A Room with a Point of View

Point of View — nicknamed POV by acronym lovers, engineers, and editors — can drive you slowly insane, especially if you’re new to creative writing.  For fiction  — and possibly for creative non-fiction — there are four  points of view that you’ll need to consider as you write your story.  There are long, drawn-out academic and literary narratives written about each.  However, I am neither academic nor literary; anybody reading my fiction can testify to that.  So, what I’m going to do is take all the things I did wrong  and try to twist them into something that you can use.   Simply put, the POV of a story, essay, or novel is the window that you watch the action through, sort of like Jimmy Stewart’s famous character in …

Here, then are the four points of view that I have dabbled with over the years:

First-person, wherein your character writes the story using the pronoun “I” (and in some circumstances, “we:”)

Second-person, wherein your character writes the story using the pronoun “you”, “y’all”, or “youz guys”.

Third-person, wherein your character writes the story using “he”, “she”, or (in the case of space aliens), “it”

  • Omniscent, wherein you basically become a god and write whatever the **** you feel like.

Now, let’s wax idiotic about each one.

1. First person POV — This POV gives you (the author) a way to write your story as if you were role-playing.  Pretend you are an actor on stage, or a miniature figure in Dungeons and Dragons (complete with stale pizza, cherry Coke, and quotes from Monty Python).  You (the author) have to become you (the character), and you have to write down everything the character experiences that’s relevant to the story.  For instance, suppose the character is a guy who has just had his eyeball fall out of its socket.  It’s up to you to make this delightful little experience come alive.   Now you might be asking yourself if words can capture such an … event.  They can’t.   But it is  a valid question, and one that I will not be addressing here.

But I will say that people — both smart and dumb — have argued the legitimacy of first-person narration for years.   The reasons behind these arguments get into those nuaces of fiction writing that make me want to go drink heavily, and I will spare you that indignity.  But if you take away anything at all, it should be this: When you write in first person, the narrator is NOT you!

  • Consider J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.  Salinger is not the main character.  Houlden Caufield is the main character, the protagonist, the “hero”.  There are many things you can say about Caufield, but one you cannot say is that he is Salinger.
  • Consider the country song, “You Never Even Call Me by My Name”.    The song was written by Steve Goodman, who uses the pronoun “I” liberally.  David Allan Cole sang it.  So who’s the character?  Goodman?  Cole?   BUZZ.  Neither of them!

As you develop your character, you can only use words the character would know.  The questions, answers, prayers, opinions, profanities, arguments, dangling eyeballs, and insults of that first-person narrator belong to the character alone. 

2. Second-person POV — sucks.

3. Third-person limited POV — This is the most common technique in fiction today.  In this POV, you refer to your characters by name and pronoun (he, she or it).   Let’s say our character’s name is J.D.,  just to be creative.  And let’s place him in a period-piece in the 1950s.  Suppose J.D. has returned his eyeball to its rightful socket, but still has to have surgery to repair damage done to the cornea while it (the eyeball) rolled around on the floor.

Well, here is something you could say:  

  • As he waited in the doctor’s office, J.D.’s hands were trembling because he kept thinking about a scalpel slicing open his poor, wounded eyeball.

Now that right there is a mighty fine sentence.

And here is something you cannot say:

  • As he waited in the doctor’s office, J.D’s hands were trembling because he kept thinking about surgical laser burning its way into his poor, wounded eyeball.

Why we can use the former and not the latter? 

It’s simple. 

Our story is set in the 1950s.  Lasers were not invented until 1960.  That’s what is so cool about being a writer: You get to learn things that nobody else gives a rip about. 

Here are some other 3rd-person thoughts:

  • Each “scene” can only be told from one (3rd-person) narrator.  You can tell the reader what J.D. does and says in the first scene.  Suppose you switch to his wife, Claire, in the next scene.  You can only tell the reader what she knows.  Claire will not know the same things as J.D.  And vice-versa.  In reverse.
  • Watch your words.  Just because you know what яйца means does not mean your characters do.
  • Remember what the character knows.  Just you know all about fine gems and jewels does not mean that your character does.
  • Remember what your character likes.  Just because you happen to be a Packers fan does not mean that your character is.
  • After you’ve written the first draft, go back through your 3rd-person manuscript and … read … every … sentence.  And as you do so, ask yourself this: Can my character know this?  If you have doubts, highlight the sentence, and get to know your character better.
If you violate any of these guidelines you run the risk of your writing spiraling out of control like a Hitchcock movie.

4. Omniscent POV — This is the POV where  the author serves as the god and storyteller, allowing you to switch POVs, from one scene to the next, or even within a paragraph if you like.  This gives you campfire story power, complete with flashbacks, flash-forwards, flashes-sideways, authorial intrusions, and fits of wet coughing.

  • When done correctly omniscient POV is a great tool.
  • When done wrong … well, see # 2 above.

I hope that these tips will make you a better writer.  If not, it’s less competition for me in the dog-eat-dog world of fiction and creative non-fiction.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Happy Boxing Day (Canada).

Peace, from Keith

© Copyright 2011, Alan Keith Parker.  Stealing copywrited material is a crime.  Do you care?  Probably not.  But what happens if you get caught?  Hmm?  What if you’re that one in a million who makes that one mistake?  Hmm.  Better lawyer-up.

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