Friday, August 1, 2008

POV: The Art of Choosing

copyright 2008, Joylene Nowell Butler

Many new writers find choosing POV (point of view) a daunting task. Discerning the advice listed online or in literary help books often requires a degree in sociology. It needn’t be that way. Grasping complicated issues means rethinking in simpler terms. Choosing the right POV is as easy as learning to ride a bicycle. And the best part: once you “get it,” you never forget.
The POV of any scene is the narrator, the character telling the story. There are four choices:

Omniscient – God, Author or Character

3rd – She or He

2nd – You

1st – I or Me

It takes a gifted writer to communicate effectively in 2nd person. Sadly, there are few capable of pulling it off; yours truly included; so, for the sake of argument, let’s agree that not too many people want to read a story in 2nd person. Take, for example: “You rolled over and I swatted you.” Or: “You twisted your meaty face into your best smile.” Somehow, those types of construction just don't fly.
Therefore, a good rule of thumb for choosing is simply:
1st person is the most intimate and Omni is the least; 3rd falls in the middle.


If the narrator of your story needs to stay outside the action, then Omni is the right voice. James Michener chose Omni in his epic novels for that very reason. He wanted Hawaii, Alaska, and Texas to each stand alone as the all-important protagonist. Choosing 3rd or 1st person, for any one of these works, would have created an intimacy between reader and narrator that would have lessened the impact and importance of Hawaii, Alaska, or Texas as the leading character.
In less formal stories, Omni creates a problem for many writers because they believe it gives them license to head-hop: jumping from inside one character’s head into another. Many writers have shown me text that states Omni is a god-like character telling the events of a story that only he or she knows; so why can’t they head-hop? Doesn’t God know everything?
Yes. But there’s a difference between God telling you what John, Sally, and Julie are thinking verses “John, Sally, and Julie” telling you. The trick is to always remember Omni, a unique and distinct character, is telling the reader what Jack thought or did or felt. It’s not Jack showing them. That’s why Omni is able to not only tell you what Jack thinks of Steve driving drunk, but he can also show you the police car waiting up the road, or the innocent bystander using the crosswalk ahead of them.
Still, confusion is understandable. When new writers see phrases like “3rd person Omni” or “Unlimited 3rd person” or even “3rd person limited” their heads spin. (Not literally, of course.)
When you read a story or scene that uses more than one character to show you the experience, rest assured Omni is the narrator. But note how he evokes a sense of formality inside the scene.
Right about now you may be thinking, “Okay, I get it, I understand what Omni is. But that still doesn’t explain 3rd person.”
Third person is the informal Omni. In 3rd person stories, think of Omni as hiding inside the head of your protagonist. In fact, he’s hidden so well that you, your reader, and your character don’t realize he’s there. But his service is invaluable. In 3rd person limited, Omni shows you a story through only one character’s perspective at a time. You are only privy to what the protagonist sees, hears, tastes, feels, or smells. Omni does not share anything that this protagonist does not experience.
That’s the clue. If in doubt as to whether you’ve succeeded in creating a truly 3rd person POV, go back and jump inside that character’s head. Does your protagonist experience anything that he or she couldn’t possibly?
There are rules and each writer does have literary license to take risks in breaking them. Switching from one character to another inside one chapter today requires a simple blank spot or space between paragraphs. Something as simple as a line break alerts the reader to a change coming; in the same way transitions work. New paragraph, an extra space, and suddenly the reader feels comfortable in making a switch.
In my novel, DEAD WITNESS, I show the story through the eyes of three characters: Valerie, Canaday, and DeOlmos. I even sneak in a few openings by using Omni to set up the scene. Those occasions are used when the setting is vital to the story. I trust, or hope that the omniscient summation is brief enough so the reader is unaware of the POV shift.
What I don’t do is switch from Valerie, Canaday or DeOlmos in the SAME scene. If I do occasionally start off in Omni, using the all-knowing narrator to show the reader the setting, stuff that my protagonist couldn’t experience, (see, touch, hear, taste or smell) or would ever know, then as quickly as possible, I jump into the protagonist’s head and stay there the remainder of the scene. Not once do I show the reader anything that my protagonist doesn’t experience first hand. That’s not to say it’s an unspeakable crime to do so; it lessens the intimacy.
In my 5th manuscript, OMATIWAK: WOMAN WHO CRIES, I stretch my wings and share the story with 3rd person: Danny Killian, and 1st person: Sally Warner. I choose 1st for Sally for two reason. I hope an intimate relationship will develop between the reader and Sally, and most of Sally’s conflicts are inside her head. 3rd works for Danny because he is a man of action; plus, it enables me more versatility.
You’ve heard the story of Fitzgerald, who after writing The Great Gatsby in Gatsby’s POV, realized the story needed to be told through Nick Carraway’s POV because of Nick’s naivety and fascination for Gatsby. Imagine if Gatsby, Tom Buchanan, or an all-knowing character had told the story? Nick’s 1st person narrator works. We bond with Nick. Like a tight focus or camera lens, he shows us everything his senses experience. If he doesn’t see it, smell it, hear it, taste or touch it, then neither do we. Think back to the TV series The Wonder Years, where the grown up Kevin Arnold (Daniel Stern) narrates the story of his life during high school in the turbulent sixties. Winnie Cooper’s character was adorable, but had the producers chosen her for voice-over, it would have changed the feel of the show drastically.
While Omni tends to be more formal and less intimate, on the grand scale of things, as in epics like Michener’s, Omni is your man. One suggestion though, when choosing Omni, make him or her a unique, formidable, and intriguing character. Give him a voice just as entertaining and endearing as any character. Or make him as non-descriptive as possible. And limit head hopping. Every time a writer jumps from one protagonist in a scene into the head of another, they risk disrupting the intimate (there’s that word again) relationship forming between reader and character. And in a world of quick access and unlimited volume, the risk is too great.
As a proud author, choose your POV wisely. Remember: If your story’s important enough to write, then the right person should be telling the story.


