Thursday, February 28, 2008

Mini Fiction Seminar--Point of View

Well, I was supposed to be in Florida this week, teaching the advanced fiction track at the Florida Christian Writers' Conference. Unfortunately, pneumonia set in last Wednesday, so here I sit, still at home in Oregon. Since I've got the materials all prepared, thought I'd share them with you!

Here's the first session, which I would have taught today.

Are Your Characters Out of Their Heads?
The Elements of Point of View

Okay, first, what is POV (point of view)? Anyone? Yes! That's exactly right. (Hey, I'm a novelist. If I want to hear my imaginary class answering, I can." Point of view is the "eyes" through which we're seeing the story. It's also called Character Voice.

There are three common forms of POV:

  • Omniscient
  • First person
  • Third person
Let's hit the least popular first: Omniscient POV. Know the most famous example of this? Simple, Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. . . .

Omniscient POV means you're writing from inside everyone's head, and from the outside. You hope into whomever's head you choose, or you speak as a disconnected narrator. This form of POV is more archaic. It worked way back when, but not so much nowadays. Why? Because you lose so much connection and intimacy with the characters. Readers can't get as invested in what they're reading because it's being reported more than experienced.

Are there benefits to Omniscient POV? Sure:
  • It's an easy way to introduce information
  • Unlike first person, you can see everything that's happening.

But the limits outweigh the benefits:
  • Lack of intimacy. Fiction is all about making a connection. You don't do that with Omniscient POV.
  • You get the information, but not the emotions. Actually, you can tell what the emotions are, but the reader doesn't really feel them.
So, how about First Person? First person is the most intimate of the POVs. In first person, the narrator is one character, speaking in terms of I. Here are two great examples of First Person POV:

The first is from Francine Rivers's marvelous books, which is also a movie now, The Last Sineater.

The first time I saw the sin eater was the night Granny Forbes was carried to her grave. I was very young and Granny my dearest companion, and I was greatly troubled in my mind.
"Dunna look at the sin eater, Cadi," I'd been told by my pa. "And no be asking why."
Being so greviously forewarned, I tried to obey. Mama said I was acurst with curiosity. Papa said it was pure, cussed nosiness. Only Granny, with her tender spot for me, had understood.

The second is one of my all-time favorite beginnings for a novel, from Andrew Greely's The God Game:

It was Nathan's fault that I became God.
It is, as I would learn, hell to be God.
Nathan, to begin with, is as close to a genius as anyone I expect to know. If this story has any moral at all, it is that you should stay away from geniuses.

Both of these example drew me in right away. But why? Why does first person work?

The benefits are evident. First person POV is:
  • Emotive
  • Immediate, and
  • It really gets you into the character and the story. You're inside the character's mind, under his/her skin, right from the get-go.

But there are limits to First Person POV:
  • You can only tell what that one person sees, thinks, feels. Everything must go through the filter of that character's understanding and perspective. Think about it. Look at the room around you. If you're the POV character, you can only see what...well, you can see. You can't see what's behind you, or what's happening outside. And if someone comes in the room, you can guess what he or she is thinking or feeling, but can't know for certain. That smile could mask anger or sorrow. Those wrinkles on the forehead could be confusion or brewing rage. You can only know what you know. Period.
  • Your character must be strong enough to carry the story.
  • Writing first person POV is far more difficult to pull off than writing third person. You have to maintain that character's voice pitch-perfect, and that's tough.

Which brings us to Third Person POV, which could be viewed as kind of a compromise on the previous two. It gives you both intimacy and perspective. Third Person speaks in terms of he or she, and allows the writer to go into several characters’ heads (preferably in separate scenes. Please don't head-hop...). How many heads, you ask? As many as the story needs, but be sure the story really needs them. Usually you see anywhere from two to four or five. Sure, you lose a bit of the intimacy of First Person, but you still feel a great deal.

