Monday, June 21, 2010

Three's a Crowd, or Four or Five...


Is it just me, or does it seem like too many characters are clamoring for their own viewpoints lately? I'm reading a book right now by a bestselling ABA author who is confusing the heck out of me. She's an excellent writer and the story is compelling, but when I finally sit down to catch up on my reading after a long day at work, I find that I can't easily jump back into the story. A day or two goes by, and the characters are like dropped threads in a tapestry. Get them mixed up, and you have a mess on your hands. I really want to know how it ends, so I flip back a few pages to see which character's name is conveniently printed below the chapter heading. Hmm...Poindexter. Which one was he again - the retired college professor with unmarked graves in his backyard, the bi-polar guy who paints the Golden Gate bridge for a living or the major league umpire who's on the take? It makes me want to pick up a different book that doesn't involve so much work on my part to read.

There are three basic options available for viewpoint which apparently can now be further defined (third person limited, close third, distant third-yikes!) but how do we know which one is the best choice for the story? Here are some that were obvious choices:
  • The Time-Traveler's Wife alternates between the first-person viewpoints of both main characters. They are both fully invested in the story, present at the action, and labeled with name tags. It's a love story, so both their thoughts are vital to the story's development.
  • Water For Elephants is told in the viewpoint of one main character as a sort of memoir, which is a logical fit for first person, single viewpoint.
  • Bel Canto is told in an omniscient viewpoint since the story involves the fate of a group of people who are held hostage. It doesn't identify with one main character, but drops into the thoughts of several individuals to tell the story since they are all equally affected by the events. Stephen King also does this viewpoint well.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is told through the use of letters between acquaintances, which are by nature, first person. There is one main protagonist whose character arc is the longest, but the viewpoints of others are important to the story.
  • Gilead is an elderly father's first person account of his life to his young son, which is also best told in single viewpoint.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird is told through the first person single viewpoint of a child. As the powerful events are recounted through her filter, we see the issues distilled down in their simplest form.
  • Gone With the Wind is told in third person and largely in the viewpoint of Scarlett, although other viewpoints are used. Again, hers is the largest character arc.
When an idea first presents itself, we usually 'see' it in a certain viewpoint, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's the correct one. I have gone so far as to write several chapters in one viewpoint and written them over again in another, just to see which works best for the story. If first person makes the telling of the story awkward, I find third person is the most flexible. The objective is to find the best voice for your story without causing the reader confusion or cause them to stop reading.

For our writers, what made you choose the viewpoint for the manuscript you are currently writing, and for our readers, which viewpoint do you prefer to read? We'd love to hear.

16 comments:

Terri Tiffany said...

I seem to write mine in third person though I'd love to do it in first sometime but I don't think I would be able to offer as clear a picture of my story.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I’m partial to first person. However, I used third in Noble Efforts and first in The Partridge Sacrifice.

It has to fit. It's like trying on shoes (which I took my children to do the other day and we found hundreds of ants on them in a Marshalls--yuck!). If there are ants that show up on the MS when you're writing in first, maybe it's time to try it in third.

There's my Aesop Fable for you today. ;D
~ Wendy

Mia said...

I like writing in first person, because I feel more connected to the characters that way, and I can see the story through their eyes. Not that you can't do that in other POV's, but for me, first person is more personal and easier to write (personal preference). However, I agree with Wendy; it has to fit. Different stories call for different POV's.

I've also read bestselling novels by talented authors that confused me. Usually because there were 4+ viewpoints, and I kept getting the characters mixed up. I love 1 or 2 viewpoints, and I don't mind 3. But more than that? It better be a darn good story or I'll be putting it down.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I find first person is more immediate. It draws the reader up close to the action, but it is restrictive, too. My first book had mother-daughter alternating first person viewpoints, and it just fit. But my next book had more characters and I found that third person made it less confusing. But I generally prefer to read first person viewpoints.

Nicole said...

The stories write themselves for me. I did decide at the seventh novel to write mostly in first person, which for many years I detested, but I included third person POVs. I wouldn't be reading much now if I still didn't like first person since it seems to dominate fiction.

I imagine the less seat-of-the-pants a writer is, the more he actively decides what point of view the story will be. In my second novel, it started out in the omniscient POV, and I had no idea it would. That POV eventually morphed into third person, but in the end the story read like a fictional biography.