Joylene Nowell Butler, M├ętis Canadian, is the author of Dead Witness, released July 2008. A retired emergency responder, she is the guest blogger for Beauty and The Baby, and the primary critique consultant on the soon to be released The Scrimshaw by Ric Wasley. For 25 years, she has published articles and short stories. In between orchestrating writer's workshops in northern B.C., hosting Hillbilly Poetry Nites, she completed five suspense manuscripts and raised five sons. Her 6th novel, untitled, is in its infancy.

A strong advocate of unpublished writers, Joylene has belonged to such prestigious online workshops as Novelpro and Novels-L, and has critiqued prize-winning novels such as THE RACE by David Shield, the unofficial CNN Tour de France expert, DEADLY ENTERPRISE by Christopher Hoare, THE JESUS THIEF by JR Lankford, and THE SECRET EVER KEEPS by Art Tirrell.

In 1992, Joylene and her husband designed and built a log and stick home on Cluculz Lake, near Vanderhoof. They live a quiet life with their 4 cats and Bandit, their Syberian Husky, and spend summers fishing with their grandchildren. In the winter, Joylene teaches Tai Chi.


Kim Smith said...

wonderfully easy to understand instructions Joylene! thanks! I also write some of my stuff in third person just to get the feel of it down correctly then go back and change it to first so I can have that intimacy.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Thanks for being our guest host today, Joylene, and for tackling a subject that's always tough. Best of luck with DEAD WITNESS!!

Marta Stephens said...

I write in 3rd person limited. Any chapter featuring my protag, Sam Harper is always in his POV. I also allow the antag and one or two other charachers to have a 2-3 chapters. The decision on who needs to tell their side of the story depends on the complexity of the plot.

The second book in the Sam Harper Crime Mystery series, "The Devil Can Wait," was actually the first book I wrote. At that time, I thought the protag POV character should be the female victim's POV. It didn't take long to realize her experience wasn't enough to carry the story. It had to be written in the detective's POV, hence the creation of Sam Harper. :)

Thanks Joylene. Nice job.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

It was my pleasure, Marta. It's fascinating hearing how other writers choose their POV. Thanks for sharing.