Whose Eyes? Whose Voice?

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!

  1. I'm reading WRITING MAGIC right now! I've never written a book in third person, but some day, I want to try it. It scares me. But sometimes, a little fear is a good thing – makes us stretch our wings a little. 🙂

  2. These are some great guidelines for choosing POV. I've gone back and forth, trying to decide whether to do third or first person in the novel I'm writing. So far I'm writing it in third, but I'm almost thinking first person would be better. My main character has a rather quiet personality–there's a lot going on in her mind, but she often keeps her thoughts to herself. Telling the story from her point of view might be a good way to help readers really understand her. Hmmm. I'm going to be thinking a lot about this over the next few days. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  3. Oh the throes of joy! Your book WRITING MAGIC was the first how to write book I ever bought. And now I find you have a blog to boot. Expect a follower. (ps I think your POV for FAIREST was brilliant.)

  4. Everthing I've written has been in third person til now. One prompt in Writing Magic was…
    "Be nice," my father said. "After all, he is your brother."
    This seemed to call for a response in the first person. So, that's how I did it and I will have to say I enjoyed the difference.
    It also seemed to me that the person being spoken to would be a girl…don't know exactly why, just seems so. That was an interesting thing for an over sixty male to find words for that person. It was strange but I think the stretch was kind of good for my brain.

  5. Thank you for this very informative post. I struggle with POV and hearing of your woes with the rewrites makes me think I might need to experiment with who's tale I'm telling.

    I'm off to add Writing Magic to my bookshelf.

  6. Oh, thank you! You're wonderful to share so much of your writing process with all of us. I'm sure I'm not the only one who gaped at the screen when I read that you wrote 300 pages in numerous points of view when writing FAIREST. Until now, I'd never considered writing that much just to "try it out." I'm going to plunge ahead and write. It will be a wonderful exercise–one that (I hope) will result in the right POV for my story. Thank you again!

  7. Oh thank heavens! I am so glad to discover I am not mad (or at least, not alone in my madness) for rewriting an entire novel several times to get the POV right. First person, third person, OH NO! Wrong main character! But ultimately, a happy ending.

  8. I read the passage from DAMAGE…it seems like it may get tedious after awhile. I'm going to the library to see if I can find the book. It would be interesting to see if the whole thing goes on like that, and if so, how the author handles it.

  9. An interesting point: first, third, and second person aren't the only ways to do it. I have read a book that was a cross between first and second person, which worked amazingly well. Check out Wolf Tower by Tanith Lee (Ahem- I recomend this book for 13+. Some slightly objectable content. Nowhere near as bad as Twilight though. )

  10. Hi, Gail, it's just a joy to "hear" your voice. I did not have your blog on my radar and I'm so happy that it turned up.

    I'm kind of a fan of the omniscient POV but it has limitations for me, like it's hard to keep your reader's heart in the story if you keep jumping into everyone's head. Still it's a very breezy way to write and gives me space as the narrator. On first person, I war with first person –I'm always backing myself into a corner with it, and it's always hard to get out. A first person story is such a limited view of the world. I think for first person the character has to be very likable, or it's just never going to work. And as for limited third person, I'm really able to stretch here, so I'd call it the widest spot for story telling. Just me thinking. Oh, yes, this is Molly Blaisdell and thank you for sharing your POV wisdom. 🙂

  11. Hey, Molly! It's great to see you here! Interesting what you say about limited third person, which I've used only once. You don't think the limited third-person character has to be likable as well?

  12. Hi! I am writing a novel and I wonder how many events I should make occur. I'm only on chapter 2 and I can't tell if it's detailed enough. When I read other books I think that those books have so much more detail and events. I've planned out almost the entire book in my head, and I wrote it down. Also, how short can chapters be?

  13. I think if there is some issue about the initial likability of the character, where the story arc is really going to be that of an "anti-hero", a character that really has some negative character traits who seriously questions authority, or might be snarky, or might have some other serious character failings, I think a step away from the first person into that third person limit POV will help readers have an easier time identifing with the main character.

    I really like the story arc of an unlikeable character becoming more likeable or more perhaps more understandable character. So in the end I do think if there are issues of likablity that a step away from first person will help. I don't think that it is absolutely necessary to tell a story with a likeable character at the center. I don't mind a book if I feel like I'm begging the main character to change.

    I guess if I was going to pick a classic example, I'd choose The Secret Garden. "When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaithe Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen." I think Mary is good example of anti-hero. Mary is imperious, hot tempered, unfeeling, ill mannered, etc., and I love her, really do. As the story unfolds and the magic of the garden works within her. I think the journey is worth taking and I think that step away from her helps the reader understand the why of Mary and truly supports the author's intent within the story.

    Well, I've gone on here. Just thinking.

  14. I don't want to be a copie cat (and I have only read your books, and 1 other were you re-write the fairy tale) but I think it would be fun.

    In your opion, being as your an author, would it be OK to re-write all the books I like?

    Also what is the herdest thing about writing a a book? I think it is when you have lots of ideas but you don't know how or where to put them in, what would you say?

  15. Thanks so much for posting about POV, Gail.I'm in the middle of a big revision of Bound By Three (sequel to Dragon's Keep). I saw your process (writing a discovery draft) is similar to my approach. The downside being the need to rewrite #s of times to get it right. In this newest revision I'm looking at changing the 330 pages that were written in the epistolary form back to straight first person. The "frame" the letter form allowed was wonderful in the first two drafts, but I'm being challenged to go deeper into the scenes. I'm not sure where I'll end up with this revision, but I have a lot of work ahead of me. Your brave POV changes for FAIREST gave me the courage to plunge in and give another approach a try. I can't thank you enough for the encouragement, Gail.
    I needed to re-boot my system! It helped me enormously!

    Hey to Molly Blaisdel commenting in this blog (Molly's in my critique group).


  16. Freak of Nature–There isn't a specific amount of details or number of events that a story must have. Each story is different. Just keep going or start another one. As for chapters, they can be as short as one page and as long as thirty, but try to end them on an exciting or significant moment.
    Dancing Pen–You can retell anything if it's just for practice. But if it's for publication, make sure what you're retelling is in the public domain (look this up if you don't know what it means) or you have the author's permission.

  17. Found your blog via Inkygirl (above). Spent the better part of my day reading all your posts and getting caught up. This post on POV confirms my suspicions that I need to try changing from third person to first on a previous WIP. I'll not go all crazy with 300 pages just yet, but will try at least 3 chapters 🙂

  18. You guys, Nick Carraway exists to provide an unbiased point of view as an unreliable narrator. He's a delicious paradox. Besides that, it's through his experiences that many of the themes in his book come about– for instance, his Minnesota upbringing is extremely important as a contrast to both Gatsby's country upbringing (which he lies about) and the decadent New York setting. Come on!

    That said, I do think this is really interesting– POV is one of those things that seems so obvious but can be so tricky.

    (AND Baz Luhrman is going to start shooting an adaptation of The Great Gatsby next year. Yes!)

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