Posts Tagged ‘point of view’

Common Writing Mistakes: Point of View and Filtering (Part 1)

Happy Thursday, squiders! I’m doing #SFFPit over on Twitter today, so if you follow me there I apologize for the amount of pitch tweets you may or may not be seeing.

Before we get going, I just want to talk briefly about filtering. This is something I didn’t know about, or least didn’t have a name for, until earlier this year. Someone read my first chapter for me and pointed out a couple of instances. Just to show you that there are always new things to learn.

Anyway, on to it!

First off, to review, your point of view is, according to Google’s dictionary, “the narrator’s position in relation to the story being told.” In almost all cases, this will be either first or third person.

If you get confused, I like to compare it to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The “person” in this case refers to how close the reader is to the narrator. In a first person narrative, the reader is directly in the narrator’s head. First person point of views are characterized by using “I,” “me,” and associated words when referring to the character.

Example: I realized that, once again, I was cutting my blog writing close. I would need to leave soon or I would be late.

Third person is more distant, and the character is referred to by their name and the appropriate “he,” “she,” “it,” etc. words.

Example: Kit realized that, once again, she was cutting her blog writing close. She would need to leave soon or she would be late.

Third can be further broken down into limited and omniscient viewpoints. With third person limited you’re in a single character’s head at a time, going along with them, hearing their thoughts and experiencing their feelings. It’s similar to first person, but a step away. Third person omniscient is like you’re in a hot air balloon looking down on what’s happening. You can see what a bunch of people are doing at once. Some people also make a distinction between omniscient and what can be called third person objective. In an omniscient point of view, like a god, the narrator knows what everybody is thinking or feeling. In an objective, they don’t.

Understanding and sticking with your chosen point of view can be hugely helpful in solving a ton of issues.

(NOTE: Second person is rarely used, but you may see it occasionally. In second person, the narrator is talking to “you.” Example: You are reading this blog post. You may or may not realize that this post is late.)

Issue #1: Not sticking with your point of view

It is surprisingly easy to slip out of your chosen point of view. Your character can suddenly know something they shouldn’t, for example.

Perhaps the easiest and most common way people slip out of their point of view is by “head-hopping.” This is where you jump from your viewpoint character’s head into another character’s head. In an omniscient third viewpoint, you can get away with this (provided you are using omniscient properly), but in every other viewpoint it is jarring.

Example: Jane bit her lip, watching Jared walk away. God, how she hated to watch him leave, despite the great view. How could he leave her like this?

Jared looked back over his shoulder. Jane looked like she might cry.

Do you see the point of view slip? It’s a bit subtle. We’re in Jane’s head, hearing her thoughts, her feelings. We see what she sees.

Can you see what you look like? No. That’s Jared’s point of view.

NOTE: You can use more than one point of view in a book. Just stick with one at a time. Using our above example (and, indeed, many romances are structured this way), you could do one chapter from Jane’s point of view, the next from Jared’s, etc.

Issue #2: Choosing the wrong point of view

In most cases, it’s pretty instinctual what point of view will work best, based on the story you’re trying to tell, your genre conventions, how many characters have viewpoints, etc. But it is possible to choose the wrong one, and it basically boils down to your chosen viewpoint not having–and not being able to get–information necessary to the completion of the plot.

Sometimes the character you pick initially just isn’t the right person to tell the story.

That’s not to say that there aren’t published books out there that do this (if you try hard enough, you can find most of these common mistakes published somewhere), but the story tends to be unsatisfying, sometimes in a way that a reader can’t put their finger on.

A way that authors get around this with varying degrees of success is to include one or more chapters from a side character to provide the information.

Issue #3: Too many viewpoints

This one is highly subjective and depends on the genre as well. In a romance, you’re going to want one or two viewpoints. In a thriller, you can have one off chapters from any number of unimportant characters that never have viewpoints again.

The issue tends to be the most apparent when you have several viewpoints that are all vying to be important in some manner. Important viewpoint characters need to be important to the plot, which means you need to check in with them fairly regularly, they have to be advancing the plot or a subplot every time they show up, they have to be interesting, they might need a character arc, etc.

