Choosing a Character POV

cyclopsTell 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.

hydra

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!

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81 responses to “Choosing a Character POV

  • LaMonique Hamilton

    Once I feel like I know my characters, and they trust me enough to write their story (because they’re really my imaginary friends), I dig in and get the story done. I don’t think about mechanics, grammar, synchronicity, or anything else until the revision. I hope that the skills I picked up in college can carry me somewhat, but it’s much easier to worry about the critical things once the story is on the page.

    • ericjbaker

      That probably speaks to your maturity as a writer. As I’ve gotten better over the years, more and more of the good things I do happen organically. It’s probably the same for you.

  • godschick

    I like your blog…informative! Thank you.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    All the writing I’ve done to this point has been either third-person limited or first-person. My WIP is in first-person.

    These two are my preferred POVs for both writing and reading. They just seem more natural to me. In real life, I only know what’s happening from my perspective: I don’t know the thoughts of others, or what they do when I’m not there. Thus, only following a single character and being privy to his/her thoughts in a story feels more life-like to me, and helps me relate to the character better.

    I don’t really care for shifting POVs, usually because I never like all characters equally. (This was a big problem for me when I read Game of Thrones, although oddly it doesn’t bother me at all watching it on TV.)

    I agree with you that omniscient can indeed be done effectively. That said, I find it feels a bit old-fashioned. That, and it makes for a less nuanced story, thus offering less of a mental challenge to the reader to figure out what’s really going on.

    • ericjbaker

      All good points, as usual. I’m particularly intrigued by your last comment. I’m prone toward giving too much information in business settings, so I have to make sure I’m not hand-holding my readers as well. I do know what you mean about TPO being old-fashioned, but I don’t see how I’m going to get around it when I unify my threads. I’ll just let my fingers type and trust them to do me right. You can let me know if I managed to pull it off.

      • Janna G. Noelle

        Sure, I can let you know. I don’t read too much omniscient these days, so it would be good to re-expand that horizon.

        One of my big pet peeves when I read is being told too much. I really like to be left to wonder a bit if I’m interpreting things correctly, and don’t even mind if I’m still left wondering at the end. I also like it when characters aren’t too extreme in either their badness or their goodness. I’m all for moral ambiguity (in fiction, in any case).

        • ericjbaker

          It’s tough to find that sweet spot. I’ve written ambiguous endings I thought were cool, but beta readers told me they were unsatisfying. You can get tugged back and forth in rewrites trying to please everyone, so, ultimately, I’m just going to write the stories I want to write.

          In mulling over the responses I got to this post, I’m thinking first person is probably more immediately engrossing, because readers are discovering the story along with the protagonist. It won’t work with my WIP, though.

  • tsuchigari

    Well done, applause! Thanks for the nod, always appreciate being invited to the party. I’ll stand firm behind the rule of not head hopping during scenes, although you defended your case well.

    • ericjbaker

      Hi there! Do you know yours is the first blog i ever followed on WordPress?

      If you are ever in the mood for a quick read, check out “And Then There Were None.” The multiple PsOV are not obtrusive at all. At least I think so. I’d be curious to hear your take.

      • nrhatch

        I just added “And Then There Were None” to my library queue. I think I may have read it before . . . but Agatha is always worth a re-read.

        Thanks!

        • ericjbaker

          The butler did it!

          By the way, don’t ever read the Wikipedia entry on Dame Agatha. They give away the endings to several of her books.

        • nrhatch

          Yes. Wikipedia spilled the beans about The Mousetrap . . . to great outcry and consternation ~ that play’s never been made into a movie because it has to end its 50+ year run in theatres first.

  • Tuesday

    About the only thing I remember from high school English is reading ‘Waiting for Godot’ and learning about existentialism – which literally bored me to tears. So I would have quite a time trying to figure out what point of view I was writing in/from. In general, I’m like you: I think up a story and I start typing. Usually all that point of view stuff settles itself right away.
    I am occasionally weirded out by whatever point of view it is that comes up quite a bit in sitcom type shows where one character is telling the story, but they are not in every scene (think, ‘How I Met Your Mother’ or ‘Sex & The City’). Obviously the narrator/main character is not everywhere, but somehow they seem to know everything that happens. Weird, no? I have often wondered, “How did they know about this encounter? Did someone tell them about it later? Are there no secrets??” It’s as though they know everything and nothing all at once.

