f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: The Choice Is Yours: Selecting a POV for Your Novel (Part 7 of series)

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Friday, March 05, 2004

The Choice Is Yours: Selecting a POV for Your Novel (Part 7 of series)

There’s a very simple way to choose your POV for your new novel or short story. Take your pen (or open a new page in Word) and write your first sentence. Now write another. Write a third. If by this point you don’t know what POV you’re writing in, well I’m not sure I can help you.

Is that the best point-of-view to choose? Now that’s a dog of a different breed entirely. Let’s look at the five points-of-view and discuss some optimal narrative circumstances for choosing them and some problems you may encounter in your choice.

We’ll start with the easiest ones.

Second-Person Point-of-View — I can’t think of too many rational reasons for selecting this. It’s cumbersome and unnatural to read. It draws a lot of attention to itself. Still, if you’ve got a story that you need your reader to really participate in, this is your option. You better have a darn good explanation though.

Third-Person Objective — Likewise, this is almost an impossible point-of-view in which to tell a novel. You risk your story being flat and emotionless as we stay always on the surface. Maybe, though, that’s what you want. If you’re using multiple narrators in a book, one of them might be objective (or close to it). It’d certainly distinguish itself as a voice.

Now for the others:

Third-Person Omniscient — Well done, this is a masterful storytelling tool. This works best for large, sprawling tales in which ideas and action and plot are as important as characterization. It’s also good for covering stories that take place over a long period of time. Think epic and wide-ranging.

Another reason to choose this POV is to impose an authorial presence on the novel. You want readers to always be aware that they are reading a “story.” Two concerns: this is often distracting to readers who don’t like the authorial interruptions, and it often undermines the importance of the greater story being told.

Overall, omniscience has a few trouble spots. There is a tendency to stay too removed and to simply “tell” everything rather than allowing any “showing” whatsoever. As well, readers may remain distanced from characters if too much of the narrative remains in the “omniscient” voice.

First-Person — I think this acts like the default point-of-view for writers who are just beginning. It’s easy, in general, to write in the first person. It’s easy to create a voice in the first person, even if it’s just our own voice put into a character’s mouth. None of these things are bad, per se, but ease is a bad way to choose point-of-view.

There are three questions to ask yourself before starting a first-person book:
1. Where is my narrator speaking from? — Remember Scout, looking back on her life as an adult? You need to place your narrator in time. Is it right after the events of the story happened so they’re unreliable? Long after, so they’ve gained perspective?

2. To whom are they telling the story? — I had an instructor say that, unless they were writing a book, the answer couldn’t be “to the readers.” I agree with him in principle. A narrator should have a specific audience in mind for their story—and we should get a sense of who that audience is. Is this a deathbed confession to be read by children? Is it a tale told to a psychiatrist? A diary meant for themselves? Whowhowhowhowho?

3. Why are they telling the story? — In life, people don’t randomly begin telling stories. Something usually provokes them. What’s the impetus for this story being told?

If you don’t have a good answer for two of these and a solid answer for 3, I’d recommend skipping first-person and moving to third-person limited. Some other concerns or limitations of first-person are more practical. Your narrator must be able to account for all the information they know. Complicated plots revolving around lots of people don’t go over so well in first-person (unless you use multiple narrators).

Finally, remember my charge that all first-person narrators are unreliable to on extant or another. Just be aware of the judgments they make, the secrets they keep, etc.

Third-Person Limited Omniscience — It’s my personal opinion that most developing writers should at least consider using this POV for their first attempt. It’s not quite so user-friendly as first person, true, but it also seems to offer the most flexibility and a blending of benefits from both full omniscience and first-person. Here you can develop a character’s voice at a step back. Thoughts and memories and feelings are all easier to take in this POV than first-person which is so dynamic and intimate.

Again, you have some limitations on what your character knows and can relate, but these tend to be solved easily. Plus, with third-person omniscience there’s no worrying about why the story is being told or needing to provide outside justification. You’re the one urging the story forward.


Other questions to ask yourself:

Is the richness of my plot or the intention of my story going to require a second or multiple narrators? If so, be sure to make the narrators’ voice distinct from each other. Much of this comes through refining and editing.

Do I want complete differentiation in my story between sections by choosing not only different narrators but completely different points-of-view? If so, be aware that your readers are most likely going to like one plot thread best. Each section needs to at least hold its own or readers will be exasperated.

Am I going to try to make my point-of-view “invisible”? Or am I trying to make a point about the nature of storytelling or the notion of communication itself by bringing attention to my point-of-view? You can do this by making the narrator dead or by naming the narrator after yourself or by a hundred other goofy things. But you need to understand the implications and defend your choices.

Like Paul said (sorta): All things are permissible, but not every choice is beneficial.

So that’s our lecture series on POV. I had no idea it would turn out this long. Yowsers. Please let me know your feelings about this. Was it beneficial? Would you prefer for me to stick with the publishing business? Anything, let me know.

Next week, I think is going to be a mixed bag of things. The week after that I’ll be discussing Lamb by Christopher Moore.