Point of View

jenny 4:57 PM
Point of View is the eyes through which the reader sees the story, literally the viewpoint of the narrator.

First Person Point of View is easy, the story is told through the eyes of the character narrating the story, almost always the protagonist, using first person pronouns: “I walked into the party and slapped that bastard Ralph because I’ve hated him for years.”

Second Person Point of View the story is told at more distance through the eyes of a character narrating the story directly to someone using second person pronouns: “You walked in the room and slapped Ralph because you’ve hated him for years.”

Third Person Limited Point of View is told at even more distance using third person pronouns: “She walked into the party and slapped Ralph. I’ve hated you for years, she thought.” (The key to third person limited PoV is the “limited” part: the reader only sees and hears what the PoV character thinks; that is, the reader always stays in the head of the PoV character and doesn’t go flitting about from brain to brain.)

Third Person Omniscient Point of View is the most distant PoV, told through the eyes of God the Author using third person pronouns, a voice that sees all, hears all, knows all, and is in everybody’s head, making commentary along the way: “Jane walked in the room and slapped Ralph because she loathed the son of a bitch. Ralph hated Jane, too, and he thought seriously about slapping her back, but he didn’t because it would look bad for a man to hit a woman, so he poisoned her punch instead. Elizabeth saw him and put the antidote in Jane’s glass when she wasn’t looking just to avoid the conflict. Little did they know that there was a bomb in the clam dip, and their lives would be irrevocably changed along with the life of the EMT who drank Jane’s punch later and threw up on Frederick. Some people have bad luck forced upon them (poor Elizabeth, always trying to do the right thing), some people deserve their bad luck (who the hell drinks leftover punch at a bomb site?) and some people just deserve each other (Jane and Ralph, now dating in Hell).”

The major difference in all of these is the distance from the PoV character and the story.

First person is a close-up view, the story intensely told through the thoughts, speech, and action of the protagonist. That protagonist may be watching and commenting on characters that are much more dynamic (see The Great Gatsby), but the story is almost always about the narrator-protagonist. For example, Martha Wells’ Murderbot books are about a human/robot construct who just wants to be left alone to watch the movies and TV shows it’s loaded into its brain, but must interact with humans, not only to protect its secrets but also because it’s programmed to protect humans. The detachment of the construct balanced with the intuitive need to connect of its organic human parts creates a new kind of protagonist, one that gradually becomes emotional and connected despite itself. Because of the interiority of the character arc, the Murderbot stories really had to be told in first person. Another great set of first person books is Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series: the protagonist is a rookie cop in London dealing with newfound knowledge of supernatural crime, and the events are so layered and so complex that having that intense first person viewpoint helps keep it all focused and moving. (I have a theory that the reason so many mysteries are written in first is that since the most important thing doesn’t happen to the protagonist, the intimacy level creates the intensity the story needs. I could, of course, be wrong.).

Second person is just awkward and unpleasant, sounding accusatory, so probably good to avoid unless you have a solid reason for choosing it.

Third person limited is a compromise between first and omniscient. You don’t get the intensity of first or the distance and global view of omniscient, but you get some of both, which gives your story a lot of room to grow. When Bob and I collaborated, we automatically went to third limited because our two first person PoVs in one book would have been claustrophobic. I think one reason so many romance novels are written in third person (see Georgette Heyer, Mhairi McFarlane, Anne Stuart, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and hundreds more) is that limited distance. But a lot of YA and New Adult romances are written in first these days, which probably says something about the intensity of young love or the skittishness of older lovers. Sarina Bowen’s The Year We Fell Down, about two college students who are disabled, one of whom will recover and the other whose injury is permanent, makes good use of first person showing the differences in their struggles as they fall (in some scenes literally) for each other.

The best example of what I mean by distance is writing a sex scene. A sex scene in first person is incredibly intimate, but can feel like you’ve sat down next to the wrong person on the bus, the one who wants to give you all the deets on what (or who) went down last night. A sex scene in omniscient can sound like a National Geographic special, observed from a distance with commentary by somebody with a plummy accent. A sex scene in third gives the experience happening to the PoV character without the sense that the character is narrating it to you, while still keeping everything filtered through that one close PoV so you don’t get the NatGeo experience. (Second person is your mother telling you how you had sex. Listen, there’s a reason second person PoV is not popular.)