    • ericjbaker

      I’d say those characters either dreaming the whole time or turned out to be ghosts and didn’t know. Because those are always the most satisfying explanations.

      😉

      I saw a movie in which the narrator began by saying, “200 years ago, in a small Spanish village, lived a beggar…” Then the narrator shows up in the movie as a character halfway through. Uh…

      I do remember Waiting for Godot, but I don’t recall talking about existentialism. My English teacher was a Monty Python fan, though, so we probably watched “The Holy Grail” instead.

  • Richard Leonard

    Good topic!
    I started writing a novel about 10 years ago as a stupid attempt at doing something exclusively in 2nd person (hey, we’re allowed to experiment. Don’t judge me!). I quickly found it’s extremely hard to do without dropping in some 1st person. So I gave up on the idea and it turned into 1st person. I then realised the same as you. Namely, how does the main character get the opportunity to write this down. I think I solved this by having her write her experience in a diary (you might have read snippets of this recently… in fact I think you’ve left comments on said snippets 🙂 ). In case this is a bit of a cliche I decided to make the diary an actual part of the story later on. If that too is a cliche then bad luck. That’s what it will be.
    But generally I haven’t stuck to that. I’ve probably written more TPO stuff in many of my short stories.
    But how to choose? I’ve always felt the story can be split into two things: 1. The story proper and 2. the presentation of the story.
    The story proper is always TPO because it covers everything; every character’s action, every event in every place. Everywhere. Every time. This usually doesn’t escape from a writer’s head in any written for except maybe as an Outline.
    The presentation of the story is sort of like a film adaptation except it’s a written adaptation of the story proper. It can be from 1st person from any one of the characters, it can be third person limited from any character or it can be TPO. It could also be confusing and be in 1st person from two characters POV’s (I’ve seen that done). Depending on the story proper, only one way to present the story will actually work well. I think if the write concentrates on the Story Proper first, they should be able to work out the best POV to present. However, an editor might have different opinions!
    As a software engineer I would call this designing the story, and then implementing the story. The problem with some engineering projects (especially software) and books is that there is too much implementation and too little design.

    • ericjbaker

      I have been snippeted by your story and look forward to reading the whole thing one day. By the way, I think it was wise to ditch second-person. Even when done well, I find it distracting.

      That’s an interesting perspective on storytelling (are you a gamer by any chance?). The story is there and can be told from any number of POVs, and any combination of events can be highlighted. That’s why I like writing these posts about writing, because other bloggers come back with new and interesting ways of considering the same subject!

      • Richard Leonard

        Thanks Eric, I appreciate your support.
        Not so much a gamer now. The last game I played to the end was Counterstrike. Not sure if it’s related to the idea about stories though. I’ve toyed with the idea of actually writing two story-presentations based on the same story-proper, but haven’t got around to it. I might have got the idea from Stephen King who is known for the many crossovers between his novels. They led me to think of them like a Venn digram with lots of sets with many intersections.

  • kathils

    I’ve tried first person, I just can’t make it work for me. I’m pretty much a third-person . . . not to be confused with a third wheel. 😉 But I do switch POVs. I think if I tried to be omniscient, I would drive myself crazy. (um . . . crazier)

  • Arkenaten

    I prefer being the puppet master. Much more fun.

    • ericjbaker

      The only thing missing from your comment is a “Muhahahahaha!”

      Nick Hornby is pretty good at first person novels. For some weird reason, I imagine your writing to be like his. Maybe it’s because your title is slightly Hornby-eque.

  • phillyd3

    Reblogged this on phillideethree and commented:
    hmmm…. interesting!

  • caedmonrhys

    I am undertaking to write a novel with 7 main characters and writing each one in a variation of first-person. That’s my favorite. I like getting in their heads.

    • ericjbaker

      Are they going to be in scenes together or will you switch PsOV by chapter?

      • caedmonrhys

        I switch by chapter. Each chapter rotates into a different character’s POV which also takes the reader to different geographical locations within the story.

