Just to let you all know, I’m copying the latest comments for the blog that came in to the website here rather than with last week’s post so they’re more likely to be read. Reminder, if you can post directly to the blog, please do because it’s easier for me, but if not, I’ll keep copying your comments over.
Now here goes with two questions about point of view (POV). On June 3, 2011, Rina wrote, I have a question regarding first-person narrators. In one story I’m writing, I worry about how I can possibly get my narrator to observe everything important to the plot. She’s not the most useful or important person. Should I use another narrator, change to third person, or just try to have her hanging around whenever something important happens?
And on June 10, 2011, ToNature wrote, …I usually write from first person but I decided for a new story I’m working on… that I would try to use third person. My problem is that though I’m writing about a person, my story sounds more like a dry biography than anything. I’ve read excellent books from 3rd person and have found it just as easy to get to know a character as when an author writes from 1st person, but I’m having trouble doing this myself. Do you have any suggestions?
Choice of POV character is one of the most important story decisions we make, and I sometimes take a long time making it. When I wrote Fairest, I couldn’t get the POV right. I wrote about 300 pages from each of two wrong first-person POVs and another 300 from an omniscient third-person narrator before I found my final first-person POV character.
I wouldn’t wish this 900-page misery on anyone, but sometimes we have to fumble around for a while before we get the POV right. In Beloved Elodie, which I’m working on now, although I know that Elodie is my main first-person narrator, I’ve recently decided to add a few more first-person narrators who will chime in now and then. Part of my purpose is to solve exactly the problem Rina mentions. These other narrators will be able to report on events Elodie can’t be present for. However, until I thought of using other narrators, I didn’t plan for there to be important action at a distance from her.
Additional narrators can not only inform the reader of what takes place elsewhere, they can also provide another perspective. In Ever, the chapters alternate between two main characters. Sometimes they’re separated, but often they’re together, and the reader (and I as I wrote) experiences what happens through two different sets of senses.
I’ve mentioned before that I love Terry Pratchett’s novels. He sometimes tells snippets of his story from his villain’s POV. These are usually teasers and don’t tell much, but the reader gets a glimpse into an evil mind, and the tension is heightened.
So using multiple first-person narrators is one way to present plot moments to your reader when your first-person narrator can’t be there. Writing in omniscient third person is another, of course. You can take a stretch of your story and try one way and then another. You need length for this, say fifty pages (maybe less), so you can narrate a few events and see how the perspectives work for you. Testing may bring clarity.
Rina writes that her POV character isn’t the most important in the story, and this is another decision to consider. A narrator who’s on the periphery can be fine. It works in The Great Gatsby and in the Sherlock Holmes tales, for example. In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby doesn’t seem reflective enough to tell his own story, and there is the matter of the ending. In the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories, author Arthur Conan Doyle may have decided that there would have been no suspense if Holmes himself had narrated. Doyle may even have tried to make Holmes the narrator. He may have attempted third-person, too, and may have torn out chunks of his hair deciding. I’m not a Sherlock Holmes or Arthur Conan Doyle scholar. Maybe he knew what he was doing from the start, or maybe he struggled like the rest of us.
If we choose a peripheral character’s point of view, however, there are challenges. This character may not be as emotionally engaged in what’s happening as the major players are, and she may have less at stake in the outcome. Then the reader will have less at stake too, and we may lose him.
It’s likely to be awkward to force our first-person POV character to be on the spot whenever plot developments happen. Luckily there are myriad other ways to keep her informed. If you’re writing a contemporary story, you have snail mail, email, texting, tweeting, cell phones, land-line phones, Facebook and the like, as well as news reports on radio and television. You can even make blogs convey information. If you’re writing a historical novel, you can use period methods: telegrams, messengers, smoke signals, whatever. If your genre is sci-fi or fantasy or the paranormal, the options are legion, and you can invent more. In Ella Enchanted I gave Ella a magic book to clue her in about events she wouldn’t know of otherwise.
A character’s absence can ratchet up the tension. Say for example that Marcus is under house arrest. His cell phone and computer have been confiscated. He found out just before his detention that his friend Michael is a spy. He needs to warn his pal and secret cellmate Millicent, who is to meet Michael this afternoon – but he can’t. Will she reveal secrets Michael shouldn’t know? Aaa! She’ll endanger everyone and their cause. Marcus worries and the reader worries.
What’s more, in terms of tension, the main character can question the reliability of the intelligence he’s getting. Marcus sends a verbal message to Millicent through his neighbor’s young daughter. The daughter returns with a note from Millicent. Marcus is surprised that Millicent would put anything in writing. He wonders if the daughter actually delivered his message or delivered it to the right person, Millicent.
ToNature, I’m assuming you’ve chosen third person for plot reasons. You might try switching back to first person for the beginning of your story so you can get into your main character’s thoughts and emotions. Then, when you’re comfortable in her skin, translate what you’ve got back into third and keep going. If the writing gets stiff again, revert to first. If you have to, you can write a whole book in this back-and-forth way.
Or, you might pick a different first-person narrator, as I suggested before. Try choosing one who feels strongly about your main, an interesting character in his own right who can bring your story to life with his particular take on your main.
It’s also possible to shift between a first and third-person narrative. For those parts when your main can tell her own tale, let her. But when she can’t, have your third-person narrator step in – or a different first-person character.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Read or reread a Sherlock Holmes story; some are short. Tell it from Sherlock Holmes’s POV. He has a strange mind and is probably not a linear thinker. Reflect his thought process through his voice. What does he think of Dr. Watson?
∙ Continue the story of Marcus, stuck in his house while events swirl around him. Help him find out what’s going on and influence events.
∙ Tell the fairy tale Snow White from several points of view: the evil queen, the hunter, a dwarf, Snow White’s father, her pet gerbil, as reported in the castle gazette. Or pick a different fairy tale and other points of view. As I suggested before, rewrite a swath of one of your stories from several POVs.
Have fun, and save what you write!