Style Article—A POV on POVs by @krisbcullen

Written by KrisB

Opinions are like belly buttons… everybody has one.

Okay, maybe the quote doesn’t go exactly that way, but I’ve had to sanitize my clichés since becoming a mother.

Regardless, the topic of points of view (or POVs, as we all know them) rests squarely in the realm of subjective opinion versus objective fact, art versus science. By way of disclaimer, please allow me to offer that this blog posting is my opinion, not that of PTB or any of the fabulous betas and moderators that dedicate their time and energy to that fabulous resource. While I hope to make a persuasive argument for careful consideration of POV when writing a story, others might offer equally persuasive arguments in opposition to my opinion that might strike you, the reader, as more viable, logical, or resonating. That being said, I still feel compelled to give it my best shot.

First, the grammar lesson… there are several points of view from which an author can tell a story: first person, second person, third person limited, third person subjective, and third person omniscient. First person tells the story from the “I” perspective – the narrator tells the story to the reader, and what the reader sees is influenced and impacted by this very narrow lens. Second person uses “you” to tell the tale, and is not commonly used in literary fiction, although it can be used sparingly in a story (this convention is not uncommon in mysteries) to great effect. Third person limited mimics first person, because the story is told using a single person’s perspective, but the narrative will generally offer more “observant” commentary and dialogue than one would normally expect in first person. Third person subjective generally allows for more than one character to provide a view to the story, allowing the author to provide the viewpoint of multiple players. Third person omniscient allows for an all-seeing, all-knowing narrator to tell the story, without adopting the viewpoint of any one character.

There is no right or wrong POV, and there are no hard and fast rules that one POV or another is better or more appropriate. Helpful, huh?

As a writer, which should you choose?

Several factors should be considered when choosing a POV. First and foremost, the writing should be comfortable to you. Personally, I am very comfortable with first and third person (in all its varieties), but second person is not my thing. I’m far more neurotic about tenses. Present tense and I are barely on speaking terms, and I would prefer not only to avoid writing fiction in present tense, but editing it or reading it. I am simply not comfortable with it, and know that I can’t do my best for anyone when the verb tense is tripping me up. My comprehension is impacted, which makes me relatively useless as a reader or a beta. That doesn’t make it wrong, but it showcases the importance of knowing what you can work with and what you can’t.

Beyond the comfort question, understand the pros and cons of each POV; that’s right, each one has advantages and disadvantages. First person POV severely limits what the reader knows, not just because the reader can only see what the narrator sees, but because the narrator is interpreting those observations, influencing them. Case in point, the novels that brought us all together: Bella has a very poor image of herself and sees Edward as perfection incarnate. The reader has a rather vague picture of Bella’s appearance, her intellect, how other students interact with her, and other cues that would help the reader to create a three-dimensional image of her in our heads. Likewise, many readers are amazed to compare Midnight Sun’s Edward to Twilight’s Edward; the differing POVs highlight the dichotomy of how these two characters see each other and themselves. Imagine how much that interpretation can influence the story, knowing that almost all of the series is told from Bella’s (limited and, perhaps, skewed) POV. Story arcs, mysteries, and romances, though, often benefit from using the first person POV to enhance the mystery or show character development or a love unfolding in a way that really grabs the reader and makes her fall in love with the narrator.

The key difference between third person limited and first person, from what I have gleaned after careful research, is really insight and perspective about the narrator. (My Kindle bill is a testament to the research I’ve done for this article!) First person narrators are less consistent in justifying their reasons for doing things, less likely to provide objective observations of events, and generally seem to forget to tell us much about themselves. The distance that third person POV provides often controls for those limitations, but it can keep the reader from falling in love with the character as quickly; third person limited is just objective enough for me to feel more comfortable judging than I do with a first person narrator.

Just as there are no hard and fast rules about what POV is “right,” there is nothing that requires a writer to use a single POV throughout a story. I offer that with a very large caveat: change from one to the other understanding that some readers find such a transition jarring, so it should be a conscious decision to use a different POV in support of the story.

Something that I have noted as common in fanfiction since I began reading the genre is the use of what I’ll call “first person variable.” I was once sent a chapter to beta that was written in first person but changed narrators no less than six times in just over four thousand words. Try as I might, with a Kindle that currently holds over three hundred titles, I can’t find a single published work of popular fiction, women’s fiction, erotica, supernatural, or paranormal fiction that uses this convention. When multiple characters are used to tell the story, I have always seen those stories told as third person – subjective or omniscient – so the reader can smoothly follow the story without a header to tell her who is speaking.

Consider this the desperate plea of an anal-retentive woman if you like, but please think carefully before you use first person if you can’t commit to that narrator for more than six or seven paragraphs. Case in point: I submitted a story for publication, written in third person subjective (changing from the female main character to the male main character), that switched from one to the other once within a chapter; I was advised to stay consistent with my narrator for the entire chapter by the editor.

As I researched for this article, I finally determined the primary reason why I hold such a strong dislike for Breaking Dawn. Stephenie Meyer broke convention by switching to another narrator in that book. In Book Two: Jacob, we suddenly got a much more intimate view of Jacob than we’d ever had before. Seeing that segment of the story through his eyes, to me, was cheating. In my opinion, Bella changed more during that one segment of the story (before the actual, you know, change) than she did in the first three novels combined. Her relationships with everyone from Rosalie and Carlisle to Edward and Jacob were profoundly altered. Let’s just say that Jacob’s observations of these changes and his commentary about them were, to me, frustrating and unsatisfying. It was a disappointment and really ruined the end of the series for me.

Obviously, as a reader, POV is important to me. It may not be so for all readers, but understand that there are some of us out there who really do care about it. From a writing perspective, I would ask that you consider yourself and the reader… do what is comfortable for you, and what won’t be uncomfortable for the reader.


2 comments on “Style Article—A POV on POVs by @krisbcullen

  1. Pingback: IN DEFENSE OF MULTIPLE POINTS OF VIEW | My Writer's Cramp

  2. Pingback: Writing is Easy Part 6 « Robert Medak

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