Apr 9 2011

Point-of-view (POV), Part 2 of 3

As discussed in Part I, your primary choices for voice are first person, third-person limited, and third-person omniscient. Voice affects your POV choices, but the two are not interchangeable terms.

The different voices impact readers in different ways, especially regarding how closely they are drawn into the character. Generally speaking (with lots of exceptions), it goes like this:

- First person: Closest perspective

- Third person limited: Next closest perspective with a wide range from close to distant

- Third person omniscient: Most distant perspective

The second primary effect your choice will have on the story is how wide or narrow of a perspective is provided. Think of it as a camera lens. A close-up shot is more intimate with the subject, but shows less of the surroundings. A wide angle shot is further from the subject, but shows more of the surroundings. The closer in the reader is to a character, the more limited the perspective.

- First person: Most limited perspective

- Third person limited: Somewhat limited perspective, but wider than first person

- Third person omniscient: Unlimited perspective

This is where the writer has to make some choices in how to tell the story in order to achieve the desired effect. What’s most important? A close but limited perspective, or a more distant but wider perspective?

Advantages and disadvantages

To choose which voice to tell the story from, it’s good to know some of the advantages and disadvantages of being in close versus distant, and limited versus unlimited.

- First person: Very intimate, draws the reader in as close as possible to the character. The reader gets to know the character, hears the inner thoughts and feels what the character feels. The reader also sees and hears and smells the story through the character’s senses. Requires a strong, sympathetic lead character to whom readers can relate, and a character with a strong, unique and engaging voice. Because the scene is viewed strictly through the narrator-character’s eyes and ears, another difficulty is how to present information and events that are outside the character’s point-of-view.

- Third person limited: While somewhat less intimate than first person, it can still be very close to the main character. The narrator can drop in and report on the character’s inner thoughts and emotions, and the reader can witness the story through the character’s eyes and ears. But the writer can also switch to different POV characters to present scenes or narrative information the main character doesn’t see or know, and can also drop in on the thoughts and feelings of additional characters in different scenes. One of the difficulties is to maintain a tight focus on the main character so readers can relate rather than bouncing around too frequently to too many different characters. It can also be difficult to maintain continuity, ensuring information presented outside the main character’s POV doesn’t accidentally slip into the character’s knowledge. For most writers, and readers, this is the most natural style, and it’s the most common in modern novels.

- Third person omniscient: This usually creates more distance between the reader and the main character, but can provide an unlimited amount of information. Third person omniscient was in much wider use in 19th century literature than today. In third person omniscient, the writer can present a scene from multiple POVs and report information or events happening outside the POV characters. The difficulties here, besides creating more distance between reader and the main character, is the potential for the constant barrage of changing and overlapping POVs to become irritating or confusing to the reader. Often called ‘head-hopping,’ if a reader becomes confused as to whose POV she is in, it’s easy to become frustrated with the novel and put it aside, never to pick it up again.

Your choice of which voice to tell the story will depend on what you want to accomplish, the perspectives you want to include in your story, your writing style, and the standards of the genre in which you write.

But can you mix some of these voices? For example, can a novel be narrated in first person by the main character, with additional scenes written in third person in order to present events or information to the reader where the MC isn’t present? Or, can a novel be told by two or more characters, each narrating in first person?

The short answer is always ‘yes.’ A story can be told anyway you want to tell it. The follow-up question is ‘does it work?’ The short answer to that is ‘sometimes.’

Switching voices within a novel can be, and has been, done. It’s been done well and, more often, it’s been done horribly. Most of the horrible ones you’ve never read because they’ve never been published. Unless you’re writing literary or experimental, I recommend against mixing voices. If you do want to mix voices, plan for it in advance. Know when to use each voice and why you’re using it at that particular moment, and make sure the story and the writing overall maintain a cohesive quality. Mixing voices can read like pieces of separate novels that have become accidentally stuck together. Or like a novel in which the author couldn’t make up his mind how to write it.

One exception is a story with two main characters – often a romance or erotica piece. You may want to present your love story from the perspective of both characters, but want to maintain the close perspective of first person. In this case, writing in alternating first person voices can work. The key is to ensure you have two intriguing, interesting, and compelling characters, each with a unique, distinctive, and engaging voice. That’s hard enough to pull off with a single main character. If a reader gets lost or is easily confused as to which character is narrating a scene because the voices aren’t distinctive enough from each other, you’ll create an irritated reader who may put the book down and not recommend it to friends. If one character is compelling and the other irritating or boring, then you’ve only got half a book that’s worth reading. Introduce both voices early in the book – don’t write ten chapters in one character’s voice then suddenly switch to a new first person narrator. Alternate them on a regular basis. This doesn’t have to be every other chapter back and forth, but frequently enough so readers get both characters and both perspectives.

One of my favorite and rather extreme examples of a novel with multiple first person voices is Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant, with 42 (yes, 42) first-person voices. It’s as if the book was written by a journalist who interviewed and collected information from everyone who knew the main character, Rant Casey. Each scene is told from the first person voice of a different character. Gradually the character and the story unfold. This is the exception that proves the ‘rule’ (no, I don’t believe in rules), so if you’re as gifted a writer as Chuck, feel free to give multiple first person voices a try. It’s experimental, so when it works, it’s genius. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, however, it’s just going to sound, well, experimental, self-indulgent, or just plain old amateurish.

Now we’ve touched on how different voices can impact a story, and a few of the pros and cons of each voice.

Next up: How does voice affect POV?

4 Responses to “Point-of-view (POV), Part 2 of 3”

  • JoeB Says:

    Robb,
    I’m very interested in what you’re saying about 3rd person limited or omniscient. When I read it is very difficult to read anything but 3rd person limited, but I am curious about the omniscient part. I liked the way you described it as with a camera. The further away from the main character you go the higher(1st, 2nd, 3rd limited or omniscient) you must write from.
    My question is: I’ve written a story where the son of the main character is telling the story. The story within the story has become a part of world history in the story. But Since that person doesn’t know the feelings of the other characters in the story, then how can my story be 3rd anything? Or do I switch very carefully and explain at the beginning who is telling the story?
    Thanks for the website. I’m adding it to my favorites for help when I need it.

    • Robb Says:

      Joe, without having read the story, I’m not sure I can comment coherently on what you’re saying. But if the son of the MC is the first person narrator, he’s narrating from his viewpoint, his perspective. But he’s telling the story, so maybe he has access to information other than what he would have personally seen or heard. Have others involved in the story told him their versions, so he could then relate how other characters felt or what they thought? Kind of the ‘journalist’ narrator.

  • Phillipa Says:

    Good post as usual. I’ve added a fourth voice to my wip today and thought must nip over and see what Robb says about povs again. After reading the above I’ll probably go back to three and just be extra careful with the secondary characters. Too many voices is too much confusion and I don’t like books where for seventy per cent of the story you get one or two povs and then suddenly – because of a plot twist or something – you get another pov. I think that’s cheating. So I’d want equal time for all 4 of my povs, but that could make the book longer than it should be….so when in doubt, as the surgeons say, cut it out!

    • Robb Says:

      Well, remember there’s no firm rule. It always depends on the story. A general ‘rule-of-thumb’ is that 2 or 3 is usually the most you want, but more can work if it’s done smoothly and doesn’t take the focus off the main character for too long, and if it doesn’t feel too ‘gimmicky,’ such as tossing in a 4th or 5th POV just to dump some info the other characters wouldn’t know. Everything always depends on the story and how you want to write it.