So the choice of PoV really comes down to distance, how much you need, how much the reader wants. Having said all of that, the big determinant in PoV, I think, is the way the author hears the story. I’ve always written in third limited; it’s the way the stories begin in my brain. When I started a mystery series, the stories showed up in first person. After struggling with that, I decided my problem was that I just don’t write in first, so I tried to put the 70,000 words I had done into third limited. Nope. Wouldn’t go. That’s a first person story because my brain (and the Girls in the Basement) have decided it has to be a first person story. Generally speaking, you know what PoV your story is going to be told in even if you don’t think you know.

Bob Mayer 4:57 PM
Point of view is the most difficult topic to discuss in writing. It’s your voice. I use the camera analogy—where is the camera the records the scene? Who has it?

I’ve had problem with POV for many years and still do. Because my POV tends to float.

I tried something very different for New York Minute several years ago. I never leave the protagonist, Will Kane. He’s in every scene. So I could have written it first person. Except I don’t particularly care for first person unless the voice of the narrator is very good. And usually the narrator is an observer, not the protagonist. Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird is recalling what happened, while Atticus Finch is the protagonist.

I could have written locked in third person from Kane’s POV, except I find that limiting. In tight third, everything is processed through the character’s POV. If I want to describe the Twin Towers of the WTC (its’ set in 1977) I have to do it through his POV. I find that awkward.

So I wrote it in omniscient translucent through one person. What that means is that I, as the author, held the camera and followed Kane around. I could simply describe things; I could also add in his reactions to it (translucent, seeing through his view). Interestingly, the hard part wasn’t POV, it was trying to know what the off-stage characters were doing while Kane was progressing forward in the story. It was an interesting experiment. In the second book, Lawyers, Guns and Money, I used the same POV, but with occasional breaks to other characters as the story required. And that’s where I’m at now.

Some of it has to do with genre and type of story. For romance, tight 3rd works. But I incorporate a lot of history and facts in most of my books. I’m writing Equinox right now and it has six mini-stories of history in one novel, which is a lot of history. I’ve learned not to overwhelm people with it, as I’m sure Jenny will say. But I think some of the allure of the Time Patrol books is the history. So it’s a fine line.

Like everything else, there are no rules. I was surprised when I went back to Hunger Games and realized it was written in 1st person. That’s a big thriller to do that in. But it was also a tight, personal one.

The biggest thing I suggest is to really focus on POV in both books and in film. How is the scene filmed? After all, that’s the director’s job! Point of view. Think on it. As a writer we do all the jobs an entire team does in film. They have the screenwriter who does idea and plot (although sometimes the idea comes from a novelist and the screenwriter just does plot). The director who does POV. The actors who do character. The film editor. And on and on. We do it all.
I wrote a mss in 1st person years ago. Decided to try to rewrite it in third limited. The first draft of the rewrite ended up being in omniscient, which says something. 1st and Omniscient can lend itself to info-dump. Third limited allows no info-dump.

jenny 5:04 PM
I would argue that Scout is the protagonist because she’s the character the story (as she tells it) has the most effect on, emotionally at least. The narrator may seem to be only an observer, but the narrator is the one who has the profound change because of what they’ve observed. Again, The Great Gatsby.
Agree about first and third omniscient providing greater opportunity for info dump.
Do not info dump, people.

[I somehow missed Bob’s “omniscient translucent” when I was reading his section. We later fought it out in e-mail.]

Bob Mayer 5:05 PM
Is Sherlock Holmes the protagonist or Watson?

jenny 5:06 PM
Holmes never changes. Watson interprets.

Bob Mayer 5:06 PM
Ah. Back to arc.

Hmm. Not sure I agree with that. I think they represent the reader.

jenny 5:06 PM
Observer narrators represent the reader?
Okay, take a step back. The protagonist is the person who owns the story, whose needs drive the plot.

Bob Mayer 5:07 PM

jenny 5:07 PM
Watson needs to write down the stories, needs to understand Holmes.
Holmes has no needs.

Bob Mayer 5:07 PM
Holmes needs to solve the crime.

jenny 5:07 PM
It’s interesting to look at the two modern interpretations of the stories, though. Well, no three.
The movies with Downey and Law are about Holmes, definitely, but that Holmes is a vulnerable and needy character, a modern take on a super-brain-hero.

Bob Mayer 5:09 PM
One fun thing with POV is flipping it. Gone With The Wind. Versus: Wind Done Gone.

jenny 5:09 PM
In Sherlock, the BBC series, the protagonist is Watson, I’d argue, following Sherlock around and trying to take care of him, writing down the cases as part of his PTSD therapy.
Elementary, the American version is Holmes as a recovering addict with Watson as his sober companion.
All three try to make Holmes vulnerable, which he isn’t in the stories. Modern heroes are vulnerable.
But aside from the movie, I think the stories still put Watson in control of the narrative.

