Thursday, January 29, 2015

My View, Your View, Their View, and Our View -- Writers on POV

This week we're going to talk about point of view. I've heard from several writers and publishers that they have very adamant views of POV in stories, and well, now let's just see how adamant those are. This promises to be fun.

In which, if any, point of view do you prefer to write? Why?

Walter Bosley: Third person. My stories aren't about "me", meaning I prefer to be an 'observer' of the characters' behavior and actions, prefer to let them act out their story.

Richard Lee Byers: I like first person because it comes easily to me, and that makes the writing more pleasant. I also like it because the way the viewpoint character tells the story does a great deal to enhance his characterization.

I.A. Watson: As a regular writer of Sherlock Holmes stories that are told in the first person by John Watson I'm accustomed to crafting some narratives from a single perspective.It is a challenging discipline.

For that reason I also appreciate the opportunity to rove about in other stories, focussing the literary equivalent of the camera inside different heads as different scenes allow it. Unless there's a good reason, I like to have at least two point of view characters in a long story, so provide some variety of interpretation.

Sometimes, and especially with freewheeling action/adventure stories, I like to use a neutral observer-mode as a baseline and then dip down into different characters as the action turns on them. It's the literary equivalent of the hand-held camera getting inside the fight scene.

Ron Fortier: Very few writers are really good at writing in 1st Person.  It requires play acting and being that characters throughout the story.  Doyle did well as he was Watson and Mickey Spillane could imagine himself being Mike Hammer.

I’ve written in both 1st and 3rd and much prefer 3rd, in which I can be the objective storyteller, allowing me to narrate what his happening all the time.

Robert Krog: I choose third person most of the time, largely because most of the great works I love to read are written in third person. I find third person limited to be best for short stories, and I have written mostly short stories. I have no trouble with first person and one my fastest written, tightest stories was in first. In my longer works, as yet unpublished, I have used third person omniscient and found it quite enjoyable In short fiction, I prefer, generally, to keep to limited.

Lisa Matthews Collins: I like to write in first person POV when I am doing a first draft. It puts me, personally, into what my character is experience and it helps me get the five senses into the prose.

Lee Houston Jr.: It depends on what I am working on. Hugh Monn, Private Detective is first person, while my superhero work, the Alpha series is in third. I do feel that first person gives the reader a greater sense of being "closer" to the story, but not everything works in that voice.

Rebekah McAuliffe: Frankly, it depends on what I'm writing. I prefer to write in first person, but if I need to write in third person, I will. Some genres are just better from a certain point of view.

Ellie Raine: 1st person POV is always the most fun for me. Not that the other POVs aren't fun, 1st just has that in-depth, close up look on not just what the character is thinking, but also on how they feel based on their own, unique dialect or inner voice, as well as their particular outlook on life.

3rd person sort of gets into that, but not as much as 1st. The only disadvantage a lot of people have with 1st is its limitation to one character. But I personally like the few books that swap POVs throughout the story. With me, it's always about a new perspective, and 1st person gives me that the most.

R.J. Sullivan: I prefer to write in first person but not every story lends itself to it. I like it because it seems to remove al barriers between yourself and the protagonist and lets you get under their skin.

H. David Blalock: I almost exclusively write in third person because of the genres in which I write. Horror and fantasy are more easily digested by the reader if there is a disconnect between them and the events in the story. It also gives the reader the chance to say "I wouldn't have done that" or "why don't they just..." and therefore they become more involved in the story itself.

Jilly Paddock: I prefer to work in first person, sometimes using short sections in third to frame the central narrative. I mostly stick to one character, but my forthcoming space opera has six first person POVs.

Percival Constantine: I prefer third-person omniscient because I'm lazy and it lets me jump around to different characters.

In which, if any, point of views to you prefer to avoid writing? Why?

Walter Bosley: I like to avoid first person for the reasons above. However, a first person narrative relating that character's third person POV on a story is something I'll be doing some time this year. But I essentially prefer third person because I think anything else can be distracting if overdone or done poorly. The reading experience is supposed to be about the reader, not the narrator. The reader should be the fly on the wall or the third person. I prefer to be invisible as a writer, my words should be a bigger presence than me.

Richard Lee Byers: I don’t remember ever turning in a story in second person. The plots I come up don’t require it, and when I’ve tried to use it, the story came across as awkward and gimmicky.

I also don’t use third person omniscient. I think it can distance the reader from the characters in a way that doesn’t make my stuff better, and I also think there’s the potential to confuse the reader as the viewpoint skips rapidly from head to head.

