Click to watch a 3 minute tutorial on POV
This is a re-blog of a guest post I did with Helen Lowe. I’m offering some practical thoughts on the topic of narrative POV.
POV is short for point of view, or literally, “the position from which something is perceived.” The primary options in literature are: 1st person: I am telling this story, 2nd person: You are telling this story, 3rd person: She is telling this story.
It seems simple, but any POV you choose comes with certain constraints. Like naming a character, making a choice involves commitment. For example, if your protagonist’s name is Sally, you can’t suddenly start calling her Adele, at least, not without good reason. The same thing goes for POV.
If you’re using the first person point of view – “I hear voices,” (present tense), or “I heard voices,” (past tense) – and suddenly move to another POV –“The officer wonders what the voices mean,” (present tense) or, “The officer wondered what the voices meant,” (past tense) – you’ll need a good reason, and skill, to pull it off. It’s not generally done, or done well, unless you’re Charles Dickens or perhaps Stephen King.
Any perspective is easy to stay in, once you commit. Think of it as the angle of the camera, and keep asking,“Can they see this? Can they know this?” Sticking to an established POV is a skill gained with practice; realising how the POV shapes the story can be illusive.
Why does that matter? POV influences everything, from the world building to the characters, and even the hidden, or not so hidden, connection between reader and author. The choice of POV, often made unconsciously, without a second thought, carries more weight than most writers care to believe. At least, that’s how it was for me, until I saw the light.
When I wrote The Blood in the Beginning I started out with the same POV I’d always used, 3rd person limited, past tense, the she heard voices POV. Why? It was familiar. I knew how to do it, and it would allow for a wide scope of character perspectives, resulting in a larger scale story-world. It was a logical choice, because I didn’t know where the story was going yet. It gave me room to explore. I also chose it because the genre, Urban Fantasy, allows it.
That last point should probably be first. Genre fiction carries with it a level of reader expectation. Yes, you can break the rules, but no, you don’t really want to, unless you’re Gabriel García Márquez, or King, or Dickens, in which case you can do whatever you want. But publishers might be cautious about acquiring an epic fantasy written in the second person, or a smorgasbord of 1st and 3rd, so it pays to know your genre as you set out. There are exceptions to everything, like those 2nd person choose your own adventure books, but in general, I don’t recommend it.
With plenty of UF written in the 3rd person, like Stacia Kane’s Downside Ghost series, Magic Street by Orson Scott Card, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments, I wasn’t exactly going out on a limb, doing the same. But … it didn’t work! Five chapters in and the story wasn’t developing the way I’d imagined. I struggled with why, and eventually it occurred to me.
The story didn’t need crazy amounts of scope that covered fifteen generations with thirty plus characters spanning every continent. The Blood in the Beginning tells the story of a lone gal in a tough town, a streetwise woman with strengths, fears, high hopes and the penchant of attracting supernatural trouble. I wanted the reader to be inside her head, feel what she felt, while it was happening. So, I started over, in the 1st person, and the story broke like a barracuda—fast, dangerous and hungry.
Is Ava Sykes reliable enough to tell her own story? In the end, I think she is, and I’m glad I took the risk. For the emerging and seasoned writers out there, I encourage you to experiment with POV and see how changing it allows your story to grow in new ways.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, perhaps on your favorite POV to read and write, or on how many POVs I’ve used in this short article. I’d really like to know if anyone has read a novel in the 2nd person recently.