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Pointed Views on Points of View

Reporting to you from New York, which I still regard as a city made of fairy lights even though it shows me sights like Ultimate Rodent Death Match on the subway: it must be love. I am ridiculously busy, but for wonderful reasons like the wedding of the year (now including time-travelling samurai) and many book-related things.

Speaking of books, I am now writing the first draft of the sequel to The Demon's Lexicon, at present called The Magician's Circle, and having great fun with it. One day this week I went home from a club a little lemonaded up, fell into bed and then dragged my laptop into bed with me in a fit of girlish enthusiasm.

I woke up, freed my hair from its lover's embrace with the cord, and after I had sufficiently caffeinated myself (with tea, of course, coffee never passes my innocent lips) I read what I had written over and knew there was something terribly wrong.

But what could it be? The story was progressing nicely. Everything made sense. I hadn't made up a word and then forgotten what it was supposed to mean this time. Yet I knew there was something very not right here.

It finally dawned on me that I'd written an entire scene in the wrong point of view.

Of course I had to delete the whole thing.



There are a billion different ways to use POV, and three main ones. There's third person omniscient - 'Mary-Beth felt wistful as she made apple pie. Frank reflected that after thirty years of marriage Mary-Beth still had not realised he was allergic to apples, almost as allergic as he was to raspberries. Mary-Beth was feeling wistful because, despite extensive searching, she hadn't been able to find any raspberries at the market today. It had been a long thirty years for Mary-Beth.' In omniscient we know everything that's going on and what everybody's feeling. We even know that God is pouring herself a cocktail wondering if those crazy kids will ever make it work.

There's first person point of view - 'I watched them as they bickered endlessly about pie. I had watched them bicker about pie too long, but soon my suffering and my vile imprisonment alike would be at an end. I had whittled an instrument out of my own bedding and as soon as they went to bed I would pick the lock. Then I would cast off my slave name of Tweety and those fools would know the wrath and might of Kch'wurl, Lord of the Canaries!' We know everything what Tweety is thinking, but we're pretty clear on the fact that Frank and Mary-Beth would have a different take.

Then there's third person limited - 'He was not really enthusiastic about the idea of pie, but that was the way things often played out in this household. Mary-Beth and Frank were too wrapped up in their ongoing quarrel to pay much attention to him and that crazy bird just kept tweeting over them. God knew what the neighbours were thinking. He was thinking that maybe he should move, seduce an old lady perhaps. Then he'd have all the cream and fluffy balls his heart could desire.' So it's a cat talking, but we weren't sure about that for a while. And for a while, it all felt reasonable - felt as if we were reading what was going on rather than in a cat's head. But we're in the cat's head as much as we were in Tweety's - it's just we don't notice it as much. We're more inclined to trust this version as reality.

Diabolical cunning!

And that is why I love third person limited so much. All writers want to make a world their reader will believe in. How much more fun to make a world your readers will believe in, then show that it was just a world within a world, one person's view of the world, and there are thousands of world within one. And make them all seem real.

First person point of view is useful for that, too, but the reader is always aware that this is one person's view of the world and if there's a surprise about the world involved, often the reader will feel tricked or will have been predicting the surprise from page one. This isn't always true - Megan Whalen Turner's the Thief is a really truly cool surprise story from a first person point of view, but even then as soon as I was done with the book I read it again, just to check that the clues were there, that the surprise hadn't been sprung at me from nowhere (which everyone knows is not fair).

Agatha Christie had a pretty damn big surprise in her first person point of view book The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in which famously, the narrator dunnit. But what people don't say is that Christie wrote another book where the narrator dunnit, which wasn't all that popular. (I forget the name of this book, but I have read it, and he killed his wife and in the end he thinks he kind of loved his wife more than his mistress so on the whole feels it was a bad move. Especially since he got caught and all.) Possibly people guessed early on. Possibly they felt they had been tricked. The reason that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is so great is that the narrator for the Hercule Poirot books is usually Hastings, Poirot's friend who we know is an officer and a gentleman. Hastings was married off in the last book so cue a new narrator, who Poirot himself tells us is the new Hastings. 'Ah, replacement Hastings,' the reader thinks. 'You will never betray me.' But of course when the reveal is made the reader thinks, 'of course, no character is a replica or a replacement of another, of course we couldn't trust this guy because we trust Hastings.'

The reason I really like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is because it's clever. Because every reader deserves the 'of course' and not to feel cheated.

I never really thought about point of view in books until I was eighteen and two people were arguing over one of my stories and one of them said 'But that's what happened!' and the other person said 'No, that's just what he thinks happened' and I said 'Of course' and started laughing. Because once you start thinking about the lies people tell when they don't know they're telling them, the truths people reveal when they think they're lying, then you can start to build a world.

