Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Point of View Part 1 - Definitions

I could spend a month blogging about Point of View (POV), but I will narrow it down to two posts for now. Today, I will explain the three basic types of POV, with genre-based examples of why/when they're used. Next week, I will explain how POV creates a consistent emotional thread.

Before you write even the first sentence of your story, you need to choose from the three main points of view. Each POV has advantages and disadvantages, and some are more common in particular genres.

First Person
In first person, the story is told using the "I" and "me" pronouns. The protagonist is the narrator, the focus of the novel, and every scene is told from their perspective. Examples: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and One for the Money by Janet Evanovitch.

Many Young Adult (YA) novels are told from first person POV, usually with a female protagonist. Now I'm not saying that if you're writing a YA novel it must be told from the female 1st, but if you understand your market, have done your research, and want your best shot at fitting into the YA list, you might want to consider this perspective. Why female? Because more teenaged girls than teenaged boys read and buy books. Why 1st? Because teenagers are self-focused; many of them don't think of anyone but themselves, don't think of any contingency except those that affect them personally. Yes, this is an exaggeration, and not all teens are like this all of the time, but trust me. I've taught high school (for 8 years) and I have two teens at home, so I have plenty of first-hand experience on this particular topic.

Mystery is another genre that is usually written from 1st person POV. The reader is more engaged with the protagonist if they follow the character's thought process through every clue and every aspect of the case. And as the author remains in only that one character's head, no other information is "known," allowing for more twists and surprises as the mystery draws to its revealing conclusion.

Many of my short stories are written from 1st, but few from the female perspective. How do I pull that off, you might ask, since I'm not a guy? I get inside the head of my protag, and do my best to write every word with that masculine bent. I enjoy writing in 1st because it has a gritty, man-on-the-street feel. This perspective provides the opportunity, more than any other, for me at least, to really immerse the story in my character's world. As I write, hearing the "I" in my head helps to keep me in my character's head. (More about this aspect of POV next week)

I'll admit, I do soooo love to write about protag's who are more the scum/underdogs of society than the clean-cut white bread dudes.

It's a thing. Work with me. :)

Second Person
In second person, the story is told using the "you" pronoun. The narrator is essentially speaking of themselves, but from a disengaged, distanced perspective. At the same time, 2nd also drags the reader into the story, since they are almost encouraged to "be" the character. Example: the first section of Warchild by Karin Lowachee.

Second POV is the least common of all of the perspectives. Partly because it can make the reader uncomfortable, as this perspective can make the reader feel as though the author is accusing them, or personifying them in ways that do not apply to them. When 2nd is done well, the novel can soar. But when it's done poorly, 2nd POV can destroy the story's credibility. If you do choose to write your story with this POV, choose it deliberately and be determined in your reasons for doing so. At the same time, brace yourself for the criticism that may come your way from the many readers who don't like the 2nd perspective.

Third Person
In third person, the story is told using the "he/him" or "she/her" pronouns, depending on the gender of the protagonist. Within third person, the story can be told either "tight," which means the story is ONLY told from the protagonist's perspective, or "omnipotent," where the narrator essentially is the GOD of the story, knowing information that the protagonist/POV character doesn't know, and with the ability to jump from one person's head to another's at will. Examples of tight 3rd: any of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. Example of omni 3rd: Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce.

Personally, I am a bit of a POV Nazi, in that I WANT the author to remain in tight POV all of the time. As soon as they "drift" or lapse into more of an omnipotent POV I get frustrated. Not all readers feel this way, as plenty of omni books are best sellers. But understand that this blog post might lean towards tight 3rd as the "preference" since it is my personal preference. (Feel free to blast me in the comments later, if you are an omni lover)

Third POV is probably the most common. If you're writing a story for the first time, use 3rd (tight in particular), to see if you can remain, tightly, within your character's head.

Do it now:
As an exercise, write a scene, using 3rd tight POV, where your protag walks into a coffee shop. Keep this exercise for next week, when I will post four examples of a protag walking into a coffee shop told from 1st, 2nd, 3rd tight, and 3rd omni POVs.

Authors often use 3rd to write novels from multiple POVs. George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series of books use this perspective extremely well. In the Martin novels, the title of each chapter is a character's name, and that chapter is told from that character's POV. This "prompt" is great for readers like me, who really love one particular story line and want a quick and easy way to skip to the next chapter told from that POV. (Yes, I'll admit I have flipped ahead, desperate to know what happens next, but I do go back and read the novel in order. I'm not out for spoilers, I simply NEED to know how many pages lie between where I'm reading now and the point where I get to read about that character again. I'm impatient. Deal with it!)

Multiple POVs allow the author to weave different character story arc threads into a tapestry. At the end of the novel, all of the woven threads converge into a complete, satisfying ending. Usually, these multiple arcs occur simultaneously in novel-time, so using multiple POVs is the only way to elaborate all of the complexities of the story while maintaining time-line consistency. Many high fantasy novels rely on this technique to create the richness that their readers expect. (Examples: George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series, Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series, etc.)

That brings me to the next important point. I'm going to write this point on a separate line because I'm a POV Nazi, remember?

If you change POV, insert a scene break. (or a chapter break)

Please, I'm begging you, do a scene break. For the love of all the good prose in the world, do a scene break. Because jumping heads drives me crazy as a reader. Seriously. Crazy. Seriously!

(Okay, I swear I will stop being such a POV Nazi. Deep breaths. Back to civility once more. Whew!)

Hopefully you now have a better understanding of the different types of Point of View and the reasons why you may choose one over another.

Next week: Using POV to give your novel a consistent, emotional thread.

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