If I want to plug into the inner life of more than one character, I prefer third person limited multiple, where through the course of a novel the reader gets inside the heads of various people, but he’s only privy to the thoughts of one for the duration of a scene.


I.A. Watson: I don't avoid any particular point of view, but I am careful sometimes.

For mystery writing, I need to be clear when I'm being an omniscient neutral voice describing with infallible detail and interpretations, and when I'm offering one of the cast's perceptions. It's very important for play-fair whodunnits.

Consider the difference between, "Mike tugged at his collar nervously as Jack spoke" and "Mike seemed nervous. He tugged at his collar as Jack spoke." and "Mike tugged at his collar. As Jack spoke, he thought Mike seemed nervous." There's no right or wrong of it, each each version offers a different flavour. The first version is me, the author, telling you that Mike WAS nervous. The second is me telling you what you might have thought if you'd been there. Maybe Mike was nervous. Conversely, Mike might have been poisoned, about to drop dead in two pages' time. The third is me telling you what Jack thought he saw, which might have been absolutely wrong. Maybe Jack thought Mike was the killer, and was terrified of him? Maybe Mike is a paranoid. Maybe Jack really fancied Mike.

Ron Fortier: Okay, so I’ve stated what I prefer.  1st person limits you, as you can only tell the reader what one person is seeing.  If action is taking place some place where your narrator is not present, then he or she cannot relate that in the tale …unless they do so second hand from another character.  I find this terribly bothersome and often times annoying to have to listen to Character A sit down and listen to Character B go on and on and on about something they did.  In 3rd person I could have easily shown what they experienced in a lot fewer words.  Good writing is show ... don’t tell.

Robert Krog: I'm probably not at all unusual in that I prefer to avoid second person. This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy "Choose Your Own Adventure" books and "Which Way" books when I was young, because I did. However, second person is cumbersome in certain ways and feels forced.

I have written one story in second person, on request of a publisher, and it did get published in a little volume titled, You Don't Say: Stories in the Second Person. I didn't find the experience unrewarding, but I still prefer third.

Lisa Matthews Collins: An example of POV that I have to work really hard at, and therefore avoid is the Close Third Person like the Harry Potter series. Readers are not inside Harry’s head and can only see or hear the action within Harry’s proximity. It is a POV that you have to be really tight with but as with JK’s success you can see it can enchant readers if done correctly.

Lee Houston Jr.: What I try to avoid is the "omnipresent" narrator who knows absolutely everything and never gives the reader a chance to enjoy the tale.

Rebekah McAuliffe: SECOND PERSON. Not now. Not ever. Just... no. It reminds me too much of fanfiction. Not that there's anything wrong with fanfiction; I love it, and it's where I got my start as a writer. But there are some habits that just need to be shed when moving from fanfiction to other forms of writing, and second person is one of them. Unless it's a Choose Your Own Adventure kind of book; in that case go for it. Again, some genres are just better when written from a certain point of view.

R.J. Sullivan: Second person, which is fine, because of its limited commercial appeal anyway.

H. David Blalock: I never write in the second person because I fail to see how that can involve the reader effectively in the genre. It removes the feeling of suspense - will the character survive, stay sane, healthy? Of course they will, because the character is you.

Mark Bousquet: I continually try to change up the POV. If I've written a few stories in third, I'll switch over to first. I actually enjoy writing in first person the most even though I use third person more, because I like narrators with personality and it's easier for me to play with personalities in first person. I'll say this, though - all of my ongoing series are in 3rd person, and I use first person more in short stories, especially if I have a character with a deteriorating mental condition. I really enjoy putting "mistakes" into print with first person narration that ends up being revealed as important later on.

Van Allen Plexico: First person POV has advantages and limitations. The chief advantage is forcing the reader to become complicit in whatever the protagonist is up to. The main disadvantage is you can no longer switch to scenes of other characters without the protagonist being there-- no "now let's see what the villains are up to" moments.

Beyond that, there's the question of "what KIND of third person POV?" Limited? Omniscient? Jump around? Jump around when -- chapters? Sections? And so on.

Jilly Paddock: Second person is difficult to do, but I have read two novels that use it so well that I was several pages into the first before I really noticed - Halting State and Rule 34 by Charles Stross.

Percival Constantine: Second person. I tried it with my second book as an experiment and I will never do it again. It was really difficult to keep straight.

How do you choose the POV for a story? Does it happen organically, or is it something you put a lot of thought into before you begin? Or perhaps it's something assigned by your publisher?

Walter Bosley: I simply write in third person, no choice to make.