I'm not just talking about books that have a surprise ending or a big reveal. Not all books do and not all books should: third person limited is fun because of little things too, moments where the reader sees the narrator having a fight with someone, is at first in sympathy with the narrator because after all they know exactly what the narrator's thinking and why they're saying terrible things, and then slowly starts to think 'of course! The other character had a point as well.' The world opens up more with every little 'of course' moment.

Third person limited is the most popular style for books to be written in: I've heard it called 'the Volvo' of povs, so there are a lot of books that just use it as a default and don't use it for a reason, but there is a reason why it became the default style and that is because it is awesome.

To really make it work, though, you can't default to it. You have to give some thought to it, like Christie did with her careful set-up of Secretly Not Hastings, or Turner where every one of the books in her series has a different pov set-up that's most suited to the story she wants to tell (The Thief is first person, The Queen of Attolia is mostly omniscient, and The King of Attolia is third person limited and also and probably not coincidentally my absolute favourite).

This is the way I do it (and please pardon me for wittering about myself, but I don't know how other writers do it): I have to know all the different worlds to write one, so when I write an argument between the narrator and another character, I know exactly how it is from the other character's side as well and I have at least some idea of the truth of the situation.

So when I was writing an outline for the second book (about three pages telling the story, so your publisher knows where you're going with it and that purple space monkeys don't take over half-way through. I didn't write an outline for the third novel, so I feel purple space monkeys are totally allowed then), my agent said she wasn't sure about the point of view I was planning to write the book from. That's cool, I said, and I wrote two more outlines from two different characters' points of view and said my publisher could pick their favourite.

In that way, thinking about the world from a dozen different points of view really worked out. Of course, being able to imagine something is not the same as actually writing it. Or I would be the proud writer of approximately 2856889 books. The devil's in the details. The world that you're used to has to become a different world and yet has to be recognisable. Anything else is cheating.

The first book has four main characters, and if I had to sum each of them up in one word I'd call them a loner, a liar, an adventurer and an escape artist (which is two words. But however). Switching from the way a loner sees the world to the way an adventurer sees the world has to be different on so many levels - the attitude to people suddenly shifts from 'Make them all go away. No, bring that one back! At a safe distance, mind you!' to 'How do these people factor into this adventure? Will they help? Obviously it's my responsibility to lead everyone through my adventure.' And the similarities between the characters have to make the viewpoints similar at times, but not the same.

This can sometimes lead to things like your lemonaded-up brain writing a scene from a completely different point of view from the one you intended. But even then, you learn.

And hopefully, you can give the readers some of those moments where they say 'Of course.'

So, what point of view do you guys like to write from? Alternating third person limited is popular too. You could be crazy for switching first person point of view. (Letters between two people is one of my favourite ways to do this.) What point of view would you rather read?

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
schuldige_katze
Jun. 1st, 2009 08:38 pm (UTC)
I thought about this extensively (although I now realise, not as extensively as you have) when I was reading Miss Snark's First Victim's (AKA, Authoress McNonymous) Secret Agent Contest.

About 95% of the stories were crap.

About 94% of the stories were from first person POV.

This really killed any great love of the first person I had been developing, but after I'd had a chance to think about it, I realised that I was only railing against first person because I'd just waded through so many badly written excerpts in it. There are two books from first person that really stand out in my mind when I think about it. Susanna Kearsley's The Shadowy Horses and Robin McKinley's Sunshine.
These are two of my absolute favourite books ever and I realised that I couldn't hate first person without also hating these two books, and revised my opinion of it.

My tendency to write in third person limited stems from the fact that I have the attention span of a gnat. I just can't keep track of what three dozen characters are all doing/thinking/saying/feeling/whatevering at the same time. It's much easier for me to focus on one character, and explore his or her feelings in great depth, and add her spin on what she thinks the other characters are doing/thinking/saying/feeling/whatevering, even if it's wrong.

Oh, Samuel looks angry. I wonder what's wrong? Did his girlfriend break up with him?

The reader is left wondering, "What's wrong with Samuel?" He could be angry. He could be holding back a sneeze. He could be so overwhelmed with joy that he can't take it any more, and is desperately just trying not to laugh in everyone's faces. But because your character thinks that he's angry, the reader thinks he's angry, and then it comes as a surprise three paragraphs later when he sneezes hard enough to blow dust around the room.

As to what I prefer to read... I'm not sure I have an opinion. I take books as they are. I wouldn't actively avoid a book written in first person, unless it was really bad. But I don't either seek out books in third person limited to read; I just find a story I like, and read it as it is.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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