Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Chopsticks
  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
October 2009

Point of View

It seems a simple thing, but it isn't. Point of view is the thing I see beginning writers get wrong most often. Yet it feels invisible when it is done well, as it should. Readers may talk about the character they liked most or about plot twists that were done well. They may remember a sly bit of dialog or some description of a castle or a distant scene that was perfectly chosen. But none of this will matter if the point of view is wrong to begin with. Because if the reader notices the point of view, the whole of the novel falls apart. Suspension of disbelief hinges on point of view. It is the scaffolding that must be set up before the rest of the building rises.

Let me explain.

Point of view is partly the author's choice of person for the narrative. First person ("I) is fairly common, almost standard, in young adult fiction these days. Third person ("He/she") is much more common in adult fiction, especially genre fiction. Some authors used an alternating third person. A handful use omniscient, which can move from one third person point of view to another seamlessly and which often has a narrator with a distinctive voice. (Think Jane Austen here, who pokes fun at her characters and gives little moral lessons in the background between the dialog and description.) Second person ("you") is used very little in fiction, but frequently in non-fiction, particularly in self-help books which give a list of prescriptions for you to do.

So, all you have to do is choose which person to write in and then tell the story, right?

Wrong.

The story will be completely different, depending on which point of view you tell it in. The villain, for example, will have you see the object of the book his own way. There will be scenes that the villain is party to, either because he acts in them or because he hears them related from other characters. This is vital to the story itself. Many writers think that it doesn't matter who tells the information, only that the scene is told, but this is not the way that it will feel to your reader. I have read books where the villain's story seemed to take over the novel. Or where I hated the villain's point of view so much that I could not bear to finish the novel.

Let us say that you choose to write from the hero's point of view. This is certainly a common choice. But this limits you. Do not overlook this. Writers so often want to tell everything. They do not realize that this is impossible, and more to the point, not desirable in a novel. A novel is telling one story. It has a climax. It may have two climaxes. It may have several. But there is one that must be the most important. It has a shape. To distort the shape risks losing the reader's interest. A real life does not stop. It does not have an end. It will not capture a reader for hours on end. A reader will feel able to put a novel down and perhaps not pick it up again. This is not the kind of novel you want to write. You want to write a novel that your readers must find out the end of. This is only possible if you are writing toward one, single end. And that means that many of the other events of the novel which you know about will not actually be published. Either you will cut them out or your editor will. Or if not, your reader will cut them out by putting the book down.

This is the big picture, but you cannot forget the smaller picture in point of view, either. If you choose the hero's point of view, you can only tell things that he thinks of as the events of the plot unfold to him. He does not know everything. He cannot refer back to Britney Spears or Michael Jackson. He knows nothing about the Beatles (presuming we are talking about a standard fantasy novel here). He will not talk about air conditioning. His metaphors will be distinctly part of his world. If there are no carrots, then he will not refer to someone as having a "carrot-top." These tiny details are vital to the suspension of disbelief in the novel. They are just as vital to making your reader root for your hero.

On the one hand, I see constantly writers who write from a third person point of view with references to our world that do not fit. On the other hand, I see just as often writers who do not take advantage of the third person point of view to allow the reader to experience the emotions of a character as he moves through the plot. I am not saying that the rule to "show, not tell" does not apply here. I do not mean that you should say "John felt sad that his mother had died." In fact, to say that would be to violate the third person point of view. Because no one thinks -- "I feel sad that my mother died." It is a much more visceral, personal feeling. John may feel like throwing up. He may feel light-headed. He may feel a strange sense of relief that he is ashamed of. He may feel like smashing something. He may feel his hands tingling. There are a thousand physical or emotional reactions that he will have. What you as the writer choose to describe to the reader will make all the difference to the reader's experience of immersion in the novel.

But, you say, I am going to write in multiple third person points of view. That way I can show the villain's point of view and the hero's and the hero's woman's, and the soldier who dies randomly, and everyone I choose. This is how epic fantasy novels are born. I have loved some epic fantasy novels, but I tend to prefer the ones with more limited points of view because I feel like I want a more intimate experience.

Nonetheless, if you want a movie-scope of your novel, still realize that you are going to be limited. You cannot tell everyone's point of view at once. It will be one person at a time, and then you will have to remember what each character knows when and what things they find interesting or poetic or what they long for. Each metaphor for each point of view will have to be exquisitely different from every other one. If Sir Knight thinks about swords all the time, then other characters may never be able to think about swords, for the sheer sake of readability.

