Point of View

My “new” novel is one that I wrote during National Novel Writing Month a few years ago. (It was a great experience. If you’re considering trying NaNoWriMo this year, I highly recommend it.)

I wrote that story based on characters I first met in the pages of my notebook. I’ve been working with my 50,000 word NaNoWriMo draft and with notebook entries about these characters who have been running around in my head for a while. We’re old friends by now.

Before I start my next draft, I want to solidify the plot so I won’t wind up without one like I did with my last novel. I’ve been focusing on creating conflict and drama. So far, I have a villain, a mystery and I’m toying with a love interest for my main character, Jenny. I know how the story starts, how it ends and, although I’m still working on the middle, I’m making progress. I’m almost ready to dive into the next verson of the manuscript.

What I haven’t figured out yet is what point of view to use. A few of my freewriting exercises have been in first person, but it usually feels more natural to me to write in third. Until last week, I thought I’d be writing this draft entirely from Jenny’s point of view. Now, I’m not so sure.

The more I work on this novel, the more I feel like the secondary characters have interesting tales to tell. Jenny is still my heroine, but the story is beginning to feel like an ensemble piece.

I’ve been told that if a scene isn’t working, try writing it from another character’s point of view. I’ve also read that the best point of view character in each scene is the one with the most to lose. If I confine myself to Jenny’s point of view, I’ll lose that flexibility, but if I use multiple points of view, I run the risk of diluting Jenny’s story.

As a reader, I don’t have a preference for first or third person. I enjoy stories with one narrator as well as stories that shift point of view from character to character. What about you? When you read, do you have a preference? Any pet peeves? I’d love to hear your thoughts on point of view.

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27 Comments

Filed under free writing, Manuscript, novels, Plot, Writing

27 responses to “Point of View

  1. I wrote my first two complete novels in third person, from one point of view. I didn’t realize, until I was well into the first one, how that limited what I could say about the other characters, but it worked out well. I think I lucked out because both novels (the original and the sequel) revolved around that character, and because they didn’t have a large cast.

    I don’t have any preferences about POV in my reading as long as it’s well done. First person can turn me off pretty quickly, though, if the narrator is clearly someone I’m not going to want to spend a lot of time with.

    Good luck in November. I’m going for my third win.

    • Thanks so much for your input. Large casts can be problematic. I think that’s my issue here. I have one main character, but four important supporting characters. I want to work with all of them, but I may have to try it several ways to see what works best.

  2. Susan McBeth

    Shary, I always say trust yourself, and I think you answered your own question in the fourth paragraph. You said you always feel most comfortable writing in the third person, so why not write what you are comfortable with.

  3. No, I don’t think I have a preference when I’m reading. When I’m writing, I feel more comfortable writing in first person, and I believe you should write in what is most comfortable for you.

  4. @Susan and Monica
    Good advice to go with what feels most natural. When I start a new story, I just let the voice come out, but it usually is third person for me, especially with a novel.
    How do you feel about multiple narrators? Does it get confusing for you as a reader to follow more than one character? How many is too many?

  5. Anitra

    Hi Shary
    I’ve been thinking about the point of view issue because I’ve been considering rewriting my Mary Sue Hamilton biography from third person.
    I don’t know if Mary Sue would be willing. Although third person feels more detached, I could then position myself from multiple points of view, seeing all directions.

    When I think of her story, I am Mary Sue, in Georgia in the forties, alone in the forest, climbing trees, but I am also her white mother, BJ, slipping off to a black neighbor’s house, unbuttoning my faded cotton dress, sliding under his sheets for relief, forgetting the miseries of my life for a little space of time, feeling his hands, gentle, everywhere. And I am BJs husband stumbling up the front steps of the shack, come home after a two-week drunk. I am the little black girl down the road, with the perfect dollhouse and matching ribbons in her hair every day. I’m the miller over to Simpsonville, watching the clear water chase pouring under my mill, turning the massive millstone. I am everyone in fact, with one exception. Even though I have tried to understand how he could do the things to Mary Sue that he did, I have never felt I was Bob. He’s an incomprehensible monster. (In one of Judy’s workshops I “killed” him in excruciating and satisfying detail.)

    But usually I can feel I am anybody. And writing this post has made me realize that I do it all day long — at Henry’s, at Brownbag, at the bank, with friends, when I see homeless people on the street. No wonder first person feels restrictive. I see now that I was a bit jealous of first person when I wrote the book.
    -Anitra

  6. Shary, I know I’m repeating myself, but I love reading about your writing process. How cool that you’ve gotten this far in your novel! It’s exciting.

    I started my memoir as a continuous narrative, but two years in realized it wouldn’t work. It came as a bit of a shock, but turned out to be really liberating. And writing fiction is a much more murky affair. I give you a lot of credit (as well as envying you).

    I don’t dislike any particular POV, but if I stop to consider it, I have enjoyed many books where each chapter is written from a different character’s POV. If done well, I think it can really build suspense. But I also agree that you need to listen to your gut and do what works best for you.

    Keep at it, girl!

