DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE — POINT OF VIEW

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OK, I’m trying to double my mileage again. Below is another re-posting of some comments made on the Odyssey alumni blog spot. This was in response to a question on how one selects POV for a story. Here’s a slightly edited version of what I had to say:

I’m sure this is an iconoclastic opinion, but here goes anyway. POV is one of those sacred cows that I see worshiped in the classroom, but freely butchered in the market place. Actually POV teachings represent a small herd of sacred cows. A couple of the most notable “cows” are that omniscient POV is kind of passe’– that is, that the art form has advanced and POV through a given character is regarded as more satisfying. Another is that POV shifts need to be compartmentalized, contained in sections of stories or sections of chapters, or in complete chapters of full novels.

I personally think blanket statements along these lines, like any other blanket statements about how to do art, are invitations to brilliant artists to nuke the statements. Having said that, I don’t think I’m brilliant enough to take them lightly.

I have noticed that many successful contemporary novelists freely employ omniscient points of view (limited or otherwise). It is far more rare to find POV shifts not structured in sections. But I have seen this done creatively where fonts are used to show simultaneous POV among (usually
two) characters (sorry I can’t recall the specific examples).

Of course, the most conventional manifestation of shifting POV is accomplished through dialogue. However, viewing the mental “banter” between characters can be very interesting if done well.

For me the hardest decision is whether to tell the story in first or third person (I have only written one story in second person and find it extraordinarily challenging.​.​. and still haven’t sold it). Another sacred cow seems to be that first person is somehow generally less desirable than third person (and I have often heard this view followed by the additional opinion that it is especially true for beginning writers). Yet, again, when I read, I find no correlation to (my) reader satisfaction or to the career status of the writer related to this choice at all.

I personally think that control of POV is easier to achieve when writing in the first person (not surprising). Yet another sacred cow (actually I’ve had instructors who worshiped competing
breeding lines for this cow)is that third person draws the reader in more effectively than first person.

Whenever I hear that, I scratch my head. When reading, I personally am always drawn in faster and deeper to first person narrations than third. However, when writing, I find that first person really locks you in to the information limitations of the narrating character. If not writing in the first person, the shift to other characters’ POVs, or the divulging of information to the reader that the first person narrator is not privy to, is easier to pull off.

When I make the choice of first or third person narration it is usually based on how I expect the reader to relate to the main character. The more personal I expect that to be, and the more that understanding the main character’s internal workings, and the more that the story is driven by the internal mental and emotional makeup and metamorphosis of that character, the more likely I am to write in the first person.

Overall, I think a writer needs to be brave enough to pursue their vision of how to tell a story. On the other hand they need to understand what the conventions are, and the dangers of breaking conventions, especially if not done well, and especially if you are not a well-established writer.

But I also know that if I am not writing first and foremost to satisfy myself as a writer the story always suffers. Sometimes that results in the story not getting finished or revised or marketed. But that’s probably grist for a different blog post entirely.

Cheers,
Bob

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