Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Points of View

My article is late this week. I have failed you all. So I wrote an excessively long one to atone. Which in itself might be another kind of failure :P

One of the first choices you’ll have to make when writing your opus is the PoV you’re going to tell the story in. There are three basic choices:

1st Person –The author writes as if they WERE the character.
“I stared at the <insert sexy feature of The Boy here> and tried to ignore the butterflies in my stomach”
“I successfully ignored the butterflies, drew my laser pistol and proceeded to melt his <insert melting sexy here>”.

  • Simple to establish ‘voice’ of the MC (since, you know, you’re writing in it).
  • Exposition is easier (not easy though - important distinction), as you’re talking directly to your reader, so dropping into internal dialogue or explaining Why Everyone Is Walking Around With A Bucket On Their Head comes off as more natural and you won’t lose flow.
  • The narrator can lie, or his/her perspective can be compromised which can make the story far more interesting (good example of this is Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, where the narrator doesn’t realize he’s nutty as squirrel poo)
  • The flow of the story can be more visceral, since we’re in the head of the person experiencing these events.

  • You will use the word ‘I’ a lot. Like, a LOT. There’s no way to avoid it, and it gets repetitive after the first 2,000 or so.
  • Perspective is limited. This leads to a couple of problems, the biggest of which is that everything the MC doesn’t know will either need to be discovered, or worse, explained to her/him. This often leads to implausible scenarios, where, in reality, the villain would just snatch up a pistol and paint the walls with the MC’s head, but instead spends five minutes explaining The Plan, and how to stop it, because ‘I suppose it makes no difference now that you are in my clutches, mwahahaha.’ Even if the villain doesn’t fall into this expo-routine, at the very least, the MC will have to explain the twist to you, the reader. This is very difficult to do well.
  • Your whole book hangs on one character – the MC. If people don’t like your MC, they won’t like your book. This means you need to build a likeable MC. ‘Likeable’ can slip very easily into ‘boring goody-two-shoes’.
  • Since the author is writing as ‘I’, Mary/Gary-Sue comparisons are unavoidable.
  • Lots of people are doing it. Particularly in YA. Seriously. Pick up a YA novel off the shelf. Chances are good it’s written in 1st.

 2nd Person – ‘You’ are the character in the narrative.
‘You sit on the bed and try to wrap your head around this weird-ass book in which you are a seventeen year old nuclear physicist who's a supermodel in her spare time.’
‘You walk to the bookshelf and pick something else to read instead.’

  • Good for RPG books. You know, those Choose Your Own Adventure style things, where ‘If you snatch up the pistol and melt the villain’s face, turn to page 321. If you’d rather cuddle the puppies, turn to 123.”
  • I can’t think of any other pro’s... It’s different, I guess? Different is good, right?

  • You might have crafted an awesome alter-ego for me in this narrative, but you need to be a pretty masterful writer to convince me that I’m a 17 year old supermodel with a degree in astrophysics and a black belt in kung fu. Especially since I’m probably reading this thing on the couch while my dog gnaws my ugg boots.
  • Multiple PoVs are virtually impossible, so essentially you have all the cons of 1st, with none of the visceral connect, since you’re reader is probably sitting there thinking “Wait, I’m a what now?”
  • If someone can point me to an awesome 2nd person PoV book that isn’t an RPG, I will pay you handsomely.

3rd Person – the God’s eye view.
“The Girl snatched up the laser pistol and melted the Boy’s sexy.”
“The Boy understandably felt quite upset at this turn of events.”

  • It's easier (again, not easy) to tell tales on a broad-scope in 3rd. You can be anywhere, and inside anyone. This allows you for far more complex plot arrangements, and you can avoid the set-piece exposition scene flaw of 1st. The villain doesn't need to explain to the MC he’s rigged the puppies to explode - we saw him do it in the previous scene. Imagine trying to tell a story like A Song of Ice and Fire in 1st person. We’ll wait here while you put your brain back together.
  • The narrative can be more objective, less personal. If I were to tell you the story of my life, I would probably exaggerate the bits where I skydived naked from aeroplanes surrounded by Victoria Secrets models, and downplay the time I spent on the couch getting my ugg boots gnawed by my dog. Jus’ sayin’.
  • Your whole book doesn’t hang on one character. You can make your MC a bit of a douche, or a bit of a dunce, because she/he has other characters to bounce off and revulsion to her/his douchebaggery won’t be as immediate and instinctive as in a 1st person PoV.

  • 3rd is less intimate than 1st. It’s harder and takes longer to establish voice when dealing with multiple characters. The disconnect between your reader and your MC is more pronounced.
  • If the plot is complex, your readers might not even know who the MC is at first.
  • Dropping into internal thought processes and internal dialogue can be very jarring, and easily break the flow of your narrative.

STORMDANCER is a third person PoV narrative, meaning we swap around inside the heads and perspectives of various characters over the course of the novel. I chose 3rd because I had a (vague) idea of where the story would head, and knew it would eventually get too big to be confined to one perspective. But that's just me and my story. 

In the end, do what’s write for your story. Understand the pros and cons, and choose wisely - the decision will shape your book on the most fundamental level possible. But as always, the most important thing to remember is to write your ass off.

Jay Kristoff is the author of STORMDANCER, a dystopian fantasy set in steampunk feudal Japan, out in Spring 2012 through St Martin's Press & Tor UK.
He writes in 1st person PoV here and here.

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