Part 03 – Point of View

by Al Kalar

“Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of – but do it in private and wash your hands afterward.” -Robert Heinlein

Point of View (POV)

How are you going to tell your tale? Through who’s eyes will the reader see and experience what is happening? This is an important decision, because you must be consistent throughout your book.

There are three main methods of telling a story:

First Person

The story is told by someone who identifies himself as “I,” and may or may not be a character in the story (but usually is). First person only allows the reader to know the mind of that one character but no others. All of the action is seen or experienced by your main character. If he or she can’t see it, then it doesn’t get described.

And you cannot include any “info-dumps” (explanatory paragraphs that bring the reader “up to speed”) unless the character is “talking” to the audience (the reader) which is a risky method. After all, the main character already knows these things and doesn’t need to dwell on them and if s/he doesn’t know it, s/he can’t tell you.

There are a few things you can do in first person:

  • You can ruminate. “My old pappy used to tell me that these woods were haunted”.
  • Someone else can tell your character something s/he needs to know. “Trudy looked me straight in the eye. ‘Jimmy,’ she said in an ominous voice, ‘these woods are haunted.'”

Your POV character doesn’t have to be the “main” character. Many a good tale has been told by a “sidekick” like Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick, Dr. Watson.

How do you describe your first-person character? For God’s sake, don’t have him look into a mirror and tell us what s/he sees; that’s been done to death. Be creative.

Jim towered above me by a good foot. He must have been at least six and a half feet tall.

He stroked my hair. “I just love the color of your hair,” he crooned.

“Well, I hate it. It’s mousy brown,” I said sadly.

“It isn’t either.” Jim stroked it, sending a thrill down my spine. “It’s a beautiful chestnut.”

I love it when he lies like that.

What did we get? Our heroin is around 5′ 6″ tall and she has chestnut hair (and a self-image problem or she’s trolling for compliments).

Another way is to picture the character on the cover of the book. You’ll have to work closely with your cover artist to get the right look. There are some tricks to describing a character which we’ll get to in a later segment on characterization.

If you have a nasty habit of “head hopping” when you write, dabbling in first person is a good way to cure it. Your writing will improve immensely.

What other things should we keep in mind for first person stories?

Third Person

The story is told by someone who is not a character in the story and identifies the characters as “Jim”, “Sally”, “he,” “she,” or “them”- you don’t find out anything more than can be seen, heard or know by an observer in the particular scene.

Your best practice is to pick a “POV character” (Point Of View) for each scene and stick with that character. No “head hopping” (bouncing from one POV to another during the scene).

For a particular scene, you’re almost in first person mode except the “I” is missing. You can describe things out of the POV character’s sight (like someone sneaking up on him from behind), but don’t switch to another “head”.

Example of how NOT to do it:

Jim looked Sally over, she was short, well formed, with flowing red hair that reached to her mid-back.

Sally saw a mid size man, a bit over forty, with short-cropped dull-brown hair. A short scar ran from the corner of his left eye halfway to his ear.

We just “hopped” from Jim’s head to Sally’s in the same scene. Again, we have to do a scene similar to the one we saw under First Person or we can delay Sally’s observations until we write a scene with her as the POV character.

The best place to change POV is at a chapter break. However, you can get away with an obvious break such as:

Jim looked Sally over, she was short, well formed, with flowing red hair that reached to her mid-back. He wondered if she was friend or foe.

*****

Sally saw a mid size man, a bit over forty, with short-cropped dull-brown hair. A short scar ran from the corner of his left eye halfway to his ear. She disliked him on sight.

The short (*****) break tells the reader that something is going to change. Most often the change will be a break in time and location, but it might be a POV change like we had here. Often a short break in time is show with an extra, blank line.

Yes, some authors head-hop all over the place and get away with it. Robert Heinlein was notorious for this practice when he wasn’t writing first-person POV (which he did quite often). But Robert Heinlein got published because his fans would buy anything he wrote and his head-hopping never confused them. He did it in such a way that the reader always knew who the POV character was.

You could possibly get away with it also, but why push it? Some publishers are “death” on the practice and won’t tolerate it in new authors. I even saw one publisher who stated up front in their requirements that the entire manuscript had to be via one and only one POV. Pretty far out, but indicative of the importance of the practice.

What do you think?

Omniscient

The story is told by someone who is not a character in the story but can know everything about every character in the story- what they think, what they feel, as well as what they see and hear.

You can get away with just about anything in this format. But beware; it’s not as easy as it sounds. The problem with the format is that it’s harder for the reader to become emotionally attached to a character and to actually care what happens to her. If you chose omniscient, and not many authors do, be careful to craft characters that are sympathetic or that the reader can dislike or hate enough to care.

Many news stories are written in a “detached” version of omniscient.

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