The F Words: Point of View

Character, setting, plot, and point of view are considered the four pillars of fiction. A writer needs to create interesting characters, a setting that interacts with the story, a plot based on cause-and-effect, and a point of view that tells the story the way the author wants to reveal it, or the way the author wants the reader to experience the story.

A writer need not determine these four pillars in any particular order. It’s possible that some writers determine the pillars in the exact same order for each story. It’s possible that some writers don’t consciously think about any of the pillars. And it’s possible that some writers determine the pillars in a different, random order for each story they write.

I’m in the latter category. I am pretty sure that for She’s on First, I determined the plot and the characters together. Two pillars, but I worked on them at  one and the same time. For Dirty Proof, I know that I worked on the setting first: I was determined to write a mystery that took place in a newspaper plant, and once the setting was settled, so to speak, I was then able to work on characters and plot. The same was true of the sequel, Sound Proof — I determined the setting (a folk music festival) first, and from there I worked on the plot. 

In no case in any of my writing did I determine the point of view first. In theory it is possible to decide on POV first, I suppose, as in: “Oh, I think I’ll tell a story from Third Person Limited POV.  Now that I’ve decided, what shall my story be?” Possible, yes . . .  but . . . bizarre?

It makes no sense to decide the POV for your story until and unless you have a fairly good idea of who the characters are and what their problems are. I suspect that most writers come up with their POV during the same time that they’re thinking about their characters and plot, because POV goes hand-in-hand with characters and plot.

But, at the same time, POV is distinct from both characters and plot. POV is the angle or viewpoint from which the story is told. From whose eyes the story is seen and reported. And while there is something called the Second Person POV, it’s unusual. The two main POVs are first person and third person. 

Each POV has its own advantages and disadvantages. Many readers love first-person because it feels so close: right inside the character’s head. Others love third-person because it’s so broad (and  presumably objective), allowing them to look inside the head of several or many characters.  First-person tends to capture reader interest instantly. Third-person often takes a while. First-person narration has to be looked at with some suspicion: how can a reader be sure that the character telling  the story is telling it truthfully? Third-person sometimes feels cold and distant, and maybe even long-winded. But it does offer that bigger picture.

When it comes to POV,  I feel that I don’t actually choose it. I feel it chooses me. Somehow or other, it arrives at  the same time the characters and plot do. I have written maybe 200 books (from 12 pages to 500 pages in length), and only once have I changed the POV — from third person to first person. That was in a 36-page picture book. It’s possible that I’m wrong, but I do believe that for each book I’ve written, I’ve made a good choice on POV.

She’s on First is written in third-person POV. I never thought about it at the time, but looking back on it now, I think that POV came to me because of it telling a broader story. A wider perspective. And we are used to baseball reports of one kind or another, most of them written articles that try to employ an objective voice. So that POV seemed right to me and I went with it.

Both Dirty Proof and Sound Proof are told from the first person POV, from the eyes of the private eye main character, Frank Dragovic. That seemed something of a no-brainer because so many private-eye novels are told from the first-person POV. Adventure-thriller novels seem to employ the third-person POV. I have in my files an unpublished adventure-thriller novel, and that’s told from the third person POV.

As I started to work out the characters and plot of The F Words, the POV that came to me was first-person. This is often the POV of a YA novel, and it fits with how teens experience the world — the world and everything that’s happening seems to affect them directly. They really see things from the “I” point of view. I certainly did when I was a teen.

But with The F Words, I made another choice in addition to first-person POV. I chose to tell the story in present tense — something I had never, ever done before. Here, too, it’s not accurate to say that I “chose” to do so, because when I sat down to write the first chapter, I made no conscious decision: the words just came out in present tense. It’s as if Cole Renner were telling the story and this is how he was telling it and if by some chance I wanted a different verb tense . . . too bad! 

At first I wasn’t sure I liked how Cole was relating the story. But by the middle of the second chapter I was feeling comfortable with it. And by the third chapter I was certain I could not go back and change the story to past tense: it wouldn’t feel as urgent or immediate. Or as Cole-like.

I find first-person present-tense POV somewhat compelling. So much so that when I wrote an adult novel after I finished The F Words, I used present-tense for that, too. But now I’m working on a Middle Grades story, and that comes with a third-person POV. Which feels very right for this particular story. 

If POV is difficult for you to choose, one of the best things you can do is write your first chapter from both a first-person POV and a third-person POV. Read each chapter and ask yourself which sounds like the way you want the reader to receive the story. That’s the POV you should choose.

