Point of View explained – whose head are you in?

I’ve found out that the links to the Beverley Guardian website no longer work (the paper has closed down). So I’m reproducing my articles here.

 

Point of view

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Whose eyes are you using?

Last time I wrote about character. Inextricably linked to character is point of view. In the context of writing fiction, it helps to remember that the phrase ‘point of view’ has two meanings. One is the position from which things are being observed; the other is an attitude or way of considering matters.

The first of these is fairly obvious – whose eyes are you seeing the story through?

In a first person narrative (where the main character is ‘I’), the reader is seeing the world through the eyes of a character, usually the protagonist. You can only see, hear, feel what they can. It’s like one of those video games where you can look down and see your character’s hands, but you have no idea what their face looks like. First person narratives are brilliant for getting deep into the feelings of the characters. It’s very immediate and immersive. There’s a reason most young adult novels are written in the first person.

The difficulty with a first person narrative is showing the reader things that are not directly said or done or felt by the main character. If, for example, your main character just told their mother some bad news. How do they know how their mother felt? They can infer from the fact that she gritted her teeth and threw a cushion at the cat that she’s angry, but they can’t actually know, because they (and therefore the reader) can’t see inside their mother’s head.

If you’re writing in the first person, take extra care when the character describes themselves. If a character says “I flexed my well-honed pectorals” – you need to ask yourself what sort of person thinks of themselves like that. If your character is a shy gardener, he wouldn’t think about his muscles – apart from if they hurt. If, on the other hand, the character is a gym-addict, then naming muscle groups and flexing them could come naturally.

Writing in the second person (where the main character is ‘you’) is uncomfortable to read for longer works, but can work well in short stories. Like the first person, it’s immersive and visceral.

The third person narrative style (where the main character is ‘he’ or ‘she’) is very popular. You pick a character and follow them around. You can take the reader deep into the feelings and motivations of your characters. Or you can keep it slightly shallower. Personally, I prefer the deep third, but it doesn’t suit everyone. A third person narrative gives you a bit more freedom with description than a first person narrative, but you still need to keep to things that your point of view character can actually see and feel. For example, if they’re on the telephone, they still can’t see the person at the other end of the line nodding in agreement.

The omniscient point of view, where the narrator knows everyone’s thoughts and feelings, is rarely used in modern fiction. The main difficulty with this is that reader does not stay with one character long enough to identify with them, which makes it harder to care about the characters. On the other hand, Virginia Woolf uses it masterfully in Mrs Dalloway. If you can write like Virginia Woolf, you don’t need to be reading this column.

 

The other meaning of ‘point of view’ is to do with the way your character views the world. Your character’s beliefs and mood will colour how they see things. Two different characters will view the same object differently. For example, if you’re describing an old house – an imaginative child might see a spooky haunted mansion while their property developer father might see a fabulous investment. Even the same character could see the same things differently depending on their mood. A meal that a happy person would describe as delicious could taste like sawdust to the same person if they’d just had their heart broken. If you want a lovely illustration of this, watch Despicable Me 2, where Gru walks down the street twice – when he’s happy, he joins in with the street musicians and plays with the kids, when he’s sad, he glowers and stomps his way along. When describing settings or even action, think about how your character is feeling. Allowing your character’s mood to influence the description can help add depth and resonance to your writing.

While it’s entirely possible to write the entire book from the point of view of only one character, there is no reason why you can’t have more than one viewpoint in a story. In fact, using different point of view characters is a great way to increase the conflict – your reader can know why character X is doing something, while character Y has no idea.

Some writers like to keep entire chapters in one point of view, others will change narrators in successive scenes. There are no rules on how often to change point of view (or not), apart from making sure that you always take the reader with you when you make the transition. The reader should never have to go back and check whose head they’re in. Changing point of view suddenly mid-scene should be done with care, or the reader may feel that the writer is ‘head hopping’. Some readers (myself included) can’t stand head hopping , while others barely notice it.

Point of view can be difficult to master, especially if you’re writing in the third person, but getting it right will make your book a much more satisfying read.

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