        • ericjbaker

          Sounds like a fun and interesting project, perhaps similar to my WIP in that one respect. Maybe we should compare notes when they are closer to completion.

        • caedmonrhys

          I would love that! What’s your genre?

        • ericjbaker

          Well, that’s my biggest failing as a writer: I hop, bend, and blend genres. I do horror, psychological sci-fi (if such a thing exists), crime noir (from the criminal’s perspective), and generally supernatural things. Sometimes I blend all of those. Twilight Zonish is probably the best bucket to put it all in.

          My WIP is an apocalyptic survival story following the lives of four kids in alternating chapters.

        • caedmonrhys

          I love blending! And post-apocalypse! Somehow that just never gets old. If ever I have opportunity to read your work, I think I’d enjoy that very much!

  • prestopub

    I wish I could get myself to, just write, I spend hat feels like an eternity thinking about everything but writing.

    Michael McClain

  • prestopub

    I’m going to try it, thank you.

    Michael McClain

  • nrhatch

    Like you, I start telling stories without making a conscious decision about POV.

    My current short story, A Peculiar Party Under The Palms, is 1st person which allows me to reveal what Nancy McGee discovers as she discovers it. Fun for a short mystery.

    Each started, incomplete, to-be-finished novel is third person omniscient. Maybe I don’t finish them because I get tired of playing god. :mrgreen:

    • ericjbaker

      i’m hoping you will post that somewhere in one piece so I can read it all at my leisure. I’d like to dedicate a block of time to it.

      I said this in response to an earlier comment, but it seems like experienced writers are able to let their stories play out organically. I guess my blog is all about giving advice to people who don’t need it!

      So how many half-finished manuscripts are you sitting on?

      • nrhatch

        Per your EGGS-cellent request, I set up a “short stories” tab and posted A Peculiar Party Under The Palms as its first sub-page:

        http://nrhatch.wordpress.com/short-stories/

        Parts 1-9 are there now and the remaining installments will be added as they are posted on SLTW. (We are nearing the finish line). 😀

        I have 2 “semi-complete” manuscripts that need to be edited and tweeked before being ready for “prime time” and “umpteen” novels in various states of repair and disrepair. I’m in the process of reviewing all of them to decide which (if any) merit completion.

        Or whether I would like to start on a mystery novel with a “clean slate.”

        For what it’s worth, I don’t think your blog is “all about giving advice to people who don’t need it.” You give writers at all levels a chance to think about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it one way vs. another. And the great comments add still more dimension to your posts.

        Write on!

        • ericjbaker

          Thanks! The comments section is often more revealing and informative than the post itself.

          I’m glad to see you picking up steam with your writing. What does your heart tell you… revise and complete the existing stuff or start something new? If you ask, you will get an answer right away.

  • tracycembor

    I believe that 99% of the time the correct answer is either First Person Singular or Third Person Singular. One person really wants something, gets into trouble, and has to solve a problem. The story doesn’t have to be bigger than that.

    Third Person Omniscient is the other 1% of the time. Unless you can prove to me that all your characters are interesting, that the stories relate to each other (and btw, I’m not going to make it to book ten to find out how), and that you can spend an equal amount of time with each character, then you should not choose TPO. In my opinion, many authors cannot figure out what the “real” story is and chose this route to avoid tough things like axing characters and potential scenes. (If you are a bit offended by this, I think you need to toughen up buttercup.)

    Tad Williams does TPO right. George RR Martin, Robert Jordan, and Brandon Sanderson do not.

    • ericjbaker

      Book ten. Cripes! That is a “be careful what you wish for” scenario for me. I’m sure Sue Grafton was elated when A is for Alibi got published. 31 years later, she hasn’t hit Z yet and probably hates that character with every fiber of her being.

      I am clueless about those authors you named, because I haven’t read anything by any of them. However, I might end up in your 1% club with my WIP. I’ll try to be more Tad Williams and less the other guys.

      By the way, how did you know my nickname is buttercup?

      😉

      • tracycembor

        You seemed more like a buttercup than a cupcake.

        I know it was strongly worded, but I think you have to be organized and strong in your writing craft to pull off a multi-POV novel. It can be done, and it can be done well, but most people who do it are being indulgent.

