Today, I begin a series of posts on point of view and voice in storytelling. This topic will take several posts, because it is arguably THE key element in storytelling. We’ll kick off the discussion today with an overview of the topic and will move to specific issues in subsequent posts.
So let me start with this: Point of view is the nexus of character and narrative. I’ve said that before on several occasions, but what does it even mean?
Let’s define a few terms first: Point of view is the perspective from which a story is told. Generally speaking in today’s market, that means it is the character whose emotions, thoughts, perceptions, and reactions inform the reader of what is happening in a story or book. In the Harry Potter books, for instance, in large part Harry himself is the primary point of view character. The vast majority of the action is seen through his eyes, described in terms of his emotional and physical responses. The few chapters that are NOT written in Harry’s POV are clearly defined as such.
Looking at the Potter books (or at the six volumes of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series) you see that once a certain character is established as the POV character, that perspective does not vary and switch without some clear visual marker — a new chapter heading, or a clear break within a chapter. Omniscient point of view, in which a story is told in such a way as to give readers access to the thoughts and emotions of several characters at once, used to be quite common. It has fallen out of favor in recent years, however, and is now generally frowned upon in the current literary market. It is often referred to — not kindly — as “head-hopping.”
Books like Rowling’s and Martin’s are said to be written in close third-person point of view. This means that while the action is described in third person — “he said such-and-such,” “she did something,” etc. — we are experiencing everything through a single set of eyes, a single human being. We as the reader are close to a single character. The term close third person point of view distinguishes it from omniscient (which, because of its changing perspectives, creates a good deal of distance between reader and character) and also from first person point of view, which is a narrative related using “I,” “me,” “my” instead of “he,” “him,” “his.”
Finally, let me point out that close third person point of view does not rule out the use of multiple point of view. Multiple point of view, as it sounds, simply means that there are several point of view characters instead of one. I will refer you again to the George R. R. Martin books. In those books, Martin uses several point of view characters, but within any given chapter, the point of view remains constant. He is not head-hopping. He is switching point of view character with each new chapter. That is perfectly acceptable and at times quite effective. The alternative is to use single point of view, as I do in the Thieftaker books. My books are written entirely from Ethan Kaille’s point of view; my point of view character never changes.
Okay, so those are the basic terms you should know. As you work on your books and stories you should think about what kind of point of view approach you wish to take. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. First person is quite popular these days, particularly with writers of urban fantasy, because it gets the reader as close to the action and emotion of the narrative as possible. A story told in first person has an immediacy that can be incredibly powerful for the reader. Think about it this way: It’s one thing to hear from a friend that someone she knows was in a car wreck; it’s another thing entirely to hear from your friend that she herself was in the wreck. First person POV closes the distance in that way.
Close third person, which I use in Thieftaker, also allows an author to delve into a character’s emotions, but it leaves just a hair of distance between the reader and the story. Why would an author want that? Well, I wanted it for Thieftaker and the other Ethan Kaille books because, while I wanted my readers to feel close to Ethan, I also needed to explain some of the historical context surrounding the story, and there was no way to do that in first person without it feeling contrived. In close third person there is just enough distance between the narrative and the reader to allow such explanations to feel natural, without, of course, resorting to data dumps.
As for choosing between multiple POV and single, that is more a function of the complexity of the storyline than anything else. I used multiple point of view a lot when writing epic fantasy (under my other pen name, David B. Coe) because I was telling stories with many intertwining subplots. The Thieftaker books are more directed; each book stands alone. I could tell the stories solely from Ethan’s point of view without losing any necessary details. And, in fact, since the Thieftaker stories are all mysteries, using single POV allowed me to make my readers feel that they were discovering clues right along with Ethan. These are the sorts of considerations you might want to consider as you choose your point of view character or characters for your own project.
So what did I mean at the start of this post, when I said that point of view is the nexus of character and narrative? Basically this: As writers we want to accomplish a couple of things. We want to establish characters who will capture the hearts of our readers. We also want to tell stories that will leave our audience breathless. Point of view allows us to do both of those things at once. It is the mechanism by which we bring the emotions, needs and desires of our characters to bear on the stories we are trying to tell. And it is the mechanism by which the emotional impact of our storyline can be seen in the people about whom our readers have come to care.
In the next post, we’ll talk more about how we accomplish those complementary aims.
In the meantime, keep writing!