The other day I was someplace I had to wait for awhile, and I didn’t have a car book, so I bought a book at a drug store. (Note to self: Never let this happen again!) It was a terrible book—at least as far as I read—and I’m not going to talk about it here except to say that it got me thinking about point of view.
Point of view (POV) is the way the writer chooses to tell the story. It isn’t the narrative voice, although the two are closely linked. POV is analogous to the use of the cameras in a movie.
Two most common types of POV are first person and third person.
First person is “I.” Third person is “she,” “he” or “they”. Second person is “you” and is used occasionally, mostly as stunt-writing or some stylistic trick. Once in awhile you will see it—oh! Like right there—with a folksy first-person narrative voice. “I pulled my hair up in a scrunchie. You know how some days you just can’t be bothered? This was one of those days.”
Many nineteenth century novels are first person novels. This, I think, is because early novels in English were written in the form of letters (epistolary novels). Since letters, written from one friend to another, are first-person documents, novels followed suit. New writers and literary writers still often prefer first person narratives. I don’t know why. First-person makes it very difficult to impart information to the reader, and, for me, creates distance. The “I” in my head is certainly not me, it’s the person telling me the story. Many modern writers who use first person narratives end up alternating chapters with 3rd person POV to make their stories work, as in The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber. One thing you can get with a first-person story, though, is a great narrative voice. Think about Huck Finn.
Once a writer chooses 3rd person POV, there are still choices to be made. Basically, there are three types of 3rd person POV: 3rd person omniscient, 3rd person objective and 3rd person close.
In 3rd person omniscient, the reader sees all and knows all. The writer can give any information he/she wants, sharing character’s thoughts, feelings and history and even including information the characters don’t know yet.
“As Doug reached across the campfire, the flame flared, singeing his wrist. He jerked back his arm, as pain filled him. Doug had a low tolerance for pain, inherited from his father, whose threshold was so low that he could be incapacitated for hours by a paper-cut. From his father, however, Doug had also learned chivalry, so he struggled to appear calm for Maisie. Maisie, who had always relied on men to take care of her, stared at him wide-eyed across the fire, hoping Doug would not disappoint her.”
3rd person objective is where the writer tells us nothing of the character’s interiority, recording only speech, actions, physical attributes and behavior. One term for it is, “I Am a Camera.” A great example of 3rd person objective is Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon. We never know what any of the characters are thinking or really feeling. This creates suspense. If you haven’t read it, go find an excerpt somewhere online and take a minute. Find a section with dialogue. Oh, wait, that’s just silly. It’s practically all dialogue, which is also the reason the book made such an easy and excellent transition to the silver screen.
Here is an example without dialogue:
“As Doug reached across the campfire, the flame flared, singeing his wrist. He hissed, jerking back his hand and cradling it against his chest. For a moment he swayed on his feet, his eyelids fluttering. Maisie gasped, her eyes wide.”
3rd person objective puts a lot of weight on the dialogue and actions of your characters. 3rd person objective challenges you, as a writer, to pay strict attention to actions, tics and nonverbal clues, and use them precisely and wisely. I don’t write in 3rd person objective much.
In 3rd person close, the writer can park the reader right in the character’s head. We experience what they’ve thinking and feeling.
“As Doug reached across the campfire, the flame flared, licking at his wrist. A searing wave of pain rolled up his arm. He hissed and yanked back his hand. The pain continued to pulse, and black spots winked at the corner of his vision. He thought he was going to pass out, the way his dad always had when something hurt him. He sucked in a deep breath. He couldn’t black out. Maisie needed him to be strong.”
The beauty of these 3rd person choices is that a writer can shift among them in the same story. For example, you can use close 3rd person POV for one character and always have another in 3rd person objective. This creates mystery and even, perhaps, a sense of danger.
“Maisie opened her eyes, awakened by the strange persistent sound, a soft scraping. Heart thumping, she sat up, clutching the airline blanket to her chest. Doug sat across the dying fire, head bent, his hands moving in a methodical, rhythmic manner. The glowing coals highlighted the shape of his mouth and the strands of brown hair, but hid his eyes from her. As the reddish light danced off the thing he held, she suddenly understood what the sound was. He was stroking the blade of his pocketknife on a stone. ‘Doug? What are you doing?’
He stroked the blade along the surface of the rock twice more. “Go back to sleep, Maisie,” he said, still not looking up. “I’ll take care of everything.”
As a writer, you’re most likely to get into trouble when you lose track of POV. Generally speaking, even if you move into and out of the heads of your characters, you should stay in the same POV through an entire paragraph.