And you still have to make all those points of view tie together in some coherent way. The different point of view characters will have to meet each other at some point. Then you will have to choose who will tell that scene and how they will see the other characters. You will have to make it clear to the reader from the beginning of the novel how the different points of view relate to each other, in what part of the same world they are from. You will have to make the reader care deeply about every single one of your viewpoint characters.

Though you thought you were choosing multiple point of view to help you, this will be much more difficult than writing from a single point of view because your readers will forget some of the characters' names and stories and you will have to remind them whenever they come back on stage. You will have to make each character distinct enough that they do not get mixed up in the reader's head. Inevitably, I am afraid that your readers will want to read one part of the book more than another. George R. R. Martin, anyone?

I have recently written three novels in alternating points of view. I must say that there are sometimes choices that have to be made that are not organic. But they must be made to feel organic to the reader. I set up in The Princess and the Bear and The Princess and the Snowbird (forthcoming, 2010) that I would tell one chapter from the male pov and one from the female. That meant that as I was crafting the story, I had to also balance the adventures of the male and female characters exactly, so that they unfolded equally chapter by chapter. Or if there was to be a reaction scene, then it had to happen in one chapter, but it could not continue in the next one because readers will want action next. Furthermore, when the characters separated, I had to think carefully about how much they would tell each other about what happened while separated. No one, I think, likes those parts in books where characters relate to each other things that the reader has already seen happen. But if they don't, then the characters will lack information the reader has. It is a mess. But if you think this is all about technical stuff that your editor can fix when you have a contract, think again. This is the bread and butter of writing. You must be able to solve these sorts of problems. If one character has a scene tomorrow, the second character cannot have a scene tonight. It simply does not work if the order you use is one character, then the other. Of course, you can change that structure if you'd like, but then there are other problems that come up. You risk confusing the reader. You will have to spend more time with transitions. You will still have to balance your novel and its characters one way or another. If you leave someone out too much the readers will forget who that person is, stop caring about her, and wonder why she is in the novel in the first place.

In Two Princesses (forthcoming 2011), the alternating points of view are the two princesses who meet at 11 and then grow up and meet again at 16. But one of the problems I dealt with it how to develop their characters when they actually live in different kingdoms. It is difficult to write a novel about two characters who never meet and have little to do with each other. If it is one novel, then the two stories must somehow connect. Or perhaps you are a better writer than I am and somehow the reader will make all the connections for you. Good luck with that.

Suspense is the second part of point of view. Perhaps you do not understand how the two are related. Oh, but they are. Intimately. You cannot have suspense without withholding information from the reader. But if you withhold information from the reader that the character knows, then you are in trouble. The reader will feel cheated, for one. But it is also a problem of intimacy in your point of view. If your character knows things that your reader does not, and you cannot tell them, then your reader will never feel like the life of the character belongs to him. This is a serious flaw for me in any novel. If you tell anything from the villain's point of view, you will give away information you may not want to. If you don't, then it had better be information that the villain also does not know. Something that comes up later. But if the villain is on stage, I want to know what the villain thinks and plans. Otherwise, what is the point? I do not like to be teased.

In my novel The Princess and the Hound there is a secret that is revealed partway through. The point of view character, Prince George, does not know what the secret is. He has his own secrets, which the reader comes to know intimately. But other secrets he must discover as the reader does. This was a difficult novel to write because there were scenes I wanted to add that I could not, because of point of view. They were not in George's point of view, and so they did not go into the novel. I felt that it would simply break the fourth wall and make the reader start to peer into the structure of the book. I wanted to keep the reader in George's mind. That was the only way to keep the secret, to force the reader to see everything that George saw, as he saw it, to understand as he understood. I did fudge a bit with dreams. I wish I could have thought of a more elegant solution, but I didn't. That is my flaw as a writer, that I was not inventive enough to think of a technical solution to this story problem. But all story problems have a technical solution, in my experience.

Another part of point of view is voice. Voice is the distinct cadence of the words on the page. It is the attitude of the view point. Sassy, depressed, funny, secretive. Whatever your voice is comes out of the character whose viewpoint you are telling. If you have multiple points of view, beware. The voice of each point of view character will change and that means that your novel may not feel coherent. If you have one funny character, think about how that disturbs the darker mood in the rest of the book. Or if you have a dark character, will readers slip back into the humor of certain situations? If you have a character who uses dialect for point of view, and a character who uses a separate dialect (I read a science fiction novel once with I think six separate dialects), your reader will just get used to one before having to switch to another. That is a lot of work. When readers start to feel like a novel is work, they may look for an easier one, one that makes them feel like they are living through the pages instead of pulling words out of them.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison


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