        • ericjbaker

          But I’ve always felt more like a cupcake.

          **sigh**

          For my novel, multiple PsOV are necessary. I’m confident I can pull it off, but if I fail, at least I’ll go down swinging. Fortune favors the bold and all that.

  • createdbyrcw

    I worked for quite some time on a novel in first-person and one of the challenges I had was not just that the protagonist needs to be in every scene, but anything he or she hasn’t seen or heard doesn’t exist until he or she discovers it.

    This made it very challenging to write any of the other characters as I couldn’t find a way for them to show their true selves to the reader without showing it to the hero. If the hero turns away from someone during a conversation, I can’t see their facial expressions to know that they sound sincere, but secretly loathe my hero.

    Every once in a while, I look at those pages and consider starting over from TPO…but then I wonder if I just need to try harder.

    And then I look at the stack of projects I am currently working on that I can more easily address and move to them…path of least resistance and all that.

    Great conversation, though…might have to reblog on mine.

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks for sharing your experience with that. I’ve put frustrating stories away for years, until I nearly forgot them, and then took them back out. Often the solution has presented itself to me at that point. Well, in my mind at least. I’ll find out when someone reads it and tells me if it works or is junk.

  • Raymond

    See one of the issues with a psychology major being an author is the lack of understanding when it comes to all these “terms” LOL. I can’t say I prefer one to the other, but I have done both. And like yourself (or is the proper term ‘you’) I tend to like the third person thingy in longer novels and reservce 1st person for short stories. My first novel started as “first” but then I realized it was too limiting…although throughout both novels (it’s a saga) I often get inside character’s heads. I’m probably breaking all kinds of rules…but the style seems to work for my readers. The most frequent comment I get is “reading this was like watching a movie” – another great and interesting article! Thanks.

    • ericjbaker

      I believe the best bet is to just write what comes out without thinking too hard about it. Even if you are breaking rules, if it all seems natural and works for your readers, then it really doesn’t matter what label people put on it.

      Several months ago I blogged that I consider myself an entertainer, not an artist, so my aim is to write something that keeps the pages turning. I’d much rather hear a reader say, “I couldn’t put it down,” than “Wow, that was deep.”

      Thanks again for the comments, Raymond. They are fun to read.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    I think we all need to be careful in this discussion and make sure what we’re calling a horse is truly a four-legged equine. A novel narrated in third-person with multiple POVs isn’t automatically omniscient.

    True omniscient with like what you described in the Agatha Christie novel, in which the viewpoint character changes mid-scene, and most of the characters are aware not only of their own thoughts but those of the other characters as well.

    It’s also possible to narrate in third-person limited with numerous POV characters. In this case, the POVs usually only change following chapter or scene breaks. Each individual viewpoint character will know what s/he knows and do what s/he does, but none of them will know what the others know unless told, and won’t see/here what the others do/say unless present to observe it. This despite the fact that the reader knows everything that’s happening.

    This third-person limited shifting POV what’s used in the Wheel of Time series (in George R.R. Martin’s books as well, if memory serves). It can be quite effective in creating suspense – a different sort of suspense than the “I wonder what s/he’s thinking” variety.

    Years ago when reading the Wheel of Time, I distinctly remember feeling the tension from having knowledge another character didn’t, and watching with a sense of dread as s/he ignorantly did something to make the situation 100X worse that s/he never would have done if only s/he’d known. Suspense of the “I wonder how it’s gonna go down with this sh*t finally hits the fan” variety.

    • ericjbaker

      Ok, so my horse is a bit deformed. I still love him!

      At the current stage of my WIP, each chapter is third person limited with POV from one of four characters. They haven’t met yet, but they will, and I’ll have to figure out how that plays out when I get there.

      • tracycembor

        Glad you aren’t selling your horse to a fast-food chain for burgers!

        I think it was Ann Crispin who told me to write scenes from the POV of the character with the most to lose or the most at stake. I guess when you get your characters together, you could use some criteria like that.

        • ericjbaker

          That’s a great thought. I hope people who stop by take the time to read these comment threads, what with so many different ideas and opinions flying around.