Bob Mayer 5:10 PM
Haven’t seen any of them since it was Colonel Mustard in the Library with the candlestick.

jenny 5:10 PM
That’s Clue, not Holmes.

Bob Mayer 5:10 PM
In charge of the narrative but not the action.

jenny 5:11 PM
I just think it’s interesting the choices those three modern versions make in which character the story belongs to.’

Bob Mayer 5:11 PM
All mysteries are the same. Col Mustard in the Library with the candlestick. Once in a while with the pipe wrench which doesn’t make sense.

jenny 5:11 PM
The person in charge of the narrative fuels the story.
The person that narrator is watching may be more active, but his actions aren’t the main plot of the story.
The needs and goals of the protagonist/narrator fuel the story.

Bob Mayer 5:12 PM
Take Scout out of Mockingbird. Story still happens. Take Atticus out. No story. Take Watson out? Still have a story. No Holmes? No story.

jenny 5:12 PM
Not the same story.

Bob Mayer 5:12 PM
Not the same, but you have a story.

jenny 5:12 PM
Take Scout out and the narrative changes dramatically, the meaning of the story changes. It’s Scout’s coming of age story.

Bob Mayer 5:12 PM
Robert Duvall wouldn’t have a role though.

jenny 5:13 PM
Sure you have story, but it’s not the same story. You might as well say, “Take the ice cream out of a banana split and you still have ice cream.” No, you don’t, you have a fruit bowl.
What were we talking about again? Oh, right, PoV.

Bob Mayer 5:14 PM
I agree to disagree. I think Atticus and Sherlock are the protagonists of those books. The big POV question is why aren’t we in THEIR POV?

jenny 5:14 PM

Bob Mayer 5:15 PM
Maybe. Perhaps. Could be.

jenny 5:15 PM
(Face palm.)

Bob Mayer 5:15 PM

jenny 5:15 PM
If we were in their PoVs, the stories would be theirs.
She said, calmly.

Bob Mayer 5:15 PM

jenny 5:16 PM
I’m gonna go out on a limb and say the PoV character controls the story because that character chooses how the story is told and what events are highlighted.

Bob Mayer 5:17 PM
Agree with that. The POV totally controls the story. Think when the POV is lying. Who is Keyser Soze?

jenny 5:18 PM
Ah, unreliable narrators.
So much fun.
Wuthering Heights does a great job with those.

Bob Mayer 5:18 PM
Hard to pull off though without pissing off the reader.

jenny 5:18 PM
I think there’s an aspect of unreliability in all first-person narrators.

Bob Mayer 5:19 PM
I don’t believe nothing nobody says is my motto. I think.

jenny 5:19 PM
Well, you can’t lie to the reader just to be tricky. In the case of Keyser Sose, he had good reason to lie. Wasn’t his narration his statement to the cops (been awhile since I saw that one).

Bob Mayer 5:19 PM
Yep. The entire thing was the story he spun in the interview. Brilliant use of POV.

jenny 5:20 PM
And the viewer knows he’s talking to the cops, so there’s an assumption he’s spinning the narrative. Then there’s the unreliable narrator like one of the characters in Wuthering Heights who’s such a jackass that even though he thinks he’s telling the truth, the reader knows he’s a pompous ass misreading the situation. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is brilliant in its use of unreliable narrators, using that unreliability as characterization.

Bob Mayer 5:20 PM
What’s a Wuthering?

jenny 5:21 PM
Stormy. Oppressive grey clouds over a moor, haunted by tragic lovers.

Bob Mayer 5:21 PM
Which brings up another aspect of POV: through it we learn a lot about the narrator.

jenny 5:21 PM

Bob Mayer 5:21 PM
Sounds depressing.

jenny 5:21 PM
It has a happy ending.
Well, it has an optimistic ending.

Bob Mayer 5:22 PM
We don’t cover endings until plot. And we’re all doomed.

jenny 5:23 PM
Nothing but good times, baby. Let’s go back to your previous brilliant statement: PoV tells a lot about a first person narrator, not quite so much about a third limited narrator. Third omniscient just tells you about the author, not the characters (except for what the author puts on the page about the characters).
But first person PoV can be a terrific characterization device. You just can’t get away from it.

Bob Mayer 5:24 PM
Actually, omniscient can be more truthful. I don’t think an omniscient narrator can lie. I’ve never thought about that before. I know I withhold things when writing in omniscient but I don’t lie. Characters can lie in what they say.

jenny 5:25 PM
I’m thinking . . .
I think you’re right.

