I’m tempted to do this entire blog in initials, but suspect that’d get old pretty fast. Just like discussions of viewpoint can, when writers debate (endlessly) the pros & cons of whose point of view is best for a scene.
After all, does it really matter? Do our readers even notice whose head/s they’re in?
Even more important, do they really CARE?
Well, that depends.
Some of them rave with wholehearted enthusiasm about novels where they’re right there with a character through every step of his or her exciting / dramatic / heartwarming / terrifying / enormously satisfying journey.
Some readers never notice.
But those who do? They’re usually enthralled because:
They’ve been in deep POV.
“I feel like I truly know this person; I get exactly how he’s feeling.”
“She could be my best friend -- I’d recognize her immediately if I saw her at any table in Starbucks.”
“It always takes me a while to come back to real life after one of those books.”
Never once, though, has a reader enthused:
“The transitions from first-person to third-person were amazingly seamless.”
“I loved how we moved from omniscient POV to the hero’s whenever things got tense.”
“It’s such a treat reading an author who head-hops so smoothly.”
A writer might conceivably make such observations, but only if we’re discussing craft rather than being engrossed in the story.
And when we think about what we want people to take away from the experience of reading our books, it’s pretty clear which kind of comments we’d rather hear:
“I was really THERE in the story” wins every time.
Does that mean deep viewpoint is essential?
Absolutely not. There are tons of successful books where immersion in the character’s world is NOT the primary goal. Shallow viewpoint works just fine for:
- Delivering several red herrings along with the legitimate clues needed to solve a mystery
- Describing the unique, richly detailed setting where the characters will begin their quest
- Providing some backstory on why William left his estate to Jeremy instead of Jonathan.
Those could all be done through the viewpoint of characters in the story, or an omniscient narrator.
Which do you prefer?
Or does it depend on the book? (Hint: that’s the correct answer.)
Some writers have no problem choosing what POV to use -- if each book in this publisher’s particular line or the author’s own series, for instance, uses deep third or alternating firsts. It’s only when faced with total freedom to choose what’ll best serve the story that, well…
We sometimes start to waffle.
Because nobody likes to make a commitment without thinking through all the pros and cons of each possible choice.
And there are an incredible number of choices for just about any novel.
Advantages of straight-through first-person, like To Kill A Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn, include:
- More immediacy in identifying with the character
- No need to switch viewpoints from scene to scene
- The amazing ease in maintaining consistency of voice
But of course there’s one big disadvantage, which is that you can’t let the reader in on things the narrator has no way of knowing.
All right, then, is third-person (like in Pride and Prejudice or Harry Potter) a better bet? The advantages of that include:
- Ability to show whatever readers needs to know from some POV
- Flexibility in choosing whose perspective will best enhance a scene
- Narrative from any number of characters (although 187 may be a few too many!)
And yet you know the downsides there as well, right? It’s hard to feel quite as in-tune with someone when you’re in their head only part of the time, and it can get confusing if readers aren’t 100% certain whose head they’re in at the beginning of a scene.
If you do go with third-person, though, do you want it to be an omniscient narrator who knows what everyone is thinking and feeling at every moment?
Or do you want it limited to only a handful of characters, or even just one?
The fewer POV characters you use, the easier it is to go deep.
And that’s something readers almost always love.
There are tricks to creating deep POV, which we’ll look at in my upcoming class on “The Whole Point of Point of View.” But keep in mind that depth of viewpoint isn’t necessarily a requirement for a truly great story.
It’s just one of many tools which could be considered less important than Plot, Character and even Genre.
After all, when you think about the books you’ve enjoyed most during your lifetime, their POV probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. It tends to rank a little farther down the list of “why I gave this five stars.”
But those books that deserve a place on your keeper shelf all make very effective use of viewpoint. Whether it’s:
- past or present tense
- deep or shallow
- omniscient or limited
- first-person or third…
…whatever choices the author made were the right ones for that particular story, because it kept you engaged.
And it happened so naturally, you might not even be able to identify what viewpoint/s made your favorite novels your favorite. (That is, assuming you leave your own titles off the list!)
Off the top of my head, when I think of “three all-time favorites,” right now they’d be Greensleeves by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, Penmarric by Susan Howatch, and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott…and all I remember is that Penmarric had five sections, each narrated by a different first-person character.
So that leads to a prize-drawing question for you:
What three books do you think of as your all-time favorites TODAY? And if you can remember the viewpoint for any of them, mention that as well.
Somebody who answers will win free registration to my POV class from February 18-March 1, and meanwhile it’ll be a treat hearing about great books from people who know and love reading!
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After winning “Best Special Edition of the Year” over Nora Roberts, Laurie Schnebly Campbell discovered she loved teaching every bit as much as writing...if not more. Last year she asked her mailing list of writers “what class topic would you like?” More people said “POV” than anything else, so “The Whole Point of Point of View” is coming up on February 18 at https://yhoo.it/2Dofvgi.
All photos from www.freestockphotos.biz.