Point of view is, without a doubt, one of the most important elements of fiction. How you choose to narrate your story determines how your readers experience it, and for the most part the best narration is transparent and seamless: it doesn’t intrude, distract or confuse.
In previous posts I’ve discussed the use of outlines and characterization. In the former I suggested that an outline ensures control over your narrative and the objectives of each chapter you write. In the latter I discussed the difference between round characters, which are complex and can surprise you, and flat characters, which are stereotypic and predictable. Point of view takes your story to an even higher level of consistency and control where you determine exactly what the reader learns and experiences each step of the way.
Almost everyone is familiar with the basics of point of view, but it doesn’t hurt to review them briefly so that we’re all on the same page (pun intended). As M.H. Abrams explains in A Glossary of Literary Terms, “point of view signifies the way a story gets told – the perspective or perspectives established by an author through which the reader is presented with the characters, actions, setting, and events which constitute the narrative in a work of fiction.”
As an author you can use first-person narrative to bring the reader very close to the main character whose point of view they will follow throughout the story. Tone of voice, vocabulary, regional expressions, level of awareness and other elements used in first-person narrative contribute to our understanding of the personality and outlook of the hero, and they must be carefully controlled. How many times have I read a book where the first-person hero uses words in descriptive passages they would never use in dialogue? Or randomly slips in and out of slang? When using first-person, the author must maintain careful control of the narrative, because it is the very embodiment of their main character and readers demand consistency.
Third-person narrative offers another set of choices. The narrator may be omniscient, godlike in their knowledge of all things happening in the universe of this story. Omniscient narrators can be impersonal, reporting without bias, or intrusive, providing us with editorial comments, judgments and opinions in little speeches here and there, functioning almost as another character, albeit at a superior level.
Alternatively, a third-person narrator may take a limited approach, restricting our view to the main character only, telling a story much the same way as in first person but maintaining a distance, often ironic, between the narrator and the third-person central character.
How to decide among these many ways to tell your story? Many beginning writers choose first person because they don’t feel a great deal of difference between themselves as author and their narrator as hero. Sometimes, then, the inconsistencies I mentioned above creep into the story. But if a writer maintains a solid control over first person, and understands the importance of keeping a bit of distance between author and narrator (there is a difference, because this is fiction), this choice can be extremely effective because it can engage the reader much more intimately than third person. The gap between narrator and reader becomes quite small, and the reader readily identifies with your hero. Mission accomplished!
Third-person narrative gives you much more room to maneuver as a storyteller. It allows you, for example, to shift between the perspectives of hero and antagonist, or among several key characters, while still maintaining the omniscient control of the godlike narrator. Your narrator functions like the conductor of a symphony orchestra, bringing each section into the foreground in turn as the music dictates. But you must be careful not to shift among too many characters, or it will become too confusing.
This was a mistake I made in early drafts of Blood Passage, the first in the Donaghue and Stainer Crime Novel series. While using a third-person omniscient narrator, I initially told the story from the perspective of too many characters. The impulse was to allow the reader to follow the footsteps of all these characters so they would understand them better. Through the revision process I realized that some of these characters were better handled from the “outside,” rather than the “inside,” because they just weren’t important enough to drag the reader away from Donaghue and Stainer themselves. Additionally, Donaghue and Stainer were detectives, so why not let them “detect” the motivations and actions of these characters? Ah, the light begins to dawn.
Now the series is told from the perspectives of Hank Donaghue and Karen Stainer themselves, and an additional character as necessary. In Blood Passage the additional perspective is that of Peter Mah, the young traditionalist Triad figure. The objective is to present Peter as a round character and have him develop a complicated relationship with Hank Donaghue. In Marcie’s Murder, the second novel in the series which will be published in April 2012, the additional perspective is that of Chief Billy Askew of the Harmony, Virginia police department. The perspectives of Donaghue and Stainer provide a counterpoint between two very different points of view, and the additional perspective allows my omniscient narrator a bit of room to develop the story outside the immediate awareness of the two protagonists.
We all have different comfort zones as writers. Some of us can work in either first- or third-person point of view, and some of us prefer to stick to one. Lee Child is an example of an author who can write well either way. Some of his Reacher novels are written in third person and others in first. Both approaches are very effective.
Unfortunately, some bestselling authors try to use both in the same novel. This fall Michael Connelly’s The Reversal combined his two best-known protagonists, Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller, in a single book. To keep them apart, Connelly told the story in first person from Mickey’s point of view – it was billed as a Lincoln Lawyer mystery, after all – and in third person from Bosch’s point of view. The result, to my mind, was a confusing patchwork quilt in which the transitions were jarring and frustrating. With each new chapter it took me a page or two to adjust to which character’s point of view was now on stage. I would definitely not recommend that you try this at home!
To me, it reinforced the importance of remaining consistent in whatever approach you choose. Consistency proves to your reader that you have a solid level of craftsmanship and that you have control over the story you want them to read. If they feel this way, they’ll trust you and commit to the fictional world through which you want to lead them.