Whose Point of View?

One of the things a writer learns with experience is when to stick by her guns, go with her gut, and when to change direction.

I’m still learning.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about point of view. I’m afraid I may be using the wrong one.

When I started my novel, I envisioned three characters, three cities, three first-person points of view. First person just felt right, and it went along with one of the themes of the novel: individual expression versus community.

I wrote the first character’s chapters. I wrote the second character’s chapters. I wrote most of the third character’s chapters. I threw out the third character’s chapters. I decided to intermix the other two character’s chapters. Years of my life flew by.

I am now a little more than halfway through revising and rewriting so that the plot flows consistently. And I wonder, should I scrap the first-person point of view and move to third-person. The problem is that one of the two voices is stronger than the other. But I’m categorically opposed to doing some chapters in first-person and and others in third. And I don’t think one character can tell the whole story.

Compounding my problem: I’ve been reading “Away,” by Amy Bloom, a really good historical novel set in the mid-1920s. Bloom uses the omniscient point of view to very good effect, although most of the time we stick with the point of view of her heroine, Lillian. In Bloom’s hands, omniscient seems so … easy … useful. She doesn’t have to differentiate two voices. She doesn’t have to sound like a woman or a man, because she’s the Godlike narrator.

Alice McDermott has said that when she wrote “Charming Billy,” she tried her darnedest to write in the omniscient point of view. But the first person kept sneaking in, and eventually, she realized that the story was being told by somebody. That somebody is not a main character, but she embodies women as the keepers and conveyors of family stories.

So I guess the answer will come to me–eventually.


7 thoughts on “Whose Point of View?

  1. Carol Ann Hoel

    I’ve written only one novel, an unpublished manuscript. Viewpoint is tricky for a budding novelist. My genre preference is mystery and suspense. Commonly mysteries are written in first person viewpoint using the main character.

    I tell my story in the third person omniscient viewpoint. The narrator, like a news reporter, tells the entire story. Dialog carries most information, but the writer, it seems as I revise and refine, must choose one character in a chapter, or scene in a chapter, to empathize with, to champion, or to tolerate. There has to be a transition point from focusing on one character to the next. Even though all is told from the narrator’s viewpoint, the writer reveals the heart of one character at a time.

    All along the way the narrator, like an invisible character, reports the facts. The narrator gets his/her (who knows which) own paragraph, short though it may be, to interject the truth as seen in his/her eyes.

    Using third person omniscient viewpoint may set the writer up for committing author intrusion. For instance, in my story two characters talk. The narrator, the third person omniscient onlooker, supplies information in disagreement with both characters, just to clarify, to tell the truth of the matter. One would probably call that author intrusion. It is author intrusion unless it works. If the reader becomes confused or disgruntled by the narrator’s adding such information, it doesn’t work, and it IS author intrusion.

    You can see I need help. I am learning. Tell me this, if you know more about writing fiction than I, and probably you do. After reading one’s own manuscript a hundred times over, how does one remain objective? I know exactly what I meant when I wrote it, and after reviewing it again and again, I can almost recite it! How would I know if it entertains and makes sense to someone reading it for the first time?

    My conclusion for lack of a better answer is that someone must read my manuscript. A writer seeking a publisher for her first work may be stuck in a peculiar place for a long period of time. I guess it gives this writer lots of time to let the manuscript get really cold before reading it again.

    Objectivity the hard way. Or the easy way, depending on your v i e w p o i n t.

    1. equotah Post author

      Carol: It’s hard to work alone in a vacuum sometimes. Sounds like you’re at the point when you need to ask a trusted friend to be your reader.

  2. Sarah

    “But I’m categorically opposed to doing some chapters in first-person and and others in third.”

    Can you write more about why? I’m curious.

    I think that theoretically, it could be really interesting to have part of a novel in first person and part of a novel in third person, with the first-person narrator possibly (you know how I love ambiguity) being the narrator of the third-person sections as well.

    1. equotah Post author

      I don’t have a particularly good reason. The Tales of the Otori books switch between first and third, and although I enjoyed the books, I found that device a bit annoying. I guess it’s a pet peeve.

  3. Carol Ann Hoel

    The question to ask yourself about your fiction writing may be this: Does it work? If your story makes sense, and your readers like what they read enough to keep reading, it could be acceptable to an editor to break the rules of viewpoint. I read this in a publication instructing new writers about viewpoint.

    Whether or not I fully understand everything about viewpoint remains unanswered. My manuscript has not been published yet.

    Although principles of writing are good guidelines, I also read that breaking the rules of writing fiction is not condemned when skillfully orchestrated by a writer. I suspect that those special writers breaking the rules while pleasing their editors anyway are those writers with nine or ten best sellers to their credit. Sure, do anything you want, you little money makers. Otherwise, listen up and obey the rules!

    In my own case, I knew nothing of viewpoint issues in the beginning, but I thought my manuscript was great. When I put it away long enough to forget what I’d written, my objectivity kicked in. I had viewpoint problems to solve. Thankfully someone explained the principle. I have been trying my best to grapple with viewpoint issues, and it has made a strikingly positive difference in telling of the tale.

    I would like to hear more from you, Firstborn Literary Child, on the subject of viewpoint, or any subject that might help me and others become writers of best selling fiction.

  4. sjhigbee

    You don’t like first/third person point of view. What about making them both first person POV? There is no rule in the universe that says that one character in 1st person POV has to be equal with another… All it means is that the characters talk in ‘I’, with the resulting immediacy.


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