to pull of anything long in first person once. I tried again more recently, but chickened out after 18,000 words, decided it wasn’t working and changed it to third limited. I have got a plan for a project in first person though. I loved writing the one where I think I did do it well, and I’d love to capture that again. It’s voice I think is the key for me. I have to feel like the character has a very distinctive voice.

    I did book a while back with a big ensemble of characters and came up with what I called character ranks to identify who should have the 3rd person limited POV in a given scene. The hero was obviously the top rank. Then the next step down were the sidekick, the love interest and the villain. After that various characters who had important things to do in the story, but maybe interacted more with the tier 2 characters than the hero. Like the love interest’s best friend, the villain’s lieutenants and people who were driving key sub plots but only rarely (or in one case, never!) interacting with the hero. After that was just “everyone else.”

    The principle was that the highest ranking character usually got the POV in the scene. So the hero, she got the POV in almost every scene she was in. In a scene without the hero then it would be someone from tier 1. If none of them were in the scene, then a tier 2 character etc. Two characters of equal rank in the same scene had to fight for it. 😉

    It didn’t apply every single time of course, but as a general principle it worked to keep the focus on the main and important characters, despite it being a large cast. And it did help with the characters who might have secrets from the reader. The sidekick had a hidden agenda, hinted at but only revealed near the end. But because she had a lot of scenes with the hero, it wasn’t too blatantly obvious that I was staying out of her POV in order to keep her agenda secret. SO yes, that worked very well I think for that story and if I ever do another one with an ensemble like that I’ll probably use the same method again.

    Right now with my romances I usually stick with having alternating third person limited POVs only from the two leads. It makes sure I keep the focus very much on their story and their relationship. And I try to balance it out so they get around the same number of scenes each.

    Reply
    • OK, that is *really* clever. Makes a huge amount of sense and would minimise headhopping and multiplicity of viewpoints. I am going to steal this tactic.

      Reply
  6. You probably already figured out the answer to this problem, but just in case you haven’t, from what you wrote I don’t think this is actually a problem choosing POVs so much as a problem of building a world first then putting characters in it rather than building the world around the plot to emphasize the character’s conflict. Or, what I’m going to now officially name the “Dollhouse Syndrome.”

    I’m thinking this b/c you describe characters by function like “the betrayer” rather than by their names or any other part of their identity. So I guess I would suggest looking at looking at the function of the world–i.e. what you built that world to demonstrate, then choose the character whose character arc best proves your point. I would also suggest avoiding 3 POVs unless you want the book to be HUGE or can keep the conflict to be very small and personal.

    Reply
    • Mmm, interesting. I do have the characters – I actually didn’t want to name the betrayer on the minuscule chance i can make this work and then I’d have given it away – but I think you’re spot on about identifying the conflict and having a POV that works for the key strands.

      Reply
  7. Yeah, I was thinking about this more while I was at the vet just now. In my experience editing (and monitoring reader response to) these great big zillion-character, multi-locational fantasy epics they key problem is avoiding redundancy while reiterating what’s going on often enough that readers remain engaged. Switching POV seems like the right answer for this, but actually I would argue that the bigger the story is the more likely readers are to get information fatigue and therefore reducing the number of POVs is crucial so that the reader at least gets to stick with their one or two buddies for the whole journey. Cause that’s a lot of information to take in and a lot of readers will not be able to remember it, but will go along b/c they like hanging out with the protag. Does the story have a strong romantic line? Or is it more of a traditional fantasy?

    Reply
    • This is really true. I am perfectly capable of getting lost with three POV characters, let alone ten. Plus, for me, I only want POV of plot-crucial people, I don’t like POV used for infodump. I hate the thing you sometimes get in thrillers where we hop into someone’s head and learn about their struggles with dyslexia and plan to propose to their girlfriend, and then they get blown up by a car bomb. But we care about that because now we have feelz for them! Pah.

      This isn’t a big sprawling all-over-the-continent-of-ZZg’ud epic, it’s fairly tight geographically and with a very integrated group of characters and a couple of romances, many unhealthy…

      Reply
      • I think that thriller thing is kinda lazy. It’s head hopping masquerading as Wodehouse-style omniscience. (I was just reading some Blandings stories and remarking how good he was at POV, but those are humor, not suspense. You kinda want that feeling of a disembodied narrator in humor, IMHO, so you’re in on the joke w/ the narrator, rather than being the character.)

        RE: Epic. Okays, then I guess I’d suggest avoiding using POV of charas whose motivations you want to hide, as holding out on them will just makes the readers mad. Then going with the most stakes-laden chara and making him/her really charismatic.

        Also, and this is just a side note. If this is a secondary world story, make sure to closely watch for anachronistic language. A massive segment of the regular fantasy readership will reject entirely a story that’s got sword-wielding charas using identifiably modern phrasing. (This isn’t that much of a problem for the romance readers, who care less about making their daydreams concrete.)

        Reply
  8. Pingback: Self Editing Tips: Line edits | KJ Charles

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