After my last post, Kim wrote,
How do you choose the point of view for a particular story, and what, to you, are the pros and cons of 1st person versus 3rd person POV?
My last novel was in the 3rd person, but my work in progress is (currently) in 1st person. I can’t seem to get the voice right–it feels a bit pretentious, to tell the truth, because I’m trying to write a lyrical piece–and I’ve considered going back to the 3rd person. Do certain novels scream a particular POV to you as you’re working on them? I noticed in this post that you bounced around in the POV you chose until you selected the “right” one. How did you know which POV to choose?
I have a chapter about point of view (POV) in Writing Magic. I define it there, but, briefly, the two main POVs are first person and third. In first person, the narrator is a character in the story, usually but not always the main character, and tells the story as I. In third person, the narrator is outside the story and all the character pronouns are he and she. A third-person narrator can be omniscient (all knowing) and can reveal scenes in which the main character is not present; or the third-person narrator can stick to the main character and show only scenes he’s in. It’s also possible to write from a second-person POV (you) or first-person plural POV (we), but these are rare.
In some of my books POV was the major hurdle. I was a long time getting it right in Ever, Fairest, and the final Disney Fairies book, Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, which will be out next June.
Fairest is my best example of POV misery. It’s a retelling of Snow White. Since Snow White bites into a poison apple and is in a coma for a big chunk of the story, I thought I couldn’t tell it from her POV. Initially, I decided to tell it in first person from the POV of a gnome. (The gnomes stand in for the dwarfs in the original fairy tale.) I decided a gnome named zhamM would be madly in love with the Snow White character, Aza. His love would be doomed, however, because he’s a gnome and she’s a human. It would be a tragedy modeled on Cyrano de Bergerac. I wrote 300 pages from zhamM’s POV, while my critique buddy kept scratching her head and telling me something was wrong. Finally I had to admit my choice had been a mistake.
I started over from the POV of the prince and wrote another 300 pages, which weren’t right either. Next I tried third-person omniscient, which I loved. I loved getting into the jealous queen’s head and into the mind of the villain in the magic mirror. However, the story clunked along at the pace of an ancient turtle. It wasn’t working, but, of course, I wrote 300 pages before I faced the truth.
Some scenes remained more or less the same from version to version, so I didn’t have to rewrite every one of those 300 pages each time. But I rewrote a lot. And finally I figured out how to go into Aza’s coma and tell the story from her first-person POV, and I finished the book.
Still, sometimes I wonder: If I had hung in with third person, could I have made it work? Did I abandon it too soon? If I’d continued writing to page 400 or 500, might all have become clear?
The point is that POV can be hard to figure out and may not be possible to decide on in advance. You may have to try telling your story one way and another (and another and another) until you find out. There may be no shortcut for a particular book.
However, when you think about POV, here are a few considerations:
Whose story are you telling? In Ever and in most of my Princess Tales series the story belongs to two main characters. In Ever, I solved the problem by alternating first-person POVs between the two from chapter to chapter. In The Princess Tales, I used an omniscient third-person POV. In the first two Disney Fairies books, the story belongs to a cast of several fairies, and the only choice seemed to be third-person omniscient. Most often, though, my stories belong primarily to one main character, and I tell it in his or her voice.
What seems simplest, most direct, even easiest? I tend to complicate my stories. My Cyrano de Bergerac idea is a good example. Writing is hard enough without setting up roadblocks to make it harder. But simplicity is only one consideration. Making the best book you can is paramount. In The Book Thief, the simplest way to tell the story might have been from Liesel’s POV, but Markus Zusak chose Death. I wonder if he tried other POV characters before arriving at Death.
Are there any plot considerations that prevent the story from being told by a particular character? (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t read The Great Gatsby, I’m about to give something away. You may want to skip ahead.) Maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t tell Gatsby from Gatsby’s POV solely because Gatsby dies. Maybe he had other reasons as well. A dead main character was not a problem for Alice Sebold in The Lovely Bones, since the main character is writing from an afterlife. (By the way, Gatsby, The Book Thief, and The Lovely Bones are not to be read before high school, I’d guess. Check with a parent or librarian.)
What sort of voice are you looking for? I talk about this a little in Writing Magic. A first person voice needs to reflect the personality of the character. An omniscient narrator can have any sort of voice – old-fashioned, Gothic, Valley Girl, journalistic – and whichever you pick will infuse the entire book. Each voice feels different as you’re writing in it.
Here’s a prompt: Think about the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” one of my favorites. Look it up if you don’t remember it well. My Brothers Grimm version is told in third person, but the reader sees the story mostly through the eyes of the soldier. Try retelling it, or a piece of it, from the POV of various characters and in third person omniscient. See what happens to the story and to you when you switch. Have fun, and save what you write!