Wednesday, December 12, 2007

My Point of View

Back in grade school, in your language arts class, you learned that there were three different points of view: first, second and third, I, you and he/she. Then in high school, maybe college, you learned that there were different types of third person: close third, third person omniscient, etc. If I remember correctly, though it hasn't been that long, most books I read picked one point of view and stuck with it. If they picked first, I was with one character for the entire novel. If they picked third, they could skip around between characters from chapter to chapter. If they picked second, their names were Chuck Palahniuk or Hubert Selby Jr.

Each had its benefits and limitations. First person allows readers to get close to the character, really get inside their head. But the reader can only see what the character sees, know what the character knows, which can be very limiting. Third person allows for more freedom. The reader can follow numerous characters in the book, often knowing more than the protagonist does. But because there is a narrator other than the protagonist, it can be difficult to get close to the characters and really hear their voices. I won't even touch on the benefits and difficulties with second person. Maybe on another post.

But the last few books I've read got greedy. They couldn't settle on just one POV. The authors told the protagonist story line in first person but then added chapters of third. They took the benefits from each point of view and got rid of the limitations. We, as readers, are close to the main character because we're in his/her head, but we gain bigger knowledge of the story because of the third person chapters and learn things before the protagonist does. Genius or cheating?

I personally lean toward close third person. I like using multiple view points to create a sense of sprawl, to indicate the story is bigger than just the one character. But the manuscript I'm working on seems to lend itself to first person. My main character, Dani, has a strong voice and I feel it's being hindered by the third person POV. But in order to make the story work, I need to include chapters from the POV of other characters. So why don't I take my cue from these novelists and have my cake and eat it too? Because something doesn't feel right about it. Personally, it feels like I'm cheating.

I had a professor tell me that a novel was a problem and it was the author's duty to solve it. I think that's the perfect way to put it. There is so much emphasis on conflict and raising the stakes, we put our characters through hell so it seems that there's no way they can possibly triumph. But it's our job to ensure that they do. In my mind, I feel that it is also the author's job to fix the problem within the realms of believability and without coincidence. I once read a horrible mystery novel that the killer had a woman trapped in a house and, luckily, she found a gun in the nightstand. How convenient.

The previous example is flat out cheating, the shifts in POV don't fall into that category. But to me, it's the idea of convenience. These authors had a story to tell and they wanted to tell it in a certain way. They wanted to get the characters' voices on the page, but they also needed to include scenes that the protagonist wasn't a part of. So they took the convenient route, the easy route and wrote two different viewpoints. Nothing wrong with that. They're not breaking any rules. But personally, I don't know if I can do it.

Disclaimer: the two particular books I have in mind were great. I really enjoyed reading them. I thought they were well written, interesting, and well thought out. My comments are not on the authors or the books, but on the technique itself. I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts on this. Is it cheating to switch from first to third? Is it the easy way out? Or is this technique appealing and just as valid?


Darwyn Jones said...

Good writing trumps all 'rules'.

Quinn said...

I'm of the mind that whatever works, works, but I don't think switching from first to third and back again is going to work very often. Clearly it didn't work for you in those books you read, even if you ended up enjoying them overall.

It's interesting that you bring this up, because I've been kicking myself a bit lately for using first person in the trilogy I'm writing. The narrator isn't really the protagonist of the whole story, and there are times where I really have to stretch things to explain why he's present to observe certain critical events. At one point I'd considered using a different narrator for each book, which could work because there are three main characters, but a friend really liked the voice of my original narrator and talked me out of it.

If I were to cheat and use third person now, it might make things easier on me, but I think I would completely lose the reader. I've resolved to stick with my one first-person narrator, for better or worse. But you do have me wondering a bit now if I haven't really considered all my options.