Tips on Writing Fiction – Point of View
A little over a week ago I wrote an article on writing fiction. It was a just a set of tips covering issues such as that important first draft and why you should redraft your story. For the second article in this series I have chosen to discuss the point of view or narrative of a story. I will discuss what they are, how you should use them and why they can trip up writers.
Point of View
An important technical consideration when writing a story is to determine whose story it is. Who is telling the narrative? This may seem simple – you as author wrote it. Yet simply describing events will make for a boring read. Authors have a choice of point of view. There are two – plus a few variations and exceptions. In this article I will discuss the primary points of view, first- and third-person. I will give examples of each, discuss their pros and cons and help you determine which you should choose for your narrative.
With a first-person narrative a story unfolds as though it happens through that person’s eye. The story has a narrator who also happens to be a character in the story. Below is a short excerpt from Chasm City, a Science Fiction space opera by Alastair Reynolds [page 323].
I used a monofilament scythe to widen the clearing, then helped with the inflation of the bubbletents.
‘I’m going into the jungle,’ Cahuella said, tapping me on the shoulder. He wore his hunting jacket, a rifle slung over one shoulder. ‘I’ll be back in an hour or so.’
‘Go easy with any near-adults you find,’ I said, only half joking.
‘This is just a fishing trip, Tanner.’
I reached over to the card table I had set up outside the tent, with some of our equipment on it.
‘Here. Don’t forget these, especially if you’re going to wander far.’ I held up the image-amp goggles.
He hesitated, then reached out and took the goggles, slipping them into a shirt pocket. ‘Thanks.’
As you can read the action takes place through the eyes of the character named Tanner. The character is referred to as I while the second character, Cahuella, is referred to by either name or as He.
The first-person narrative can make for a very exciting read, but the story will need to unfold carefully. The narrator cannot be aware of events as they are happening elsewhere. There is an exception to this rule. A story can be written as a historical account, that way the first-person narrative it maintained but the reader is made aware on a limited scale what other people think. The narrator explains that they uncovered this after the events took place.
I am not enthusiastic about the possibilities of such a narrative. Difficult choices will have to be made as to how much a narrative can reasonably know. A recent novel by Stephen Baxter, The Massacre of Mankind reads like a historical account in the first-person of a Martian invasion of Earth. The narrator explains and justifies to the reader their actions, but also does this sometimes for other characters. A few times the narrative gets muddled because the narrator cannot possibly know everything.
With the first-person narrative there is also a question of whether it is an accurate description. The narrator can lie to the reader and this can become a powerful tool for twists and revelations. However, if it is done too much than nothing the narrator tells the reader will be compelling. That is the risk of the first-person narrative, the character and the story musty be able to sustain it. In the case of Tanner from Chasm City we are told the story from a character who is in denial. The reader quickly suspects this but the narrative nonetheless is provocative. The experience of reading how Tanner deals with his denial is more exciting than the events that take place. The first-person narrative is all about the character experience.
The third-person point of view has become somewhat more popular in literature during the 20th century. No longer is the author of the story also the narrator. Yet, the third-person narrative can trip up novice authors. There is a lot to choose from, which is why this section of the text is a little longer. To put it succinctly, the third-person can be divided into two groups. The first is the subjective/objective point of view and the second group is the omniscient point of view.
The subjective/objective point of view refers to a narration of one or more characters. If the story uses the subjective narrative then the reader is made aware of thoughts and feelings, but this is not the case if the narrative is objective. The subjective narrative is also sometimes referred to as the third-person limited, because we are only following one character at a time. Lets me show you this narrative with an example.
Sky and Norquinco crawled through the hull until they reached the first sleeper module. They emerged into one of the ten berths spaced around its circumference. Sensing them, pressure had flooded into the chamber, lights warmed and status displays came alive, but it remained deathly cold.
‘This one’s dead, Sky…’
‘I know.’ Norquinco had not visited many of the sleepers before; this was the first time Sky had felt it necessary to have him along. ‘I marked this one down as a failure on one of my earlier inspections.’
In this excerpt of Chasm City (page 360) the reader observes what the characters Sky and Norquinco are doing. The reader watches them, but does not look through them. Yet in the case of Sky we do know his thoughts. There is a line that says ‘Sky had felt it necessary to have him along’. I will tell a small spoiler. The characters Sky and Tanner are one and the same. Tanner has memory-loss episodes and these show the reader how past events unfolded, but only in the third-person. If the sentence that shows Sky’s thoughts had been omitted it would have been a third-person objective narrative.
The second group, besides subjective/objective, is the omniscient narrative. Here the reader is privileged to read all thoughts and feelings of each characters. This type of narrative is common with stories that have a very large scope in distance and time. The choices the writer makes are very important. If you can write about anyone’s action or thoughts at any given time than what do you write about? This type of narrative can be very effective in building tension as the readers knows about complications the characters do not. At the same time it can also quickly lead to the story becoming dull. How long can you like a character when you know more about events than they do?
Below is an excerpt from a short story I wrote – Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Second Woman Who Wasn’t. You can read the short story by following the link. Traditionally the stories of Sherlock Holmes are seen from the first-person perspective of Dr. Watson. He writes down the cases Sherlock is working on. However, there are exceptions and for my story I did not think it would work. I had only a limited word count to explain to the reader what is happening. My Sherlock Holmes story takes place in a virtual reality with onlookers, thus I thought it normal they should be privy to each action and thought.
“It is a miracle I do not use my powers of deduction as a criminal! Watson!” said Sherlock as he pointed the violin bow towards Dr. Watson. He briefly let the instrument aim at Watson’s shoes, indicating their unlaced state before placing the bow gently on the violin. Sherlock reconsidered playing the instrument as he watched Mrs. Morstan walk down the street in the distance.
“You sound like a broken record.” said Watson in a soft and friendly voice. He attempted to hide his doubt whether Sherlock would mention the visit Mary had just given him. He was suddenly skeptical about his light grey tweed suit, it contrasted unfavorably with Sherlock’s dark suit.
“All I do is reminisce on past cases. That case with the missing flintlock rifle!” Sherlock said to Watson. “Yes I remember, it was only last week.”
In the excerpt above both Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are speaking, they are referred to by name and for each character we know their thoughts. As mentioned with the third-person limited we can only know the thoughts of one character, as opposed to the omniscient point of view. However, there is an exception. An author can choose to swap point of view at clearly defined boundaries. One famous example are novels of the A Song of Ice and Fire series by G.R.R. Martin. Each chapter is told from the third-person limited viewpoint of one character. Fans are always hotly anticipating which characters will have advance the story in his next novel in the series. Because the characters are only aware of the facts around them there is still plenty of suspense.
The choice of point of view is not an easy one. I find reading the work of other authors to be very important. The wrong choice for the point of view is not easy to uncover. Often an ambiguous third-person viewpoint seems logical, but the story can also feel uninspiring – lacking intimacy. Editor’s will often point this out to an author. If you believe you have chosen the wrong point of view than a redraft can take up a lot of work, but it may improve your story considerably. Writing short fiction: short stories and novella’s makes for excellent practice. If you do consider redrafting and changing the viewpoint select two or three random chapters and start with those. Change the viewpoint and compare the results.