I love a variety to read--if it works for me: anything goes. Lots of characters, different POVs, a few characters, I love all kinds of writers and their stories. Formulaic doesn't work for me unless the writing and the story are sensational.

Travis Thrasher is the most inventive when it comes to POVs. He wrote the entire novel Blinded in second person POV. In another of his novels he switched POVs and used them all, and it worked. I like the rules being broken or at the least flexed by a good writer.

Sharon K. Souza said...

I agree that the story itself dictates the POV, but I find myself writing in first person more often than not. I didn't for a long time, but now I love the intimacy it creates. Yes, it can be confining, but I find that a challenge I love to tackle. As for reading, I don't mind if it's first person or third (2nd would be the most challenging by far)or if it's multiple, but I'm with you, Debbie, too many points of view get very confusing, and I don't read to be confused.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

I write almost strictly in third person. The times I've tried first person, I've ended up changing back to third after a few chapters. For some reason, I feel closer to the characters that way--and it seems I can make them more relatable to readers that way as well.

Patti Hill said...

Fascinating discussion! I'm working on my first multiple POV story. Again, the story required more than one voice. I mix it up a little by putting one POV in the present. My next novel will have four characters tops and one POV. Period.

Rachael Phillips said...

I'm working with this now because I wrote the rough draft of my current WIP in third person, but in my re-write, my main character is in first person present tense, while the other three characters (labeled with each POV change) are in third past. Jiggling and juggling to see if it will work. Ack! Suggestions?

I, Flavia said...

First person narration often comes more naturally for me, too, Mia. Part of the reason I enjoy writing so much is it allows me to experience life from another person's point of view. And I love the challenge that comes with filtering process--how much does my narrator know? How much of what he or she says is true to the facts of the story, and how much of it is beyond what this particular character can understand? Which gets me into the narrative subject that fascinates me the most: the unreliable narrator. I just love it.

But I do agree that it definitely depends on the story. Some require one fixed first-person narrator. Some do amazingly well balancing two points of view (I have Debbie's Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon in mind, specifically--having the alternative perspectives gave both characters so much more depth of personality than they might have had if only one of them had told the story). And some writers have an uncanny ability to make themselves disappear in the third person. Which always blows my mind.

I agree, though. More than two narrators, and my head starts to spin.

Bonnie Grove said...

My current work (the book that never ends) alternates between two characters POV (the POV switches each chapter).
I wrote the first chapter in third limited, past tense. I loved it. Happy, happy!
Then I went to write the second character's chapter. He INSISTED on first person present. He simply wouldn't speak to me any other way.
I had to go back and ask my first chapter character how she felt about first person present.
Kindly, she agreed.
The result was powerful - richer than I could have hoped for.

Those edits I'm working on are line edits - enriching language and meaning. But the story remains.

Karen Schravemade said...

I wrote my YA novel in third person, multiple POV. An editor who's showed some interest in the work felt that the multiple viewpoints created too much distance and asked me to rewrite it in single POV to create a more "immersive" reading experience.

She was right! I've just finished the rewrite and it's made the story so much stronger. I never realised how much my choice of POV had held the main character at arm's length until I saw the level of empathy and immediacy that could be achieved with a different approach.

Now let's just hope the editor likes it too... :)

Anonymous said...

wow ... so, add this one here because i don't know where else to add it and though i emailed, i never got a response.

i was the 200th person to join the blog ... and apparently a book from each author was the prize ...

hmmm ... not holding my breath, since i emailed patti my details as per the instructions in the post on that day and never heard a word.

maybe the 300th person will have better luck!

Sharon K. Souza said...

Anonymous, please accept our apologies. We'll make sure all the books have been mailed.

Patti Hill said...

Oh my goodness, Anonymous, this is a mess. We did a search for your e-mail on our account now that we have all of your information, and we can't find it. Odd.

Where did it go? Is this a premise for a story?

That said, we are terribly sorry for not following up as we should have.

Will you forgive us?

We are so very happy to have you as a follower.

Thanks for your understanding.

Nikole Hahn said...

I have designated a few characters vital to the story for third person, with the majority of the view point with my main character. It all contributes to the story and the rest of the book in the series. I seperate the points of view by chapters so as not to confuse anyone. I think it works well. When it's done, I'll know if I am successful if my critique group reads it the same way.