Points of view

You all know the rules of point-of-view. You all know that 1st person gives intimacy and an emotional connection with the reader, but can be limiting and doesn’t let you escape your protagonist’s head. 3rd person is great for giving differing perspectives but risks shallowness and, if carelessly handled, can confuse the reader. There’s also the danger of giving the reader all the info, and thus killing suspense and surprise. And 2nd person is never used outside short stories because no-one likes to be told how to behave.

I’ve spent three years in the depths of 1st person. I actually chose to write my Australis trilogy this way for a specific plot-purpose and not for some deep ideological reason. I found it difficult, ‘tis true; and hardest were the times when my protagonist wasn’t really doing anything or couldn’t think how to proceed. How to not bore the reader? It wasn’t always easy, and there’s still a lot of work to do to iron out said issues.

But it had its advantages too. As long as you’re aware that other characters are still acting around your protagonist, there’s great potential for the unexpected and for conflict. It’s all a question of working out how to reveal information that your hero was not privy to at the time it occurred. This can be a wonderful tool, especially if an antagonist is actively working against the POV character. Their surprise is the reader’s, and that’s a very nice trick to have up your sleeve.

I’ve gone back to 3rd person for my new project, and I’ve done this for two reasons. Firstly because I’m sick of being stuck in one head, and secondly because I’m writing an ensemble piece and this is what’s demanded by the story. I’ve also broken my long-held and religiously-adhered-to commandment and changed POV within a scene. May any God or Gods listening please have mercy upon my soul. It was necessary, I assure you.

3rd person brings with it a wholly different set of challenges. Most obviously, you’re letting the reader into the private thoughts of a bigger cast and you have to make every POV character distinct, well-rounded and, above all, interesting: not necessarily nice or sympathetic, but interesting. Now I just need to work out when and from whose eyes we see each scene.

It’s the equivalent of not knowing what to do with yourself in 1st person, I suppose. In 3rd you have to select your protagonist for the scene, work out who’s best to tell the next step of the story – and yet still be aware of what everyone else is doing ‘off-stage’. So far I have seven different POVs in about 25,000 words. This may be too many; simplification may occur. But for now, for every scene I write I have to make that choice. Who’s going to tell this chunk of the narrative? Who’s where, doing what, with who? Complicated. And don’t forget that this is essentially seven ‘introductions’ – we’ve got to get used to these characters, get to know and taste their distinctive odours.

I may have got some of this wrong. I’ve got a scene introducing teenager Jazz’s home-life as she gets ready for a night out. It feels like it may need to go earlier in the novel than it currently does. We’ll see.

But the advantages are plentiful, not least in the way you can build up ‘mosaic’ scenes from a variety of perspectives. Set up a situation from one viewpoint; do the groundwork and build to a climax (or keep up the tension with short, snappy images from several characters, back and forth – but not too much and not too confusing) and then switch to view the same scene from a different angle, taking over from where Character One left off.

This can be very effective. It’s also great fun. It’s like directing a movie, picking your camera angles, presenting the same information in different ways. One character will see someone in one way, another will see it differently. Avoiding repetition is important, but it’s easier to dodge info-dumps when you see things through many eyes.

There’s never a right way or a wrong way to approach POV. For me it has always been about the best way to present a plot. It’s also about enjoying the process and surprising yourself, not just your readers. I don’t write for money (there isn’t any) but because I like to tell stories. The process is endlessly astonishing; it makes me smile, makes me angry, builds me up and dumps me down.

It ain’t never dull, though. And hopefully that means I won’t write dullness either.

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