Very close 3rd person POV, when the foundations haven’t been laid, can confuse the reader:
“Doug carried his tray over to the table where Maisie sat playing with her i-phone. She ignored him when he sat down next to her. She thought he was lower than dirt.”
Huh? Unless Doug’s inferiority complex has been alluded to previously, this is awkward.
Shifting from close to omniscient is something you see occasionally, usually with newer writers. It almost never works.
“The fire flared, burning Doug’s wrist and he hissed with pain. His father had a low threshold for pain also. What would Maisie think? Maisie, whose mother had run a Fortune 500 company in the 1980’s was wondering how she had ended up on this plane. Unbeknownst to either of them, in Guatemala, a hyacinth macaw launched itself from a treetop and flapped across the azure sky.”
If this is your paragraph, you’d better be writing a book about chaos theory.
This kind of thing really happens more when someone wants to do close 3rd person but also wants to foreshadow something. Then you get paragraphs like this:
“Hung-over, Doug staggered toward the refrigerator. His head was pounding and he hoped he wouldn’t throw up. As he reached for a beer he heard the mail slither through the mail slot. He trudged in and picked it up. Bills, bill, more bills, and a letter on blinding white bond, from the Law Offices of Baggem, Taggem and Scute. He threw the mail on the table. He could never have known how that one envelope would change his life.”
That’s right, he couldn’t, and neither can we. We are in Doug’s aching head right up until the moment we know something he doesn’t. Is there another way to make that envelope stick in the reader’s mind?
“Head pounding, Doug leaned over to scoop up the mail. One envelope slipped from his fingers and dropped onto the floor. Sighing, he bent down slowly and picked it up, squinting against the glare off its blinding white surface. From the Law Offices of . . . He rubbed his head, staring at the letter. Must be a collection agency. He threw the envelope on the table, where it came to rest on a stack of unpaid bills.”
You could also convincingly do a rather straightforward foreshadowing thing, if you started in 3rd person omniscient. This creates a rather distanced tone. Not saying it’s bad, I’m just saying.
“The day Doug got the letter that changed his life, he was trying to survive the second-worst hangover he had ever had.”
I personally don’t write fiction in first person. It’s also not my favorite POV to read in modern works, mainly because it usually seems mannered and distant in the hands of modern writers. There are some surprising exceptions. Robert B. Parker writes the Spenser novels mostly in first person. Decades ago, Parker perfected the tough-yet-tender private eye voice, and Spenser works best in first person. Even the action has a clipped, matter-of-fact feel to it. Now, Parker is the king of dialogue, and his books are mostly dialogue, which may be why the first person thing works. His Jesse Stone series is written in third person. Jesse Stone is a lot like Spenser. Clipped, machine-gun dialogue and blasé yet accurate action sequences abound, and for me they read flat. Stone would be more engaging in first person.
The first Lee Childs novel I read had the captivating title of Bad Luck and Trouble. It is late in the Jack Reacher series, but unlike some of the earlier Reacher novels, it gives us a little back-story about Reacher and his old team, who reunite to figure out who is killing them off. It was interesting, and the last forty five pages were totally compelling, but I almost didn’t get there because the third person point of view created a character in Reacher that I didn’t care for (or about). Flat, inconsistent, alternately badass and implausibly naive. Because I thought Childs had something going on, though, I picked up an earlier book, Persuader, later. Persuader is written in first person POV. The plot is absolutely, from the first few pages, unbelievable, and I didn’t care. I was riveted, totally sucked in by this character’s voice. In first person, Reacher’s moments of naiveté function more like poignancy—”wouldn’t it be nice if the world could be this way, instead of the way it is?” The fight scenes and the action scenes carry the authority that we see in Spenser; the terse account of a fighting man who has killed before, who doesn’t enjoy it, but is willing to do it again if he has to.
For me, the question that has to be answered about first-person is, “Why?” Is there a compelling reason to use it? In the hands of a gifted writer, just creating a wonderful voice is reason enough. You need to use first person to create an unreliable narrator, as Edgar Allen Poe did so well and Tara French attempts in In the Woods.
Eighteenth and nineteenth century readers got their information and entertainment mostly from letters, and novels evolved from that. Twenty-first century readers get much of our information and entertainment from television; multiple points of view, rapid transitions,overlapping rapid-fire dialogue, time shifts with no warning, flashing forward and backward. Prose is evolving, drifting (or racing) in that direction. Hmm, maybe in five years novels will be just bullet-point lists with hyperlinks. What POV do we have then? Third person-hyperlink?
In other news, Paul Krugman’s Conscience of a Liberal is now my car book.