    • Glad to know that you aren’t bothered by multiple narrators. I think that’s what I’ll end up doing, but I hesitate to use all five characters. I’ll have to see how it shakes out. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  7. My historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune, is written in third person. I think in part this worked well because it was an historical, and a light romance, and I often feel that first person narratives feel more “modern.”

    However, while most of the chapters were from Annie Fuller’s (my female protagonist) point of view, I did have about 1/3 from Nate’s POV ( the male romantic interest). Interestingly at one point a potential editor asked me to put everything in Annie’s point of view, which I did, but when I rewrote the novel in preparation for self-publishing (and therefore had complete control over the ms.) I went back to the original.

    The readers who read both versions much preferred the multiple point of view version, as did I, because it gave me the flexibility to deepen the reader’s identification with the male character (and boy do I feel good when male readers say they like Nate!), but I also didn’t have to slow down the pace of the narrative by having Nate (who went and did things off stage) tell Annie everything he had learned through dialogue. Instead the reader got to go with him and experience what happened in real time.

    In my sequel, which I am preparing for publication, I increased the number of chapters from Nate’s point of view and have added chapters from a young Irish maid’s point of view (who was just one of those secondary characters in the first book). This has given me even more flexibility, and her voice is so different from Annie’s that there is no diluting of Annie’s voice, or confusion about who is thinking what. Most chapters are completely from one point of view or the other, although sometimes I will start a scene in one point of view, then shift with a break, to the other point of view to complete the scene.

    So, I guess I am suggesting that particularly writing a mystery, where you are looking for clues, having more than one character be able to go and question people, check out places, etc, certainly does help, and if you are developing a romantic couple, being able to hear what both people are thinking really means they both become real and potentially equal partners.

    M. Louisa Locke
    author of Maids of Misfortune: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery (now on sale as an ebook for 99 cents for a limited time!)

    • I’m glad to hear that your multiple narrators worked out since I think that’s what I’ll try to start. It may not work for my story, but I’m encouraged by your suggestions. Thanks!

  8. elizabeth dobbs

    Since some readers find 1st person objectional, why go there? 3rd person/past tense is the most used for many reasons.

    • And first person POV is used for many reasons, Elizabeth. Are you suggesting that a writer ignore what’s most appropriate for the book because “some” readers may not like a particular POV? This touches on how far writers are expected to go to satisfy a portion of the potential readership.

      • It definitely depends on the book, doesn’t it. I think third person is right for this story and I think telling it from several points of view is right for this one, too. I’ll have to give it a try and see how it goes.

    • I’ve read a lot of 1st person lately and there’s an intimacy to it that’s inviting. But I don’t think it’s right for my current project. I am leaning toward 3rd person, but I’m still iffy on how many points of view I can reasonably use.

  9. Hi,

    Just ran across this post that looks into the issue of point of view, thought you all might find it interesting.

    http://networkedblogs.com/mVWXU

    M. Louisa

    • Thanks! That’s a great breakdown of the basic possibilites and advantages of each. Definitely leaning to third limited with multiple narrators. Still pondering how many I can get away with. 🙂

  10. I’ve started out writing in third person and changed it to third, then back again to first. I think it depends on the story. I cannot imagine Harper Lee writing To Kill a Mockingbird in third person. Having Scout tell her own story makes it so real. But having Montag tell his own story in Fahrenheit 451 wouldn’t have worked.

  11. I just admire the fact that you are dedicated to writing your novels. I have many ideas and I know I can do it. But I just can’t seem to fully dedicate myself to the book-writing process, let alone novels. You are a dedicated writer!

    • Some days I don’t feel particularly dedicated. 🙂 I do enjoy writing, though, whether I’m working on a short story or my novel.
      I know you could write a book, too. And you will if you decide it’s how you want to spend your time. Meanwhile, I’ll keep enjoying your blog posts. I’m always so inspired by you.

  12. I’m impressed that you would even consider the novel in a month thing. My only attempt at a novel used three points of view. When I’m reading I enjoy single or multiple points of view and either first or third person. The only thing that trips me up is a writer who switches point of view unintentionally right in the middle of something.

    • That accidental head hopping is a problem. I think I will limit my pov switches to chapter breaks. And after the feedback I’ve gotten, I decided to try using three points of view, too. Last night I figured out which characters will be my best narrators.

      NaNoWriMo is lots of fun. It is a big time committment, but when you turn off your inner critic to focus on word count and hammering out a story, it’s amazing how much you can get done.

  13. Shary, when I read, I find I don’t have a preference, but when I write, I prefer to do it in first person. I say do what feels more natural to you. It’s your story after all and of course, it depends on what the story’s about. I’m certain you will find your story’s voice, be in first or third! 🙂 Go Shary!

  14. I read that first person is the easiest and I used to go with that solely. Now, at least in novel writing, I tend to go with third so that there isn’t that one perspective. I also like how John Stenbeck executed. The Grapes of Wrath, where the narrator was insignificant in the storyline and related what was happening to the reader, still giving that perspective without attachments to the events. The narrator pretty much had a bird’s eye view, an omnipresence, so to speak.

    • It’s amazing what point of view can do for a story. I usually like first person or third person limited so I know what characters are thinking, but third person omniscient can be very powerful, too.