JWAM reader request no. 1: Choosing povs

Malcolm Tredinnick Says:

Picking a point of view and how you learnt to work with the different types would be something I’d be interested to hear about. As a reader, I kind of know when the point of view works for the story and when it doesn’t, but I don’t really know how consciously writers make the choice or how you do it.

Hmmm, a tricky one first up. Curses!

I think I may have mentioned that for most of my writing life i.e since I was five and first started, I wrote short stories, not novels. I’d start many but not finish them. But I finished hundreds of short stories. None of them were much good as stories, but they were excellent for learning stuff like how to use the different points of view.

And, wow, did I. I even have a few stories written in second person. Those were on purpose experiments, but in my early days I did lots of experimenting without knowing what I was doing. I would change points of view willy nilly. One minute a story would be in first, and then in limited third, and them in omniscient. I’d write from Jack’s pov, then Chan’s, then Jill’s, then Kara’s. Sometimes all in the one paragraph. Those stories were mostly unreadable, but slowly I started to learn my way around the four basic povs.

In those early bouncing-around-all-over-the-place stories I had no control over what I was doing with pov. I didn’t notice the constant changing. That was something I learnt by writing all those bad stories.

How does that translate to what I write now?

The first draft of Magic or Madness was written in third person. I also thought the book was going to be entirely from Reason’s pov. I wound up with Reason’s voice being in first and the two other pov characters, Tom and Jay-Tee, being in third. I’m not sure how that happened. Reason just wasn’t working in third. Her voice seemed flat. As soon as I tried shifting it to first, the book took off. I’d found the right voice.

I think my struggle to find the right voice for Reason stems from the trilogy beginning life as a set of ideas, rather than with a specific character. Both How To Ditch Your Fairy and the Liar book began with the strong voice of the protag. Both are in first person. It never occurred to me to change. Didn’t need to.

Scott says he uses first person when the book is more digressive—So Yesterday, Peeps—it allows him to stop the narrative and say, “Hey, let me tell you this cool thing.” He uses third when the narrative has more of a straight drive, like the Midnighters and Uglies books.

My current novel is (at least partly) in omniscient. It’s big with a large cast of characters. I believe that omniscient is the point of view best suited to epics. I think Dunnett’s and Pullman’s1 deployment of it is a large part of what gives those books their distinctive epic feel. If I can make it work even half as well as they do I’ll be home and hosed.

I’m loving writing in omni. I love being able to move from a close in view of a character’s thoughts all the way out to a sweeping view of the city and that character’s place in it. Omniscient feels like the most metaphysical point of view. The most flexible too. It allows for straight driving narrative, digressions, whatever I want to do with it. Right now I am deeply in love and feel that it is perfectly suited to the huge story I am attempting to tell. Bless you, omni!

Hope that answers your question, Malcolm.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. in His Dark Materials []


  1. Nicholas Waller on #

    re Second Person – Charles Stross’s novel Halting State is all in second person and from the POV of three different people, who each get their own chapters. Partly, he said somewhere, this was because it seemed to match the subject matter, a thriller about shenanigans in and out of multiple-player online games (where players use avatars).

    I tried second person in an unpublished effort about a character who had been brainwashed/dehumanised and re-engineered as a semi-involuntary human suicide bomb who dies at the end. Second person seemed there to give a sense of someone being told what to do, as if being manipulated. Obviously first person doesn’t work where the POV character dies (well, unless there’s a post-death commentary as in Sunset Boulevard).

    In the Stross book second person gave the sense of a character’s thinking brain being a little detached from his or her body, pushing it along to do stuff and go through motions while aware he or she didn’t fully understand what was going on in the great “game” they were all caught up in.

  2. Justine on #

    If I weren’t on an exclusive diet of 1930s books I’d check out the Stross. It sounds fascinating and I am a fan of second person done well. Black Idol by Lisa Saint Aubin de Teran is one of my favourite books. It’s told entirely in second person from the point of view of someone lying on a couch dying.

    Actually, my novel that comes out in September, the liar book, has some chunks of second person. The direct address to the reader is part of the protag trying to convince us that she’s not lying. Yet, second person is the most common pov used in advertising . . . which as everyone knows is pretty much all lies.

  3. David Moles on #

    I already liked omniscient POV, but somehow calling it ‘omni’ makes it at least 50% cooler.

    How conscious are you of the personality of your omni voice?

  4. Justine on #

    David: I’m Aussie girl. Can’t have to many syllies. Gotta be “omni”.

    How conscious are you of the personality of your omni voice?

    It definitely has one. But, oddly, not a gender. I think of omni as “it”. I guess that makes sense given the God-like perspective. Currenly it is my favourite voice.

Comments are closed.