Richard Lee Byers: I know I can’t use first person if I want multiple points of view. Some plots require more than one, so in those cases, my decision is made for me.

If the plot doesn’t require multiple points of view, I generally have an intuitive sense of whether I want to go first or third. If I analyzed things, I would probably come up with the underlying reason for my choice.

If I’m working with one of my series characters, like my fencing master Selden, I automatically continue as I began. His first adventure was told in the first person, and so were all the ones that came after.

There’s no doubt that certain editors have preferences as to point of view. I’ve heard it from some of them directly. Certain genres lean one way or another, too. Reflecting its connection to the private eye novel, urban fantasy often uses first person. Reflecting the legacy of Tolkien, epic fantasy often relies on third person multiple.

I.A. Watson: When one is writing in the style of some other author, as with Sherlock Holmes tales, or with revivals of pulp characters like airman detective Richard Knight, occultist Semi-Dual, or African adventurer Armless O'Neil, the one feels obliged to follow the choices that they made.

Otherwise, the story dictates the viewpoint. "Discovery" type tales that introduce new casts or situations work well with a newcomer character who acts as the reader's avatar. Spectacular fight scenes can be helpfully grounded by showing them through the perceptions of a bystander. Emotional confrontations sometimes require getting into the head of one of the protagonists. Sometimes it's even appropriate to leap between two perspectives.

That said, much of the "plan" doesn't survive the first draft. It's art not science.

Ron Fortier: Again, I’ve done very little writing in 1st person.  On one occasion it was an editorial requirement, on the other, it actually ended up being the best way to tell the story.  A rare occurrence for me.  But in the end, I hopefully managed to pull it off.

Robert Krog: Point of view happens very naturally for me. Unless a publisher asks for a particular point of view, it simply develops along with the characters and conflict from which flow the plot. I don't think I have ever begun work on a story consciously asking myself the question, "In which point of view shall this story best be told?"

Lisa Matthews Collins: Most of my stories are character driven. Everything else in the story is there to showcase the person or the event the main protagonist is dealing with, so I lean toward First Person POV. I do write Third Person but usually it is something a publisher says is required.

Lee Houston Jr.: It's the needs of the story more than anything else. If you're working on somebody else's material, you can't go against what has already been established. Mysteries could go either way, but the "classic" voice for private detectives like Hugh is definitely first person. You follow the investigator around and solve the case with them, although it is tough sometimes having them do all the descriptive narration, and you have to remember to always keep the narrator in character. Novels like the Alpha series just wouldn't work in first person though, because there are other things going on at any given moment that you don't want the lead character(s) to know about at the time.

Rebekah McAuliffe: I choose the point of view right before I start writing. I would say that yeah, it is kind of organic. When I wrote Gears, I always knew I'd write it in first person. I'll have this idea in my head about where I should go, and if it looks good, I stick to it. If it doesn't, I come up with something new. But again, it all depends on what kind of writing I'm doing.

R.J. Sullivan: I give the story arc a lot of thought to decide if 1st or deep third are what's needed. If I have a lot of cutaways to other characters, then I go with deep third. If it seems like I can tell the entire story in one perspective, I go with first.

H. David Blalock: Choice of POV for me is easy. I write what the story requires, and I know that going in. First person POV is something I use sparingly and then only when there is no reasonable way to do it otherwise.

Logan Masterson: I pick the POV pretty carefully. I consider the tone and theme (as I understand them so far), as well as the characters and plot.

A lot of horror works well in first person. I prefer third for most fantasy.

Van Allen Plexico: For me, first person stories essentially become travelogues, where you follow one character from beginning to end along his or her journey. So I reserve that approach for larger than life characters such as Lucian, Baranak and Karilyne (some of my protagonists who are gods).

Percival Constantine: It just happens organically. With the exception of my first and second books, everything I've written since has been third person. That just feels the most comfortable for me.


Tamara Lowery: Currently I write 3rd person omniscient, although my editor tries her damnedest to make me stick to ONE character's POV per chapter/scene. I struggle with that horribly, because I HEAR what they're thinking. Instead I have to WATCH what they're doing and let that relay their underlying thoughts. My main exception/argument to the restriction is when characters communicate telepathically.

Mark Bousquet: Tamara brings up a great point about knowing your editor. When I write for Pro Se, I've learned what Tommy likes and doesn't like, so I dump all experimentation and go straight forward, simple, lean, and focused. I spend more time on the action scenes and less time on the dialogue (and my preference is the opposite of that). I even do my best to gut parentheticals because I know he feels they unnecessarily hinder the narrative flow. I've really learned to like that back and forth with editors.

