Tell me if this is weird: As a writer of fiction, I never think about character point-of-view. My process is
1) Get a story idea
2) Start typing
Now that I’ve been poking around WordPress for a year, I realize I have a choice! I can be the main character. You can be the main character (don’t worry; I won’t do that to you). I can report on my main character. I can report on everybody. Or I can pick a different character altogether and start over. Who knew?
Yes, I’m being silly. I just think it’s boring to drag out English-teacher phrases like “Third Person Omniscient” right away. Yawn. But I’m serious that I never think about POV. So far, the POV demons have made the correct choices for me.
[For the unsure, there are no such things as POV gods, because gods are busier with more important things like cake and sports. I tried to hire POV angels, but they were like, “Yeah, right.”]
What about you? Do you have a hard time deciding between first and third person? Are you ever uncertain about which of your characters should be the reader surrogate? Here are some choices I’ve made and why:
1. I play the main character
I often use first-person narration for shorter pieces because it gives me a chance to play with different writing voices, like “crazy” or “evil,” that might become annoying in a longer work. I typically combine first person with present tense, which lends immediacy.
First person is also useful for studying someone else’s character arc. Few of us walk around in life saying, “And that’s how I learned that relationships are more important than money!” If the first-person narrator learns something in such a telegraphed manner, the story is going to seem like an after-school special. If you have been reading this blog recently, you know I’ve been tossing around the idea of self-publishing a short-story collection. In the micro-novel I intend as the lead tale, the primary arc belongs to my narrator’s counterpart. He grows as a person as well, but he doesn’t notice, because it would be hokey if he did.
The pitfall of first person is you have to be in every scene, potentially limiting the scope the story… unless the whole novel is letters from different people or newspaper clippings or whatever, but that’s a tough sell. Also, with a novel-length work in first person, the reader is eventually going to ask, “Now when did this vampire sit down to write a 317-page novel?”
2. I am in my main character’s head… or at least hanging from his uvula
Perhaps I want to do an action-oriented piece, a character observation, or something heavily metaphorical, and I can’t imagine a scenario by which the main character could have taken time or had the inclination to write it down. Also, this approach lets me describe events on a scope that is beyond the character’s perception or awareness. It allows the reader to be intimate with the character yet not be trapped in her head.
Unless one is incredibly insightful, this narrative option might be useful when writing a character who is a different gender or ethnicity or is dramatically distant in age from the writer. Such a thing can be done in first person, but it can be done quite poorly.
I probably use this method to please readers and rule makers rather than myself, and I’ll elaborate in a minute. The pitfall for limited third-person POV is the same as that of first person. Your main character has to be in every scene, so you’re out of luck for simultaneous narratives you intend to unify later.
3. I am God, and you will do my bidding!
If you have several story threads going at once and a lot of characters, you kinda have to go with third-person omniscient. You know more than your characters know, because you are everywhere. You report the best bits to us.
I like this approach for writing novels. Especially the one I’m working on (cough cough). I have four story threads, each one told in third-person limited, but at some point they will all come together, and I can’t abandon three of the main characters for one, can I?
So this is what I was talking about a minute ago when I said I use third-person limited to please readers and rule makers: I know I am in an extreme minority here, but I think it is absolutely possible, as a narrator, to be a brain jumper. My pal Jodi at My Literary Quest, whose recent post inspired this one, disagrees with me adamantly. But I believe it’s only a problem when it’s done poorly. When it’s done right, you don’t notice.
The great mystery writer Agatha Christie was a genius at brain jumping. Read “And Then There Were None,” or any of the early ones not narrated by Captain Hastings. She jumps from person to person multiple times within one scene, and it works. My first full-length manuscript, written in 2008-09, wasn’t good, but one thing I did well was get into the heads of my two lovers and show them learning about each other as they fumbled along. Well, until the murders started, that is. Do I look like Nicholas Sparks to you?
I’m discovering something interesting about the so-called omniscience in my WIP: My characters are all under 15, so, though the narration is TPO, I’m omitting observations and awareness I feel are excusive to mature, adult thinking. This particular god, though able to create a universe, in only as clever and dimensional as the young characters he placed in it.
Your thoughts, ideas, arguments?
Here’s “Taking in the View” by Kansas, a beautiful, unjustly forgotten song. Worth three minutes of your time!