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Point of View September 4, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Fantasy, Novel, On Writing.
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The point of view of the narrative of a piece of fiction or novel is often a brain-crushing issue.

I subscribe to a newsletter called Ginny’s Fiction Writing Blog, and recently I came across a post entitled ‘First Person or Third for New Writers?’

I was surprised to see that the advice given to new writers is to write from the First Person perspective (ie, I did this, I felt this) as opposed to the Third Person perspective (ie he did this, she felt this).  Surprised because at the only creative writing course I attended, we were recommended to use Third Person in all our writing exercises, as we were told that it was ‘easier’ and caused less problems for inexperienced writers.  I have also read several books on writing which also suggested that newbies should start off with Third Person, and when they have built up more confidence, to move on to First Person.  That said, even when writing in the Third Person, when writing individual scenes, we were advised to stick to the perspective of a single person (as opposed to an omnipresent God-like narrator that knows what everyone is thinking and feeling).  It allows readers to relate more, we were told.

the-time-travelers-wife

Audrey Niffenegger told the story using two First Person perspectives

There’s actually a lot more than just the simple distinction between First Person (eg Twilight by Stephenie Meyer) or Third Person (eg Harry Potter by JK Rowling).  There are books that utilise the First Person narrative but using two separate characters (eg The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger), or even multiple First Person narratives (like My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult).  Or there are books like The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which, on the face of it is a First Person narrative (told from the perspective of Death), but because the narrator watches the story unfold from afar, it reads more like a Third Person narrative.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with any style, as long as it is effective.  Out of all the styles described above, only the multiple First Person perspectives (ala My Sister’s Keeper) didn’t feel quite right to me.  It was just a bit too confusing having to jump from one character to another.  Even though each point of view was split into separate chapters, I felt like I could never get into the characters like I should have.  Rather than getting a better sense of what each character was like and how they felt, it ended up having the opposite effect.  Anyway, that’s just me.

my-sisters-keeper-01

My Sister's Keeper used multiple First Person perspectives. Of course, it and The Time Traveler's Wife are now both movies.

So when it came time to decide on what perspective to use for my own fantasy novel, I struggled a lot.  As I always tend to try and put myself in the shoes of the main character, I started off believing that First Person would be most appropriate.    But the problem with using First Person all the way through is that the knowledge you convey to the reader is confined to a single person.  My antagonist also had a great story to tell, and I didn’t want to deprive my novel of his story.  So I started contemplating the idea of the shifting First Person perspective method, where I would tell the story from two views – the protagonist and the antagonist.  But that was still only two characters.  I also wanted all my characters to be fleshed out properly, for each one of them to have real emotions that they could convey to the reader.  But then I read My Sister’s Keeper and felt the multiple First Person perspectives didn’t work, so I scrapped that idea.  Then came the idea of interchanging Third Person narrative with First Person.  It’s been done before.  You tell the story in Third Person, and every few chapters you throw in one from the First Person perspective, written in italics.  It sounded good but was probably beyond my skills as a writer.

In the end, I went with what felt right.  Yep, I decided on Third Person, all the way.  I asked myself – what’s the most important thing here?  Of course, it was simply to tell the story in the most effective way.  I wanted to give the reader a good sense of each of the main characters.  I didn’t want to confine the view to a single person, or even two.  I also wanted exciting action sequences and battles told as though the reader was an eagle watching from above.  I wanted the novel to play out like a movie that would let the audience know what I want them to know, when I want them to know.  The truth is, you could probably do that with any of the narrative techniques, but as a new, inexperienced writer still learning the nuances of the craft, Third Person just made it a whole lot easier.

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Comments»

1. j-a brock - September 6, 2009

i think you did the right thing – go with what feels right. i don’t think that there’s a hard and fast rule about which p.o.v. person a beginning writer chooses, so long as they have a passion for it. however, i would say to beginning writers – don’t write in present tense, always go with past tense until you get established.

2. ray - September 9, 2009

Agreed: a story tells itself. If 3rd person felt right, then follow that path. Personally I feel there’s too much 1st person and it sounds trite to write every story that way, but that’s me.

In terms of understanding narrative and point of view, the best way to learn about voice and person and telling a story is to read. Some people are masters at this. Vladimir Nabokov is one and I suggest reading any of his later novels (ie Lolita or later). Another is Joseph Conrad. Both of these writers spoke English as a second language and as a result both use English effectively and with thought. If you’re interested in fantasy, read Ursula LeGuin or Shirley Jackson. Lastly, every serious writer should read Dickens, particularly “A christmas carol” which still is a fantastic read.

pacejmiller - September 9, 2009

Wow, thanks. I’ll definitely check out the recommendations. Cheers.


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