Bob Mayer 5:26 PM
I withhold things in omniscient, but I can’t lie.

jenny 5:27 PM
Since the omniscient narrator is looking down and telling what they see, there’s no point in being unreliable. There is no other PoV to compare it to. First and third limited narrators are actually characters in the story, and are therefore only one viewpoint among many, while omniscient is God the Narrator and Knows All. No reason to lie. You can’t withhold in first and limited third unless you’re deliberately writing unreliable narrators.

Bob Mayer 5:27 PM
So I’m pretty reliable. I’ve actually got a photo of a used car dealership in Boise that’s called: “Pretty Reliable Bob’s.” Seriously.

jenny 5:27 PM
I would buy a car from Pretty Reliable Bob. Honesty, I’m for it.

Bob Mayer 5:28 PM
I never read Fight Club but how did he handle that?

jenny 5:30 PM
I didn’t read it, either, but I THINK it was alternating firsts, and each thought he was telling the truth?
Nope, just checked. One PoV.

Bob Mayer 5:30 PM
Which goes to show, as we always end up with, you can pretty much do anything. As long as it works.

jenny 5:31 PM
Who gets to define “works”?
The reader, right?

Bob Mayer 5:31 PM

jenny 5:31 PM
Good luck with thaata.
My “a” key keeps sticking.

Bob Mayer 5:32 PM
I like thaata. Adding it to my extensive vocabulary.

jenny 5:32 PM
I got a million of them. Damn “a” key?

Bob Mayer 5:32 PM
I wrote an entire book with no Z key.

jenny 5:33 PM
You know we seem to have a set distance on these discussions. About half an hour in, we wander off the topic.
I blame your attention span.

Bob Mayer 5:33 PM
I’m laser sighted on thaata task.

jenny 5:33 PM
I still want to analyze the new Sherlocks, and you’re done and out in the weeds, playing with words.

Bob Mayer 5:33 PM
I haven’t seen them.

jenny 5:34 PM
The early BBC was great. “A Scandal in Belgravia” was marvelous.
Elementary on American TV was excellent, really different but still really good.
The movies? Eh, the first one was fun if kind of out there (big Downey fan here). The second one lost its grip.
Ever wonder why the Sherlock stories are so popular? I mean they’re great stories, but that’s quite an accomplishment, to do a lot of short stories that are still compelling and draw adaptation more than century later.

Bob Mayer 5:35 PM
People like mysteries.

jenny 5:35 PM
Yeah, but I don’t see that happening with other mysteries.
Christie comes close, but Poirot and Marple have nowhere near the recognition that Holmes has.

Bob Mayer 5:36 PM
They worked.

jenny 5:36 PM
Christie’s work. Sayers’ work. Allingham’s work. Rex Stout, Dick Francis, lots of them work. Why is Sherlock a modern myth?
I have no answer for this.
Just wondering.

Bob Mayer 5:37 PM
I did really like Knives Out.

jenny 5:37 PM
Oooh, haven’t seen that yet, but I have it. Don’t spoil it for me.

Bob Mayer 5:38 PM
It’s great. You can tell they all had a blast making it.

jenny 5:38 PM
It has wonderful people in it.

Bob Mayer 5:38 PM
But Colonel Mustard did it. So.

jenny 5:38 PM
Did a Clue game hurt you while you were growing up?
Wait a minute, have you ever PLAYED Clue?
You are so not a board games kind of guy.

Bob Mayer 5:39 PM
There’s a game? I was talking about that guy, Colonel Mustard. Dastardly fellow.

jenny 5:39 PM
It’s the movie isn’t it? Leslie Ann Warren’s breasts and Madeline Kahn saying, “FLAMES on the sides of my face.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8d8y4BLWtIce

Bob Mayer 5:39 PM
There’s a movie?

jenny 5:40 PM
Yes, there’s a movie. It’s a classic farce.

Hey, did you see that suggestion that we should take suggestions from the commenters? Or something? I sent it to you. Comment was on Argh.
Bob Mayer 5:40 PM
I’m fine with suggestions.

jenny 5:40 PM
Maybe I’ll watch Knives Out and we can talk about that.

Bob Mayer 5:40 PM
It’s a feel-good movie.

jenny 5:40 PM
After I do the forty other things ahead of it on my ToDo list.

Bob Mayer 5:41 PM
Yeah. I’ve got to kill some people in WIP. But they deserve thaata.

jenny 5:41 PM
I am so sorry I ever mentioned that. You’re going to beat it to death, aren’t you?

