. . . From a Certain Point of View

Hands up everyone who immediately recognized the source of my title quote?  Okay, that was an easy one.

In a post a couple weeks ago, I referenced the special difficulty of writing a book in a single point of view (POV), and suggested I might expand on that theme in a later post.  So here I am.  Single and multiple POV’s have different challenges for the writer, and different rewards as well.  One of my overriding notions as a writer is that every important element in the book should be a deliberate choice, and POV is one of the areas where many writers fail to make that choice.

You start out writing from the POV of an important character in the first scene, probably the protagonist.  In a chapter or so, you realize you want to include some other information that the protag doesn’t know, so you grab someone else’s POV and use that.  Then you think maybe you’ll build tension if you show some stuff from the villain, so you go over there. . . and that’s the people who aren’t head-hopping (when you jump between different POV’s from sentence to sentence).  There are some famous and wealthy head-hoppers out there–but for most writers, it’s just bad news. I would argue it’s a bad idea even for the famous and wealthy folks, but I doubt they care what I think.

Single POV has the supreme benefit of enmeshing the reader very closely with a single character. It creates a strongly intimate effect because you experience what that character does as he or she does it.  There’s no sense of divided focus.  The reader might be curious what another character is experiencing, but never gets to find out directly, so there’s no divided focus.

As the Game of Thrones readers out there can attest, the reader can quickly grow attached to anyone who has a POV presence in a book (hero, villain, servant, whoever). They get mad when you take away that POV, either permanently, or simply by not visiting the character for a while.  That can be a useful way to build suspense, but it can also feel like a tease–the author made the reader care about someone, only to toss that person off a cliff or into the next volume.  Not so with the single POV.

But it’s tempting to violate that single POV, when you want the reader to know something the character doesn’t, or when you want to create the tension of having the reader aware of things that the character isn’t.  This often manifests in lines like:  Joe turned away from the window before he saw the evil red eyes peering in.  Well, if Joe (the POV character) didn’t see them, who did?  It’s possible to manage that kind of floating camera approach to narration, but it chips away at the intimacy that the single POV excels at.

This is one of the cool things about writing historical fiction.  If you can reference the history, you can create tension about what the reader knows because the character hasn’t gotten there/then yet.  “Sunset lingered over Pearl Harbor, on December 6, 1941, and Joe looked forward to the next morning. . .”

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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4 Responses to . . . From a Certain Point of View

  1. termitespeaker says:

    I think you have to be flexible up to a point. The “red eye” sentence above injects an element of omnipotent narrator – it’s the author who sees the red eye. In a movie it would be easy, because the camera is the POV. I think you have to use elements of omnipotent narration from time to time – depends on the skill of the writer.
    My “Termite Queen” v.1 is almost exclusively told from the heroine’s point of view because I want the reader to be as mystified by the male protagonist as she is. Of course, I also have the termite sections, which are presented like the script of a Shakespearean play, so that’s entirely different. Finally in v.2 my heroine Kaitrin is mentally out-of-commission, so it’s necessary to employ other characters to carry on until she is competent enough to pick up the threads of her life. When we begin to learn about what makes the hero so mysterious, we get his life as told by his sister to Kaitrin, so that’s mostly from the sister’s point of view. Finally we get the revelation of a series of letters from the hero to Kaitrin where we finally see events through the hero’s eyes. There are also some termite scenes where Kaitrin is a speaker in the script. So it’s never simple.
    And that “sunset lingered over Pearl Harbor” bit – that’s dramatic irony!

    • Maintaining the mystification level (is that a term? maybe too tired for this) is a fun use of POV. Hard to walk the line between the essential and hopefully intriguing mystery of not being able to see into the character, and the reader feeling too alienated from the character to be interested at all.

      it sounds like you’re integrating a number of different approaches to POV to bring your story across. Bravo!

  2. catherinelumb says:

    I’ve often had issues with POV – exactly as you mention here, jumping from sentence to sentence without a clear narrator. It’s led to me writing a whole novel whereupon my protagonist’s POV is entirely absent (in which case some might argue she is not my protagonist – but as she is the driving force and main character that pulls all of the story together she is my protagonist in my eyes).
    I’ve often had to go back and re-edit work because my POV wasn’t consistent and now I notice it everywhere. Thanks for reminding me that it isn’t just me who sometimes slips up!
    Take Care, Cat

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