Writing Question: Point of View

A story’s point of view (POV) affects the entire story, from how much information the author can divulge to how a reader empathizes with the protagonist. Choosing a point of view is one of the most fundamental choices an author can make. We asked Odyssey graduates:

Have you tried experimenting with different points of view for your stories? How does the viewpoint change the story itself? How does it change the experience of writing and reading the story?  How do you know which viewpoint is best for a particular story? 

Bob Sojka, Class of 2008

I’m sure this is an iconoclastic opinion, but here goes anyway. Point of view is one of those sacred cows that I see worshipped in the classroom, but freely butchered in the market place. Actually POV teaching is a small herd of sacred cows. A couple of the most notable “cows” are that omniscient POV is kind of passe– the art form has advanced and POV through a given character is more satisfying; another is that POV shifts need to be compartmentalized, contained in sections of stories or chapters, or chapters of full novels.

I personally think blanket statements along these lines, like any other blanket statements about how to do art, are invitations to brilliant artists to nuke the statements. Having said that, I don’t think I’m brilliant enough to take them lightly. Many successful contemporary novelists freely employ omniscient points of view. It is far rarer to find POV shifts not structured in sections, but I have seen this done creatively where fonts are used to show simultaneous POV among (usually two) characters.

For me the hardest decision is whether to tell the story in first or third person. (I have only written one story in second person and find it extraordinarily challenging…and still haven’t sold it.) Another sacred cow seems to be that first person is somehow generally less desirable than third person. Yet when I read, I find no correlation to (my) reader satisfaction or to the career status of the writer related to this choice at all. I think control of POV is much easier to achieve when writing in the first person (not surprising). Yet another sacred cow (actually I’ve had instructors who worshipped competing breeding lines for this cow) is that third person draws the reader in more effectively than first person. Whenever I hear that I scratch my head. When reading, I personally am always drawn in faster and deeper to first person narrations than third. However, when writing, first person really locks you in to the information limitations of the narrating character.

When I make the choice of first or third person narration it is usually based on how I expect the reader to relate to the main character. The more personal I expect that to be, and the more that the story is driven by the internal mental and emotional makeup and metamorphosis of that character, the more likely I am to write in the first person.

Overall, I think a writer needs to be brave enough to pursue his vision of how to tell a story. On the other hand, he needs to understand what the conventions are, and the dangers of breaking conventions, especially if not done well, and especially if he is not a well-established writer. But I also know that if I am not writing first and foremost to satisfy myself as a writer, the story always suffers, sometimes to the point of not getting finished or revised or marketed. But that’s probably grist for a different column entirely.

Amy Tibbetts, Class of 2004

Point of View is something I had a problem with before Odyssey (but I didn’t know it).

I had never thought about it or paid much attention to it pre-Odyssey, but POV is really a much more subtle and complex story element than I would have guessed. Before Odyssey, I tended to use first person POV as a default, without thinking about whether it was the right choice for a story. I just felt like I “heard” the character talking to me in the first person, so that’s how I wrote it.

First person, however, is actually a difficult point of view to pull off. (Many young writers use first person without realizing how difficult it is to use effectively.) In first person, the character is always TELLING the reader how she feels, rather than SHOWING it. Counter-intuitively, a first person POV often creates DISTANCE between the reader and the character; the reader is hearing about the character’s experiences, rather than experiencing the story THROUGH the character’s eyes (as with a close third person).

There are exceptions to this–To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, or Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries, which both have strong narrative voice–but in general, a writer needs to study POV carefully before understanding how to use first person effectively. (It’s also harder to create tension when you know the character survives the story to tell it.)

So after Odyssey, I learned (am still learning) to master close third POV as my default. Now I only depart from that POV if I want to experiment, or if a particular story must be told in another POV.

Also, before Odyssey I never thought much about the difference between omniscient and close third POVs. I never thought about basic POV violations, like how you can’t describe the expression on a POV character’s face (because she can’t see it herself). And there is a whole spectrum from close third to more distant third  person POV, a range of POVs with subtle differences between them.

If I’m struggling with getting the character voice in a story just right, I might try switching to first person, or to a closer or more distant variation of third person, to see what fits best.

I also like the fairy-tale narrator voice of an omniscient POV, but there are only certain stories for which that would be the right choice.

For novels or complicated scenes, I might try rewriting the same scene from the POV of more than one character to see what happens. (That’s for when there is more than one POV character, with close third for each of them).

Abby Goldsmith, Class of 2004

What a timely topic! I’m revising the beginning of my novel for the thousandth time, and these edits often involve redoing a scene from another character’s point of view.

One issue that’s affected by the point of view is sexual tension. I’m setting up two characters to be romantically involved later in the series, but in the beginning of this first book it’s a lopsided relationship. Alex is secretly infatuated with Margot, but she doesn’t see him as more than a friend. I usually use Alex’s POV during the first scene in which these two characters are seen together, which makes his infatuation obvious. But I just re-approached the first scene from Margot’s POV. She doesn’t consider him a romantic interest, so I had to try to clue the reader in with his body language and dialogue, while Margot’s POV makes it clear to the reader why she would reject him.

The main problem I’m tackling with this current revision is character motivation. I cut out 100,000 words from the original beginning, and I find it difficult to restructure the nuts and bolts while recreating the spark between the characters. The edits are usually minor changes, such as employing a different POV, or a different location for a scene. Little changes can have huge consequences, especially in the beginning of an epic series. I’m locked into the main characters and plot–I won’t change the basics after I’ve written four books–so I focus instead on how the story is told.

I face a particular problem with the POV of a mind reader. With my character Thomas, I use third-person limited, but his POV is also omniscient, in some respects. He always knows how the people around him think and feel. I have to use his POV sparingly when he’s among other protagonists, because he imparts a lot of information to the reader. He spends most of the novel apart from his friends, in enemy territory, where his POV fits comfortably and acts as a good filter for the emotionless Torth. However, in the beginning of the novel, I need to set him up as a character among his friends, which is a real challenge.

I’ve been told that I should avoid beginning the novel in Thomas’s POV. I’m not sure about this, since he’s the main protagonist. However, his problems in the beginning are hard for “normal” people to relate to, which can put off readers. He’s dealing with fame and keeping his mind reading power a secret. So I’m trying an approach where I open the novel in the POV of my most “normal” character, who sees Thomas from her normal POV. This, in turn, affects the first Thomas POV chapter, since the reader already knows a few things about him. It’s a difficult balancing act, since Thomas is a harsh character; a dark hero. So now, when I showed his POV for the first time, I edited the scene to lighten him up and try to make him as sympathetic as possible. I also played up his most “normal” concern, to find his birth mother.

For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.


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