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The Maybe-Reliable Narrator

In fiction the narrator is the person or persons who tells the story. This could be a character in the story, or the narrative could come from somebody who is not in the story — a voice that the author chooses to write in. The Fiction Dictionary defines narrator as “the consciousness that tells the story.” Choosing this consciousness is almost always a difficult job for the writer. Often a very, very difficult job.

When a character within the story is the narrator and tells the story from his/her point of view, the reader almost immediately feels great interest in both the story and in the narrator, mainly because the point of view seems so personal. Classic examples of novels with first-person narrators are Great Expectations (Pip is the narrator) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Huck is the narrator). A more modern example is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, whose narrator is 15-year-old Christopher, who is autistic.

Multiple first-person narrators are represented by Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, some of whose chapters are told by Benjy, some by Quentin, and some by Jason, all of them in their own first-person point of view. Thus the reader gets to know three different narrators.  

There is also the first-person plural narrator, as employed by David Levithan in Two Boys Kissing. In this book the narrators are a collective group (thus they speak as “we”) of dead gay men who were victims of AIDS.

Some first-person narrators fall into the category known as “unreliable narrator,” others into the category of “naive” narrator. The naive narrator is usually too young to understand the story she or he is telling, or too inexperienced or perhaps not intelligent enough. 

The unreliable narrator is one who can’t be trusted to tell the story objectively, or perhaps even truthfully. Examples abound in Poe’s short stories (you do not want to trust some of his narrators, such as the one in “The Tell-Tale Heart”). And while the narrator of Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” seems objective, he is not (as the reader eventually learns) a reliable narrator.

A first-person narrator is most often the book’s protagonist, but there are also minor character narrators. Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance is narrated by a minor character, as is Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The Sherlock Holmes stories are narrated by Watson, who is not the main character. 

What a writer might gain by having a minor first-person narrator is the ability to present things about the major characters that they couldn’t present if they themselves were the narrators. Among other things, this includes physical descriptions, as well as any deeds that might seem like bragging if mentioned by the major character. And brilliance: Sherlock Holmes seen by Watson is brilliant beyond belief. Seen from his own point of view, he might not appear so supreme because he would have to share his reasoning with us as he told the story, rather than spring it upon us at the end.

What a writer might lose by having a minor first-person narrator is reader interest. When reading first-person narrator, minor character, I often question why the person telling the story isn’t  more immediately involved in it, isn’t the person who drives the action forward. A minor character narrator puts a certain distance between the reader and the protagonist. 

When a story is told from the third-person point of view, the narrator is a consciousness outside the story, not a character inside the story. Third-person point of view can be omniscient, meaning that the consciousness telling the story knows everything about everybody. Or it can be limited, meaning that the consciousness looks into the mind of only one character, or only a few characters.

Dickens’ Bleak House is an excellent example of the third-person omniscient,  as is Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The omniscient narrator was popular in the 19th century but is much less popular today. Although this narrator technique might feel easy to handle, it’s difficult to master. Bad handling of the omniscient narrator results in what’s called “head-hopping” — the consciousness jumps from the head of one person into the head of another, sometimes in the same paragraph or even the same sentence. 

Modern-day novels that employ third-person limited narrators are the Harry Potter stories and the Harry Bosch novels.

And then there’s the intrusive narrator, which is an omniscient narrator who suddenly — from way out in the universe where he or she is hovering  —  speaks to the reader! As in, “Dear Reader, what do you think of this situation?” 

In previous centuries such addressing of the reader was, if not common, at least not exotic. But I was quite surprised (startled, even) when I began to read Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux and, lo and behold, the omniscient narrator spoke to me. I soon adjusted to this aspect of Despereaux, and I thought DiCamillo handled it very well. Her technique helped give the story a far-away, old-time, fairy-tale kind of atmosphere.

Sometimes the idea for a story comes to a writer without the narrator. That is, the writer sees the characters and events that will become the story, but doesn’t see who is telling the story. When the idea for a story arrives this way, the writer may have great difficulty deciding how to tell the story. First Person? If so, major or minor? reliable or unreliable?  Third person? If so, omniscient or limited? If limited, then limited to how many characters?

Sometimes the decision is so difficult that a writer makes a guess and writes the story, or part of it, with the selected narrator — but then feels that’s not right, so changes to a different narrator. This means rewriting EVERYTHING, because narrators do not experience, see, or feel the same things. So the whole story has to be rewritten, presenting it to the reader through a new consciousness.

In fiction the depth and pervasiveness of the narrator is of great importance to a reader’s enjoyment of and understanding of the story. And that is why choosing a story’s point of view (and thus choosing the narrator) is such a difficult part of writing.

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She’s on First is told in third person limited, from the points of view of four different characters.