Everything is about Point of View

It’s the answer to so many of the writing questions I see commonly on message boards.

“How much description of characters should there be?”
“Can I conceal information from the reader?”
“Is it okay to use swearing in the narration?”

The answer to all starts with “It depends on the point of view.” POV colours everything about the story. It’s one of the key choices the writer makes when they begin to write. In its most basic form the question is “Do I write this in first person, or third?”

If it’s in first person, is it meant to be a written or spoken account? People often write quite differently than they speak, so that’s an important choice. Or is it epistlitory? (Letters, emails etc.) Will there be only one first person narrator or several? For multiple first person viewpoints I think the written account and epistlitory forms work better than straightforward first person. Examples include Dracula and The Moonstone .

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick NessFirst person can be incredibly powerful, and take the reader deep into the mind of the narrator, sometimes in a very unusual voice. Take Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go. It’s in first person POV, but the characters in the story are telepathic, so the narrator’s voice is not the only one in his head. And there are what’s called “unreliable” narrators. First person narrators who may not be telling the truth, either deliberately, or because they don’t know what’s true and what’s not. The narrator of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is unreliable. He’s delusional. But his hallucinations are presented in the book the same as everything else he sees, because to him they’re real. This also leaves you wondering if there are any other things he sees that aren’t obvious hallucinations, but might be so. We can’t know, we can only see what the unreliable narrator sees.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo IshiguroFirst person narration usually has a distinctive voice. Someone I consider masterful at handling first person is Kazuo Ishiguro. His novels The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are both in first and both have very different voices. The first formal, repressed, the later chatty, rather shallow. Yet they have something in common. In both it’s clear to the reader that something else is going on under the surface, something the narrator is unwittingly revealing while not appearing to consciously understand it. So are those narrators unreliable? Perhaps a little. Not as much as someone actually suffering from delusions, but they aren’t giving the reader the full picture, at least not deliberately.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken KeseyThird person is the most popular POV in genre fiction, but it’s got many more variations than first. The two major ones though are third limited and third omniscient. (There are variations on these names too! And let’s not even get into the whole area of “distance.”) In third limited, there might be several different viewpoint characters in a book, but only one per scene, or perhaps chapter. When we’re in the POV of a character theirs is the only mind we can see into, until we move to a new scene and another character’s POV. In third omniscient, the writer lets the reader see into the minds of any characters in the scene they choose to. Neither of these are easy to do! The writer using third limited has to be wary of POV violations, and the writer using third omniscient has to avoid the dreaded “head hopping”, leaving readers bewildered as to whose thoughts are whose.

Right Ho Jeeves by P.G. WodehouseSome people would ask, if a whole book is in the third person limited POV of one character, then why not do it in first person? The answer can be simply down to sales. It’s not uncommon to see readers express a dislike of first person and refuse to read any book in first. Perhaps they can’t get past the odd mix of naturalism and artificiality of a first person novel. I mean, how is Bertie Wooster, usually the first person narrator of Jeeves and Wooster stories telling these stories so well when he’s supposedly an idiot? Personally I love a good first person story.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo IshiguroHow do I decide on POV? I’ve only ever written on novel length story in first person. I started another recently, and about eighteen thousand words in decided that POV wasn’t working and changed to third! So I do love first person, but I find it hard to come up with a story to use it in. In my romances I decided that I usually write my stories so that every scene is in the POV of one of the couple. That means I have to plan the story in such a way that I can tell it entirely through scenes that include at least one of the couple. It really helps me stay focused on those characters and their relationship. I don’t say I’ll never break this rule, but it’s not something I’ll do lightly when I do.

Let’s go back to those questions from the start.

How much character description to include? It depends on what your POV character is likely to notice.

And what about concealing information from the reader? It’s kind of cheating to do it in first person. It’s easier in third, since not every word of the story is the narrator’s thoughts. If concealing something is important you either give the first person POV to someone who doesn’t know it, or use third and tease…

Swearing in the narration? The narration should reflect the character who’s got the POV. Do you know, readers of my books, that though Higher Ground is erotic romance with explicit sex scenes it only has the word “fuck”, or variations in it six times? Neither Zach nor Adam are very sweary guys. On the other hand, with potty-mouthed Kit I hate to imagine how many there are in Stowaway!

Always consider POV. It underlies so many choices the writer makes.

Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress
Further Reading
For lots more about POV check out this book by Nancy Kress, who writes amazing writing craft books.

9 thoughts on “Everything is about Point of View

  1. I’ve written stories in both first and third POV, but I definitely lean toward the latter. I’m one of those curious people who just has to know what everybody is thinking, or at least what the main characters are thinking. First person point of view can be very powerful, but it can also be very narrow.

  2. Nice post 🙂
    It all depends how perceptive and attentive the first pov character is ;p
    I prefer the language to be coloured with their identity. Third feels so far away to me.

    All interesting tho! 🙂

  3. I have to force myself to use 3rd person these days, I’ve written too many books in a row (Junction X, I Knew Him, Brush with Darkness, Mere Mortals) in first person and I do love it because you can really ride along with the character. However I’m making myself do 3rd for the next couple, because I feel people are going to complain at some point if I carry on.

    First person is invaluable for mysteries though, it is such fun letting your character see everything that’s going on, and yet getting it SO wrong, because he’s getting the wrong end of the stick. It’s also fun to play with romance in first because–like normal people do–character misread others’ signals and that can lead to so much conflict!

    good post, as usual – I wish I could come up with interesting bloggy stuff to say.

    1. I wonder if some people are natural first person people and others natural third person.

      First is great for mysteries, I agree. Means everyone but the narrator can be a suspect.

      I’ve already got my subject and some notes for next week’s “opinion” post. A bit controversial – I hope!

  4. I’m not overly sure I could write a whole novel in first person. I’ve done a short story but not a whole novel. I did read Adele Park’s Love Lies (or something like that) which is written in first. And her cheat, so you get to see other character povs was to have one chapter in the heroine, and another in the hero… and would be titled thus so with their names, so you knew whose head you were in.

    1. Yeah, I’m not so keen on multiple first person, usually. Sometimes it works fine. I’ve read something that switched between first person present tense and third person past tense and barely even noticed until a few pages in that the book was doing something that should be annoying me, but wasn’t.

      So I don’t like multiple first person, except when I do. 😀

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