Point of View: When Your Voice is Not Your Own

businesswoman make frame with fingersThe topic of Point of View came up among The Sisters this week and I decided to take a closer look at this important literary device. Point of view is the lens through which the writer (or the narrator voice) tells the story. Think of it as the lens in a movie camera, standing back from the action but hanging in the air over a character’s head. The reader sees only what the character sees. The exception would be in omniscient POV where the narrator can tell the reader what the character doesn’t know or see yet. More on that later.

As you know, I’m not formally trained as a writer and when I embarked on my first novel I simply wrote as if I was the character. It just came out as First Person Present because I was making it up as I went along—in present time. First Person Present is in vogue in current YA, and I had just finished reading several of these books before I began my writing endeavor so perhaps that’s why it felt comfortable. I quickly learned that this particular POV is very limiting because your protagonist has to be in every scene and you never have the opportunity to explore and express what other characters are thinking.

When I hired a professional editor to give me a critique of my first novel he suggested I switch to past tense since that is what the public is used to reading. I’d actually finished the entire trilogy and the thought devastated me. That would be a lot of work! But I was a novice and he was a pro, and so I dug in and rewrote the entire 300,000 words! I won’t lie. It was a tedious, difficult, and depressing task, changing the tense of every verb and also the corresponding adjectives and adverbs. Well, I nearly lost my mind!

Next came a reasonably well-known agent who expressed interest and asked if I was looking for representation. I was elated! A real agent! A contract! I was so excited I nearly fainted. I called everyone I knew and the good news spread like wildfire among my friends and family. “Oh,” she said, “just one thing. You need to rewrite it in third person. It will work much better that way.” Ugh. I spiraled into another depression. Changing every pronoun? Rewriting a book with a new POV is as big a task as writing an entirely new book, maybe worse. Trust me on this one.

Well, I did it and the entire story went into the toilet. My beta readers said I lost my voice, the story had turned dull. I cried. What to do? It turned out the agent dumped me anyway, saying she thought I was a terrific author, but she just couldn’t sell paranormal romance right now. BTW- my novel isn’t really a paranormal romance.

My naiveté has since waned and I currently espouse the philosophy that I’ll write whatever I choose and people can either like it or not. I’ll never make such drastic changes based upon someone else’s opinion. I’m still open to constructive criticism, but changing something like point of view or tense is something I’m not interested in. As I’ve stated before, your voice is…well…your voice. And no one has the right to tell you it’s not.

As I’ve walked this winding pathway to calling myself an author, I’ve been asked many times about the point of view I’m using in a particular story. There seem to be nuances to each as in close third person vs. distant or omniscient third person. Terms I’d never heard until a few years ago.  I’ve researched the various points of view and outlined them below along with some common dos and don’ts. Mostly for my own edification, but I thought they might be helpful to all of us.

First Person: This can be written in either present or past tense. It is predominantly identified by the pronouns I, me, and we. In present tense, the protagonist is the narrator and the reader learns about events along with the protagonist. In past tense you have the luxury of distinguishing between what the character did and thought in real time and what the character is doing and thinking right now, as he’s telling the story to the reader.

Second Person: This can be identified by the pronoun you. It is the least used by fiction writers and never in academic writing, although common in song lyrics, film, and voice-over narration. The narrator tells the story to another character using “you” to address the character. In essence the story is being told through the addressee’s point of view.

Third Person: Here’s where it gets interesting and a bit complicated. The story is being told by an outside observer, who may or may not be the protagonist. The pronouns used are he, she, and they. It is the most commonly used point of view because it can tell the thoughts, actions and feelings of other characters. However, you may use what is called distant third person, or close third person, or omniscient third person. Third-person used to be a very outside point-of-view, not quite omniscient, but it didn’t give you access to any particular character’s thoughts and feelings. The current trend has shifted more toward close third person.

  •            Distant Third Person. It’s almost like a journalist in front of a camera, reporting events in vivid detail. The camera can get more distant, pulling back to the point that we can’t even tell much about the character at all, or it can get a bit closer, letting us in on gestures and other behaviors. It can only report what it sees and feels, but not what’s in the minds of the people it is filming. There’s always a barrier; the reader stays outside the POV character’s head.
  •          Close Third Person Just as with distant third, close third has degrees of closeness. A very close (or tight) third person POV will be so entrenched in the POV character’s head that the reader knows everything the character does. A slightly less tight POV will show emotions and senses, but might not get so tightly ingrained in the character’s psyche.
  •           Third Person Omniscient. Third person omniscient is a method of storytelling in which the narrator (usually not the protagonist) knows the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters in the story, as opposed to close third person, which adheres closely to one character’s perspective. This narrator can also move around in time, informing the reader of peril to befall the characters before it happens. In days past this was the most widely used method but it has since gone out of vogue.

In a sense, all variations of point of view are about degrees of closeness, and the same book could have varying degrees in the same point of view. For example, an opening paragraph of a chapter could be very distant as the reader is introduced to a location, say a field of poppies. Then the “camera” pans closer so we know what the character is thinking, feeling, doing, planning.

Finally, a few technical tips:

  • Don’t have too many POV characters per book. A common number is between two and five.
  • Only have ONE point of view per scene.
  • Separate point of view shifts with scene shifts using either visual markers like asterisks, and/or chapter breaks.

Phew! I’m exhausted!


Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

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