Any advice for new or beginning writers who are struggling with POV?

Walter Bosley: All this talk about how I prefer third person and yet I've written two first person novels! My second gothic adventure novel is in first person as is my time travel novel. I recommend any aspiring author give it a go. It's an excellent exercise in learning about your storytelling voice. It can make it easier for a new writer to get through a novel, actually.

Also, don't struggle with POV. Just start telling your story however it feels most natural. When you're actually writing something that is meant to be written down, something that works, there will be no struggle. Not with POV or anything else. Let the story dictate to you what POV you write in. Learn to let yourself gravitate to the story that is telling itself without any difficulty and the POV will come naturally.

Writing requires ego. You are doing something that is spectacularly bold: committing to words and pages your creation that you have deemed worth reading in spite of the odds that possibly no one -- especially other writers -- is going to pay any mind to, least of all read, possibly. In spite of that, you still do it. If you can embrace that, POV isn't an issue.

Richard Lee Byers: Except for omniscient passages where the author has stepped away from all his characters to expound on this or that (not always a great idea, in my opinion), point of view means that, even if you aren’t using first person, the narrative at any given moment is filtered through a certain character’s perspective. Relate what he perceives and don’t relate what he doesn’t. In first person, narrate in his voice. Even in third person, consider tweaking the language to reflect the kind of person that he is.

I.A. Watson: Consider the following:

  • There is absolutely nothing wrong with an omniscient narrator. Sometimes that is just the best way to move things on.
  • Character points of view are filters, so the story gets interpreted as it is told. We're watching the character watching the story. So sometimes a "straight" narrative can be drafted first and then a second overlay adds the perspective.
  • Reading the work out loud is remarkably effective for identifying point of view issues. Don't be afraid to do the voices.
  • If one point of view isn't working it might be because you know deep down that it's the wrong choice. Try something else.

Ron Fortier: As an editor, I do prefer 3rd person submission. But I have accepted good quality work done in 1st person.  What I will NEVER accept or condone, is any writer who actually goes from 1st and 3rd person in the same story. There is no way such a mash up ever works and ultimately it simply confuses your readers. Stick to one or the other.

Lisa Matthews Collins: I define POV this way: The view from where the reader experiences the story.

Use scene breaks whenever you move from one person to another, or change the time or place of the action. Breaks allow your reader to mentally shift, expecting a variation in the story.  Without a break the reader will stumble and they will lose the illusion of the story.

Always establish the main point of view (POV) as early in the first paragraph of a chapter as possible.  This is done by various external/internal dialogue or action.  Usually the reader will assume that the first person that speaks in a paragraph of a new chapter is the main POV.

All of the words in your story/novel need to go through the POV test. If your POV character cannot see, hear, taste, touch, smell, or feel the action check your POV, because something is off.

If you are having trouble with the concept of POV try writing from the 1st person perspective. Put yourself in the action.  What do you see, hear, taste, touch, smell, or feel?  At each point that you add action to the scene can you, personally, be involved in the action?  If not then who has the POV?  Rewrite the scene until you keep the POV all to yourself.  Once you get the 1st person POV down you will more clearly see how to keep the POV clean in your 3rd person work.

Lee Houston Jr.: Overall, first person is easier, because it is one of your characters narrating instead of a neutral third party. While you need to be able to create/use both, your early works can be in first to make it a little easier getting a feel for both characterization and narration.

Rebekah McAuliffe: Stay consistent! Even if you're writing a story where the point of view shifts from character to character, stay consistent!

R.J. Sullivan: POV no matter what "person" is a tricky thing for new writers, I think first person is the best for a new writer because the traps are less obvious but the traps are everywhere. Find trusted beta readers tuned in to POV and be open to their advice.

H. David Blalock: If you as a writer are having trouble with the POV then you aren't using the right one. Try another. And above all remember that the third person and omniscient POVs are not the same. Learn the difference. It can impact the success of your writing and the satisfaction of the reader.

Logan Masterson: The most important thing is consistency. If you're going to change POV, you have to do it with care. Make sure all the transitions are handled the same way, or using similar indicators, even in Third Person Omniscient. If there are only a few changes, be obvious and pointed, make the transition part of the drama. This is probably even more important if there's only one major POV shift.

Van Allen Plexico: One important note about 1st person: try to spend as much time as possible describing the surroundings and the other characters, so you're not constantly saying "I did this; I did that."

And read Zelazny's AMBER novels. He showed how to do it right.

Percival Constantine: Read other books. Especially if you're used to writing in one style and are experimenting with a new one, then study books in that new style.