  • jdhoward

    In my current WIP (my first project), I am using deep limited POV with some interspersed 3rd omniscient. I have to do that because my characters are too preoccupied with their situations to stop and set the scenes for the reader. (Well, somebody’s got to do it!)

  • Bryan Edmondson

    I wrote a commercial script for Viagra. For the sufferer of erectile dysfunction I used the POV of first person Impotent. They declined to buy my submission. They said everything is not all about me.

    • ericjbaker

      First person? First person! Am I the first person to whom you mailed a dead bird? Because now my mailbox stinks of old feathers.

      My next blog post is going to be in flesh-eating third person with limited shape shifting. It’s about The Thing.

  • VarVau

    Somehow I missed this one on my reader updates.

    I lock POV to one character for a story, regardless of how long it is. It lets me think better, but also contradict should I write another story with a different character set around the same location/time period.

  • Jill Weatherholt

    Like you, I prefer to create my characters and just write. Unfortunately, the POV demons were on my back; I was told I was a head-hopper, so now I give a lot of thought to POV when beginning a project. I love writing in first person, but it can be limiting.

    • ericjbaker

      Head hoppers of the world unite!

      I’ve discovered accidental head-hopping incidents during revisions. It Joe Joe Joe then… Whoa, Mary just hoped Joe didn’t see her pick her nose. This story ain’t about Mary!

      One more thing for me to be extra careful about as I get ready to almost start thinking about doing something with my stories.

  • Uzoma

    Well, I started getting myself involved in prose and poetry writing only a few years ago. About PsOV, I’m fond of the first person, but can also write in other views. Writing in the first person can be restricting at times. And when you have a lot “I”s coming to the table, it spells a bad meeting. Anyway, the story should come first, then the view.

    Hey, I commented on your previous, but couldn’t see it. Do you mind checking your spam folder?

  • lythya

    Neil Gaiman’s book “Neverwhere” is third person oniscient. he jumps from person to person constantly in it and it works just fine.

  • glt3011

    Most Scifi is in third person omniscient for a reason. It gives you more freedom to go where your muse takes you.

    • ericjbaker

      Makes sense. Also, it’s such an expansive landscape that your first-person main character would have to spend too much time discovery and not enough in moving the story forward.

      Thanks so much for the comment and the insight.

  • Ahren

    Great post! I’ve switched between POV’s on some of my short stories, trying to tell the same story with a different POV. I’ve found switching between first person and third person limited or omniscient to first forces me to think about the actions and motivations of my characters in ways I might not have thought about before. Keep up the posts!

  • Dirk Porsche

    A very good post. For me it’s still hard to find the right POV in the right situation. Often I realize half way through that things don’t work out so well. That’s quite frustrating.

    By the way I nominated you for the “Very Inspiring Blogger Award”.
    http://shiggyenterprises.wordpress.com/2013/04/03/my-first-award/
    Please don’t feel bothered, though.

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks so much, my friend! I appreciate the recognition.

      We all have different challenges as writers. I’m still working inevitability. That is, creating situations that feel inevitable. I don’t want to fall into the “Twister Trap.” That is, if you see a tornado coming, just drive the other way.

      • Dirk Porsche

        You are right. That is a hard one, too. As a reader I often think: ‘Hey you stupid, the solution is so easy’ or ‘Maybe you should try this’ or simply ‘Don’t do it’

        Many obvious paths out of the dilemma not tried or taken.

        I feel disappointed when the POV character I loved the previous part of the book doesn’t get it.

        Sometimes authors sense those situations and try to defend their characters next doomed actions. That makes it worse.

        I love unexpected twists, when they are based on the way the characters have evolved till then. Like in the first book of “The Song of Ice and Fire”, when Eddard Starck is beheaded.

        This feels really difficult to come up with. Is it possible to plan such things?

        • ericjbaker

          I marvel at writers who plot brilliantly. I still haven’t gotten to that place where all the events in my story inevitably lead to the conclusion. In fairness to me, some really successful writers can’t do it either.

  • The Best of Christie’s Mysteries | Spirit Lights The Way

    […] post, Choosing a Character’s Point of View, pointed readers toward this marvelous mysterious maze and perplexing plot […]

  • schillingklaus

    Classic omniscience of the Fielding type is my one true way to go.

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