I ran across a post about writing perspectives in the Writing Campaign group forum, and thought I’d blog about. I ignore second-person perspective here (“You did this”) because it really needs to just go away, unless you are Joyce Carol Oates or Thomas H. Cook. And you’re not.
There are also writers who quite effectively combine perspectives. John Locke, in his Donovan Creed books is one such writer. As a reader, we are only ever in Donovan’s head; all other perspectives are third person.
Writing in the first-person perspective is just what it sounds like: “I did this,” or “I do this.” Writing in the first-person perspective is always challenging, as the writer, in effect, is leading the reader real-time through the book. I liken it to a novel version of watching COPS on TV. It can be very effective, when done well, or annoying, when done poorly. One of the keys to this technique is that it immediately gets the reader to emphasize with the protagonist.
Typical genres written in first person: mysteries, thrillers, “confessional” novels, others with a strong central character who dominates the action.
In third-person perspective works, the reader is told, “He did this, or, she did that.” There are, however, more than one third-person perspective.
One third-person perspective is Omniscient, all-knowing. Here, the narrator, and thus the reader, knows what everyone is thinking. Here’s a long-winded example:
Despite all intentions, Donnie’s entrance had all the grace of a landslide from a California hillside. Head down (for effect), he plowed right into Emily, knocking her, Jimmy Choos over new hairdo, into an open garbage bin. Donnie, quickly recovering, lifted her to her feet, certain she considered him, by now, to be a hopeless oaf. Emily brushed a banana peel off her shoulder, and took one hobbled step. She began to weep. Her poor, beautiful Jimmy Choo had died.
While this is easier appealing from the writer’s perspective, there is a lot of stuff going on here. And the poor reader is bounced around from head-to-head, unsure of whom they will be next. And trust me, a LOT of readers try to identify with, and become the scene’s narrator.
However, some writers have truly mastered this style. Agatha Christie and John Grisham are two.
Let’s contrast that with the most common, and most effective, in my opinion, Point of View (POV), Limited Third Person. In limited, you are only in one person’s head at a time. That person is the star of the scene. And, while we can (and should) be in other characters’ heads from time-to-time, we remain entrenched in one person’s viewpoint at a time. Here is the same example in the limited POV:
… Donnie, quickly recovering, lifted her to her feet, certain she considered him, by now, to be a hopeless oaf. Emily brushed a banana peel off her shoulder, and took one hobbled step. She began to weep. Donnie was mortified. She hated him so much, she wouldn’t even look at him, focusing, instead on her stupid broken high-heeled shoe.
While it takes a little thinking to re-write the ending in limited POV, I’ve found the differences add nuance that lead to more interesting dialog. Imagine Donnie’s shock when he realizes Emily cares more about her shoe than him (and he gets a bill for a $700 pair of pumps).
The Omniscient POV is even less effective when you move from paragraph to paragraph. Frankly, if are Donnie in one paragraph, then Emily in the next, the readers (and Agents) will think the writer to be amateurish. Some, like me, will stop reading altogether.
The Limited POV also adds interest, since not all information is revealed at once. Rather that reveal what a second character thinks, describe their reaction. “Robin raised both hands to her hips, which, Charlie had learned, meant he was in big trouble.” It’s also okay to have your lead character guess the other characters’ reactions incorrectly. This allows the story to progress organically, the way the world actually operates.
While Limited means you’re limited to one at a time, that is the only way you’re limited. Very popular (and my style of choice) is the Multiple Third Person POV. Here, you freely change perspectives at chapter, or even section breaks, as long as they are clearly indicated to the reader in some way (blank lines, section markers, etc.) Many mysteries, suspense, and horror novels use this technique quite effectively, using a change to the antagonist’s viewpoint to show his motivation, and add suspense. Robert J. Sawyer claimed, in 1996, that 90% of Speculative Fiction was written in Limited POV.
Remember, not knowing what’s in other’s heads can give characters more depth. They are insecure, or overly cock-sure, or just plain wrong in their perspective of the world. And adding perspectives from quirky characters within your book can be a good way of spicing things up.
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