Last week I explained how my beta readers have shaped the direction of my next novel Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature. (Beta Readers: How and Why? I mentioned how some of the issues that have been addressed thanks to my betas were pace, showing rather than telling and point of view. So today I thought I would talk a bit about point of view and perspective in storytelling.
It’s a subject that can prove quite divisive. I know I was shocked the first time I realised not everyone loves first person viewpoint! Apparently, some people really despise it! Obviously, it has its limitations. Here are some of the disadvantages of climbing entirely inside the head of just one character;
- you only get the viewpoint and opinions of one character
- this can limit the amount of information and back story the reader receives
- other viewpoints are neglected, including the potential scenes between other characters when the narrator is not present
- it gives the story one voice, the narrative voice of the character telling the story which can be a bit restrictive
- if the reader dislikes or does not connect well to the first person viewpoint, it can really deter them from the book
- it’s a very personal way to tell the story, and can impose biased and subjective viewpoints which may grate on the reader
- it runs the risk of becoming boring and/or repetitive
- there is a danger of relying too much on ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’
Now I am not ashamed to admit that I LOVE first person. I think this may have something to do with how obsessed I get with characters. It’s character over plot for me all the way, hence why The Catcher In The Rye is still my favourite book ever. If I like a character, I don’t mind being inside their head one bit. Anyway, these are the reasons I think first person can be a really effective way to tell a story;
- it allows the reader to fully connect with the protagonist/narrator
- it’s much easier to gain sympathy and empathy from the reader
- easier to construct a consistent style and voice
- can make it easier to explain/justify a characters motivations and behaviour
- can be much more emotional, drawing the reader in
- it brings a vivid sense of immediacy to the story
- done well, can be extremely powerful
But how do you know which is the best perspective for your story? There is also alternating points of view, which can be done in first or third person. Then there is the authorial third POV where the narrator is the all seeing eye of everything and everyone.
I think every author has their preferred perspective to use, but it is important to think about the story being told and what will best suit its needs. I know for a fact I am way too tempted to use first person. I did so with The Mess Of Me; a YA drama written in a tell-all, confessional diary style. We climb inside Lou’s head and never get to see through the eyes of any of the other characters. I could have explored third person, and jumped from character to character, but there was a reason I didn’t. As well as being about body issues, family drama and first love, The Mess Of Me is a story about those people we sometimes have in our lives, yet do not really know. eg Travis, Leon and Marrianne, for Lou are all deeply involved in her life and the drama of the story, yet are all as good as strangers. The story needed to revolve around her mind set and emotions in order to get this across. So it just had to be first person.
The Boy With The Thorn In His Side was a different matter. I originally wrote and rewrote this story in third person. Yep, you got every character’s viewpoints, and there are a lot of characters! The action jumped around all over the place. But it didn’t work. I didn’t feel close enough to my two main characters, protagonist Danny and antagonist Howard, and the more I rewrote it and got into their mindsets the more I realised that this was their story. Truly, this book is about their warped and dangerous relationship. So I changed it to first and boy did it work then. I must have worked with a constant smile on my face! You see I knew them both so well by this point that it was a piece of cake to climb into their heads and write from their POV. I used alternating POV from both characters in the first person. You get to examine their twisted relationship from both their views. This is a fantastic way to make first person narrative more interesting and varied.
With the sequel, This Is The Day, I wrote it in third person to begin with and then again switched it to first, but this time using alternating perspective from five characters. This was fun to do because I got to really explore the motivations of the characters who were introduced in the first book. And I think it worked; it was the best way to put the story together.
So, as you can see, there was a growing tendency and fondness to using first person narrative. I had found my comfort zone and made myself extremely comfortable! I forced myself to break out of this warm little zone with This Is Nowhere. (And I would strongly recommend forcing yourself to break away from the familiar every now and then.) Third person. It had to be. But with the chapters zipping back and forth from the past to the present. However, I still stuck to one point of view, Jake’s. This was not intentional at the time but now I can see why it makes sense. Jake’s story is the unpicking of two mysteries; what happened to his mother in 1996 and who he is. The other characters didn’t really need a say in this, although their behaviour and secrets helped pave the way for the climax where Jake discovers the truth about everything. I also think this was the best way to tell the story. Third person worked with jumping between time frames, as we got to see the young Jake and how his mind worked then, helping us to understand the person he was in the present. Other characters perspectives would have made this way too muddled and complicated.
Tree Of Rebels. Uh oh, I was back to the first person again. You see my problem? I really do like that comfort zone!! This book is still awaiting a final rewrite so I will not pass judgement on it yet as there is still work to be done and decisions to be made, but at the moment is feels right to leave it in first person.
Which brings us up to the two latest works. The unexpected rewriting of Elliot Pie, and the quickly thrashed out first draft of A Song For Bill Robinson.
Before I started writing Elliot Pie, I knew it would be written in the first person viewpoint. I think this was because he had been in my head for so long by that time, I knew him inside out, knew what he thought and felt, and how he looked upon the world. It was scarily easily to climb inside his mind and allow him to tell his story. But there are lots of other characters of importance in this story, and there was no way Elliot could know everything about them. I had to switch to third person whenever an adult character stepped into the plot. There was no real intention to do this; it just sort of happened. So, all of Elliot’s chapters were in first person, present tense. Very YA. Very Catcher In The Rye. And all of the adult’s were in third person, past tense. Which felt very grown up and evolved. It actually surprised me how smoothly writing that way became, especially as I had sunk so deeply into the first person comfort zone.
I was initially happy with this, and thought, that although different and challenging, it worked. I told myself it was good to try something a little bit different!A little bit brave.
While Elliot Pie was with another beta reader, I thrashed out a first draft of a YA drama called A Song For Bill Robinson. This is based on a book I wrote but never finished aged sixteen. It was written in third person back then, so it seemed apt to write it again this way. I was also feeling confident after the third person narrrative in Elliot Pie had gone so well and become so enjoyable. Third person, multiple viewpoints worked best for this latest book because again, there are so many characters and so much going on, it really would not work in first person. And also, a bit like with Jake in This Is Nowhere, I didn’t really want to climb into these people’s heads. I felt a bit of distance was needed.
When I received final feedback from betas on Elliot Pie, there were several issues, some of which I discussed in last week’s post and some of which I will probably mention another day. But what dawned on me more and more as I went through them, was how many of them could be solved by changing Elliot’s narrative to third person. Which is what I am currently doing. Just to see how it works.
So far, it’s working. It suddenly feels more adult (it is to be aimed at adults) and I do feel relieved to be out of his head. It gives me as an author a whole new perspective on the story, on his character, and on the best way to tell this story. I noticed there were many problems with writing his parts in first person. For instance, he was rambling too much, daydreaming, going off on tangents, all of which slowed the pace down, and may have proved dull for some readers. However, writing his parts in first person initially have helped me truly understand his character, which I really hope shines through when it is all completed.
The moral of the story today is this; sometimes as a writer you want to tell a story in a certain way, for whatever reason. But sometimes, you have to stand back, take a look and admit that it may not be the best way to tell it. This may concern other things, such as structure and pace, but if your story is not working out the way you hoped, maybe changing the narrative perspective is worth considering.