Bob Mayer 5:42 PM
You weren’t impressed I wrote an entire book with no Z key.

jenny 5:42 PM
Yes, I was. I said, “Zounds.”
Also, I don’t believe you. How did you spell “Uzi”?

Bob Mayer 5:43 PM
I was living in South Korea. What I did was copy zZ and when I needed a small z, I pasted it in and backspaced once. Capital Z required a little more work. I got very good at it.

jenny 5:44 PM
Good to know.

Bob Mayer 5:44 PM
A lesson to all those writers out there whose Z key doesn’t work or their A key sticks. You can still do it!

jenny 5:44 PM
So technically, you did NOT write a book without Zs.

Bob Mayer 5:45 PM
I said Z key. I did not say Z. I am reasonable reliable Bob.

jenny 5:45 PM
I stand corrected.
Okay, we’ve said everything we wanted about PoV? More than we wanted?

[At this point, Bob said something about the news and we bitched about politics for about five minutes, which is not what anybody signed up for in these posts. Also for some odd reason, politics is one of the few things Bob and I actually agree on, so there were no insights, just parallel bitching. Therefore, this part of the transcript has been cut. You’re welcome.]

Bob Mayer 5:48 PM
I will end with, from my POV, which is fairly reliable, we are screwed.

jenny 5:49 PM
No, we’re not. I like what Churchill said about Americans, something like “Americans always do what’s right . . . eventually.”
[ I checked and the actual quote is “Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.”}

Nothing but good times ahead. (C’mon, Ruth, be well.)

Bob Mayer 5:49 PM

jenny 5:50 PM
The past three and a half years have just been an extinction burst. The arc of the universe bends toward justice.

Bob Mayer 5:50 PM
We’ll cover that under plot.

jenny 5:50 PM
Good night, Mostly Reliable Bob.

Bob Mayer 5:51 PM
Good night.



4 thoughts on “Point of View

  1. PoV is always interesting. I think that every book I read until I read my first SF book at 11 or 12 was in third person. Most of the Golden Age SF was also in third person, but for some reason they and newer writers went insane in the late 60s and 70s and wrote some amazingly psychedelic first-person and second-person PoV novels.

    One thing I’ve been seeing in some newer romance books is a shifting first-person: once chapter it’s in her first-person, the next chapter it’s in his. I think this is the writer trying to cheat. I like a good first-person story and I appreciate how you only know that person’s thoughts and no one else’s. In a shifting first-person, the writer doesn’t like that limitation and goes back and forth, kind of like a weirdly limited omniscient, because many of the books I’ve read with this PoV model tend to overlap scenes, telling it first from hers and then from his. I am not enamored of this. (Omniscient done poorly is even more irritating, as in Strange Neighbors by Chase.)

    How do you write a good unreliable narrator? That one eludes me. I tend toward first and third, which are basically easy. I kind of like the limitations of first person. There was this SF novel in the early 70s, I think it was by Robert Silverberg but I could be wrong, that was written in second. I shouldn’t have been reading it a 13 or 14: it contained a lot of sex and the sex was weird because the MC was telepathic. It was his PoV, but the narration was all “you”. I think it traumatized me.


  2. I like the alternating firsts of New Adult romance. They’re not hard to follow because they put the speakers’ names at the top of each chapter and stick to that. The only PoV that really gives me the cauld grue is second. (Bleah.)

    Writing a good unreliable narrator. That really depends on what you’re trying to do with it.

    One approach is to let the unreliability dawn on the reader slowly, dropping hints into the narrative that the narrator either is lying in their teeth or that they’re just naive as all hell. Chaucer the Narrator in the Canterbury Tales is that kind of innocent, helpful narrator, talking about how pious a beautiful nun on the journey is and raving about her very high pale forehead (should have been covered by that wimple) and her sumptuous jewelry (vow of poverty, anybody?) and a dozen other hints that the nun didn’t choose the cloister because of her love of God but probably because her family forced her into it. He does that for every pilgrim, beautifully, always cheerfully clueless and seeing the best in everyone.

    The other is to tip the reader off right away, starting with a blatantly false statement and building on that, so that the narrative becomes a kind of performance art, the reader understanding the on-the-page story as a kind of smokescreen for the real story happening behind the words. Sometimes those are stories told by scammers, and sometimes those are stories told by people who have been telling them to recast reality so they can stand it, it’s a story they need to hear and the reader is pretty much overhearing them tell it to themselves. The layers you can get on that kind of story are difficult but fabulous. The Wife of Bath’s story is like that. Brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Can’t thank you both enough for doing this series (again). I can read 200 books on writing, but you cut through the b.s. and make it fun.


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