An up-and-coming technique is to have the best of both POV worlds: to combine first person with third person. Generally, this is done by choosing one character to write using first person POV. Everyone else is written using third person. One scene is written in first person, then several in third person. I wasn't sure about this first time I saw it, but you know what? It works, as long as it's written well. I'm editing a book right now that does that, and I've been trying it in the book I'm writing, too. It's a lot of fun. There's something exciting about writing first person, but it's less restrictive when you also use third person.

Now that we've identified POV, here are some common POV misteps.

What's My Line?: When POV/voice doesn’t fit the character.
Here's an example. The POV character is male and a construction worker. So is the following appropriate for his POV?

She walked toward him, wearing a white organza dress with a white dimity underskirt. Both were hand-embroidered with yellow sprigs and her matching yellow satin sash was tied into a swag at her left hip.

Yeah, not so much. Not unless he's on one of those Style channel design shows. Make sure your character's voice matches who and what he is.

I'm Gettin' Dizzy: Head hopping.
This one drives me nutty. The rule of thumb? Stick with one POV per chapter or scene. Hopping heads at will ends up being confusing and frustrating for the reader. And the last thing you want to do is give said reader a reason to put your book down--or throw it. Now, I know head hopping tends to be more common in romances, which jump from the hero to heroine. But even in those cases I'd urge writers to stick to one POV per scene.

Here's an example of head hopping:

Sarah knew Charles was angry. She could see it in his eyes, his stance, the way his fingers opened and closed. Tense. White knuckled.
He turned away from her, wondering how she’d gotten to him. She was making him crazy.
Sarah wanted to stop him, but she couldn’t. All she could do was watch him walk away.

Where’s the jump? Yup, when we get inside his head and have him wondering. Stick with one POV per scene or chapter. Your readers will thank you. So, for that matter, will your editor.

To See the Impossible Scene: Things POV character can’t see or know
I see this most often with desciptions. Writers want to sneak in physical descriptions of their characters, but end up doing so in ways one normally wouldn’t think. For example, this is from the Third Person POV character in the scene:

She pushed back her sumptuous, curly hair, a glint in her eyes.

Looks good to you? Well, try this trick to see if you've gone outside of POV. Put the section into first person:

I pushed back my sumptuous, curly hair, a glint in my eyes.

Yeaaahhh...not so great now. Unless your charcter is a narcissist, having her describe her own hair this way doesn’t work. And unless she's staring into a mirror (please don't use that old ploy)
she sure can’t see there’s a glint in her own eyes.

So, to recap:
  • POV is the eyes through which you're seeing a scene. Also called character voice.
  • There are three types of POV: Omniscient, First Person, Third Person
  • Omniscient POV is where you're not in any particular head. This POV lets you tell and know all, but lacks intimacy.
  • First Person is where you're in one character's head, and speaks in terms of I. This POV is immediate, emotive, and intimate, but can be limiting and difficult to write.
  • Third Person can be in a limited number of heads, and speaks in terms of he/she.
Last but not least, here's an exercise for you to try, if you're so inclined. Write one of the following scenes from all three POV angles:
⇒ Someone sitting by a loved one’s bedside, waiting with that person as s/he prepares to meet the Lord.
⇒ Someone waiting for a letter bearing the answer to an important question
⇒ Someone driving a car who just manages to avoid a collision with a semi

Feel free to post a short scene or two here so we can comment.

Have fun!



Tracy Ruckman said...

Thanks so much for sharing your conference goodies with us! I've been battling pneumonia for a month now, so I empathize. May God heal you quickly.

Can't wait to read more. (And I'm letting my crit group know to head over here, too!)

Lori Benton said...


I'm so glad you posted this. Great information.

My WIP is written in both first and third person POV. I hadn't intended to do this, but after writing my two POV character's scenes in third person, and feeling like I wasn't connecting well, or "hearing," my female MC, I switched her scenes to first person, and her voice blossomed. My male MC is firmly entrenched in third person POV.

I've read and enjoyed this mixture of POVs for many years, so it doesn't seem strange at all to me. I'm glad to hear this technique is gaining in acceptance and popularity.

Dextra said...

You write very well.

Karen B. said...

Thanks, Dextra. Pleased you dropped in.

Karen B.

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