If you have two characters, this isn’t bad. Three? Sure. Some people can manage five or even seven. But eventually, there’s too much going on, too much to keep track of, too much, too much, too much. A lot of times those characters can be cut or combined to make a tighter, more enjoyable read.

Other viewpoint issues, squiders? We’ll talk about filtering in part 2 next week.

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Are Blank First Person Characters on Purpose?

So, our Twitter book club is reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin this month–which is the first of a high fantasy trilogy that came out about four years ago–and we all noticed something pretty quick.

The book is in first person, following Yeine, who, as tends to be a trope sometimes, is an outsider to the society that the story takes place in. But while the world is very interesting, and the other characters are as well, Yeine herself is pretty…blank. We get a physical description of her, but when she expresses opinions, it’s more “in my country we do it this way instead” or “my grandmother always used to say this” instead of what she thinks about it. I’m about halfway through the book and she’s just starting to do and think things as opposed to just observing.

This is a book that’s been highly recommended to me, and is one that I think is generally well-regarded in the SFF community, which makes me think that the blank first person character is on purpose.

As readers, we often rely on the viewpoint characters to be our eyes and ears in the fictional world. And there is a theory that says that, the less detail you give to a character, the more a reader can insert themselves into said character, and the deeper they can get into a story. It’s the reason why video game characters like Link never say anything.

Now, I don’t know that that’s necessarily true, because everybody reads a little differently and experiences things differently. I’m not a huge fan of blank first person characters because I am never going to see myself further in that world, not in that medium, so I prefer to have a strong character that I can care about, that I can sympathize with when bad things happen, and cheer with when badass things happen. But I suspect it does work, to some degree, because these blank first person characters seem to be getting more common lately, especially with female protagonists. (If you can think of a blank first person male protagonist, please let me know!)

What do you think, Squiders? Blank characters you can “become,” yea or nay? Thoughts on The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms specifically, if you’ve read it? Other examples you’ve noticed, male or female, especially in speculative genres? If you’re a writer, is this something you use, and why?

Point of View

Ah, point of view. So essential and yet, sometimes so hard. As a quick recap, point of view determines who is telling the story and how close the reader (or watcher, as movies/TV shows/etc. also have PoV) is to said character. Related is tense, such as present or past tense. So stories generally have a PoV (or multiple) and a tense, and these tend to be consistent throughout.

PoV is loosely divided up into third person (they, he, she), second person (you), or first person (I, me). Third is further divided up into close/limited third or omniscient third, depending on whether the story still stays close to a single character or is more like someone is observing the whole thing from on high.

(Omniscient third is very hard to do correctly, because if you get too close to a character, and then get too close to a different character in a short period of time, it’s extremely jarring to the reader.)

Now, me, I typically write limited third past tense. It’s what I like to read, and it makes the most sense in my brain. I do occasionally write first person, or present tense, if a project works better that way (short stories, anyway), but for all intents and purposes I write limited third, and limited third is my default.

So you can imagine my surprise when I had a writing session last week on the high fantasy story I’ve been working on, and my brain desperately wanted everything to be in present tense. 35K into the book. And it was, for some reason, really hard to not write in present tense. (I read back through the next day and found a few instances where apparently my brain won.)

It was, even more strangely, just one of my PoV characters that wanted to be in present tense.

(Aside from your type of PoV, you can also have multiple PoVs–not at the same time. I’m reading a book right now with two, one of whom is in third person and one of whom is in first person. I read a book once that had a ton of PoVs–eight, maybe?–and they were all limited third past, except for two of them, who were first person present. But normally all your PoVs are the same PoV type. I typically have two or three viewpoint characters per book.)

Let’s review.

  • Point of view determines whose eyes we’re seeing the world through, and how intimate we are with that character
  • Tense determines what time frame things are happening in (past, present, future)
  • You can typically only have one viewpoint at a time
  • You can have multiple viewpoints in the same story, and they don’t necessarily have to be the same
  • My brain is a strange and unfathomable place

What’s your PoV/tense of choice, Squiders (for reading or writing)? Any stories you can think of off the top of your head that do really lovely things with PoV (or tense)?