From A Certain Point Of View

typing on a keyboardOne of the things that came up in the Second Wave beta was how I handled point of view. For the first half of the book, JT and Davra are the POV characters, with a third added when Davra goes off on a separate adventure later. One beta reader zeroed in on how I referred to the character of Eric Yuwono in the narrative. When the scene was from JT’s POV, he was (unless Davra spoke) called “Yuwono.” In Davra’s scenes, he was “Eric.”

“Why,” the reader asked, “do you not have a consistent narrator? Pick one and stick with it.”

Fair enough question. I did not, in fact, make the selected change because no one else noticed it. I hesitated to bring this up, btw, because I want this reader to make the same judgments on the next work I send him. Yet this is a very good topic to discuss, because the disagreement was stylistic. No one, including one professional editor, had ever brought the issue up before. So was my reader wrong?

Not really. I write in close third, and one editor’s understanding of that might be another’s loathing of that style. Kind of like many people finding present tense or second person off-putting. (You can get away with the first. Most readers are going to slap you for the second, and that’s if they’re in a good mood.) So I shrugged off the comment. It had worked with two other readers.

But it had me thinking. How do you handle point of view?

First person is easy. It’s all I/me/my from beginning to end. I even figured out a way to kill off the narrator of a first person story. In the late, lamented Plots With Guns crime fiction zine, one short story was narrated by a man who died at the end. Or nearly did. It’s possible the ambulance came after the story closed, but I doubt it. PWG was pretty bleak. First person forces the writer to give us only what the POV character can see, hear, smell, feel. It’s also prone to interior monologue which offers a lot of opportunity for humor. It also offers a lot of opportunity for bloat. First person, for me anyway, often results in shorter work. I only have one character’s perceptions to work with, so there’s not a lot of room to shoe-horn in someone else’s. Some editors find first person to be lazy, a beginner’s technique. I say that’s a load of pretentious crap. There is nothing lazy or inexperienced about 13 Lives of a Television Repair Man, which is written in first person. In fact, the whole story skillfully unravels the narrator’s delusions because we only see it from his point of view.

Then there is dramatic third. It’s called that because, in most cases, you can’t get into the heads of the characters on stage or screen. You can only see what they do or hear what they say. Yes, you might say, voiceovers. And Deadpool makes an Olympic sport out of breaking the fourth wall. OK, the difference here is one is sloppy, cliched writing, and the other stars Ryan Reynolds in a work of crude comedy magic. I’ll leave you to figure out which. Dramatic third is the ultimate show-don’t-tell format because all you can do is show. Oh, you can step back and give us panoramic views of the setting, montages of events that move the story forward, or even use Stephen King’s technique of interrupting a story to tell us a story for background. But you can’t get into someone’s head. Right now, I’m using a literal drama to keep Second Wave lean when it goes into its first prose draft. I’m writing a screenplay. Done properly, a dramatic third-person story can translate directly to a play or a script and vice-versa. But it also makes it hard to color perceptions based on those of the characters. Which brings us to close third.

And herein is what sparked this particular post. Do you have a consistent narrator who is separate from the characters? Or is narration a tool to get into the characters’ heads? There is not a right answer. For some, if the character Johnny B. Goode considers himself “Jack” and is referred to as such in the beginning of the story, then Johnny had better be Jack when the narrator speaks even if the POV character only knows him as “that guy” or “Mr. Goode.”  Fair enough point.

But when this was flagged, it made me think about it. My tendency is to color the narration by whose head I’m in, which sparks a whole other discussion: How many heads per scene or chapter? That’s almost a book that will reach no conclusion. But let’s stick with one head per scene for our purposes. Maybe Johnny B. Goode goes professionally by Johnny. So if a coworker or someone admiring (or deriding) his work is the head we’re in, then the narration should call him “Johnny.” If it’s his mother, maybe we see “John” in the narration, but his girlfriend calls him “Honey Bunny” exclusively. (And then the reader throws the book across the room because, frankly, while it’s great between two love birds, the rest of us don’t want to hear that. Says a man whose fiance regularly calls him that. Great when she says it. Awful if I have to listen to another couple.) And then Johnny is called in by the IRS. If we go with the examiner’s head, it’s “Mr. Goode.” And yet it’s one single, coherent (We hope. I can’t really help you with your writing. You have to do that.) whole.

What about omniscient. Get into everyone’s head everywhere. That’s fallen out of favor, and there’s a reason for that. The modern reader really only wants one head per scene at most. Omniscient has a tendency to drain a story of suspense and perception. Close third or dramatic third lets a writer hold some of the cards and reveal them more to the reader’s benefit. And omniscient makes a story harder to read. I’ll leave it to you whether that’s a good or bad development.

And then there’s second person. My God, what an awful idea. It’s been done a few times. Dennis Lehane and Stephen King have managed to pull it off, but most times, when the narrator is telling you what you see and hear and feel and think, it goes rather badly. Personally, I’d rather read omniscient.

It’s not an easy thing to decide. Even if you know you don’t have more than one character’s POV to deal with, do you want to look around at the environment or something that the character is unaware of? Or do you want want us to be surprised along with that character? And how deep into their head(s) do you want to get?

I’ll help you. Don’t write in second person. Your readers will thank you.

1 thought on “From A Certain Point Of View”

  1. As a reader, it makes perfect sense when one character refers to another by a different name than a third character might. I prefer first person or close third, too. After all, it’s connecting with the characters that draws me into a story, otherwise it’s just a recitation of events.

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