Changing Perspective

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.


When Books Make Me Angry…

I love reading. I am a proud book worm and always have been. I read a lot of books, sometimes averaging two a week. I put one down and pick the next one straight up. I read books I’ve stumbled across myself, books I’ve been recommended, books I’ve been sent, and books I’ve chosen to read and review for UBR. I don’t think of myself as a picky reader, although I generally try to stay away from romance and most sci-fi, and I have never felt enticed to pick up erotica. Apart from that, I will pretty much give anything a go, although as you all know, what I am always looking for is the character

Anyway, books make me happy, reading makes me happy. Words make me happy, as do made-up worlds and wonderful characters and plots. But sometimes, just sometimes, the opposite happens and books make me angry. Really angry. Want to know why? Then read on for a list of my pet peeves when reading a book…

  1. Telling rather than showing. I find this so annoying. I am not stupid. I do not need to be told things I can work out for myself. I do not need to be given a character’s whole back story in one go, or a giant list of their general opinions, or their inner thought processes. I want the character to do this for me! Not the author. I do actually start to feel quite angry when an author tells me things I would like to have gathered for myself. I might need the author to give me a brief description of the characters physical attributes, but I don’t need the narrative to tell me if they are bossy, dominant, paranoid or selfish. I can work that out for myself by the way they behave and speak and interact with others. I also really, really don’t need to know their entire life story thanks. Just the parts that are relevant and not all in one go!
  2. Info-dumping. This is linked to the above. When an author dumps a whole load of information on you, basically because they can’t work out a suitable way for the characters or the plot to explain something to the reader. So they will explain it for you, very nicely, over several pages, without dialogue or interaction between said characters, until you start skipping bits and nearly die of boredom. This probably makes me angrier than anything else. Please, if there is a lot of information to get out, think up other ways to do it! Spread it out, get the characters and the plot to help ease the load, take your time, be clever, be patient, leave clues. If you try to get out a load of information all in one go, whether it’s technical stuff you think is vital, or back story for a character, or history or whatever it is, the reader will get bogged down with it and bored and will more than likely forget it all anyway.
  3. Mixing tenses. I have come across this a few times lately, and sadly it has mostly been when reading indie books. I know it can get a bit confusing if you are writing in present tense, but the character is describing something that happened in the past but there really is no excuse for continuously getting this wrong. It might take a few more beta readers to pick up on mistakes like this. I can get over the odd mistake or typo, where the author has used the wrong tense by mistake, but if it is happening again and again throughout the book, it is worrying and confusing and basically makes me angry.
  4. Poor dialogue. One of my top peeves when reading. Lack of dialogue can also annoy me, but I’ll get over this if there is a reason for it, ie the characters don’t or can’t talk much. But if they talk a lot, and the dialogue is poor, I will get annoyed. Poor dialogue is obviously a matter of personal taste and opinion. I always ask myself, do people actually talk like this in real life? Also, is the dialogue fitting to the character? Is it also unique to the character? I recently read a great book with great characters, but I couldn’t help wincing a bit every time they spoke. They sounded too old for their ages and it made me question whether the author had spent any time around young people recently. I think dialogue needs to be researched like anything else. It needs attention. What they say, and how they say it and why they say it, need to be considered, otherwise, it can all start to feel a bit cringy.
  5. Unlikeable characters. By this, I mean I just don’t like them at all and don’t care what happens to them. This saddens me. Maybe the plot was a fantastic roller coaster of twists and turns. Maybe the writing was spectacular, the prose beautiful and the style unique. But for some reason, I didn’t get to know the characters, which meant I didn’t get to fall in love with them. For me, I need to feel like these people are worth me investing my time and thoughts in. They might not be perfect, they might even be totally evil, that’s fine, but I have to feel like I am on a journey with them. Even if they are despicable, I have to have some amount of empathy for them and their actions. They need to go on some kind of journey which sees them develop, for me to properly care. I feel robbed when this does not happen!
  6. Sex scenes. Call me a prude, I don’t care. I don’t like sex scenes. I don’t like reading detailed accounts of how the characters get it on. I don’t mind them getting it on, and if they do get it on, I obviously want to know. I might even be really hoping they get it on, but I don’t need to have explained to me in graphic detail, which is why I avoid romance and erotica. I just find those kinds of scenes boring. I want to skip over them and get back to the story. What makes me really angry is when books that are not marketed as romance or erotica, throw in really graphic sex scenes. It’s not what I’m looking for when reading, so to find it by surprise is quite off-putting. I’m not a total prude, I don’t mind romantic scenes if they are done well and if they add to the development of the characters and the plot. I don’t mind a bit of kissing or fondling, I’ve even written a few scenes like this into some of my books. Undoubtedly, love and sex creep into human stories and we can’t avoid it. I just personally don’t want or need a graphic description of the sex acts that go on for pages and pages…Yawn.

Now, what about you? I know these are all very personal peeves. I know that some people get really angry with first person narration! (No way!!) And some people hate too much dialogue. We’re all different readers, and we all have our preferences. I’d love to hear your thoughts! What makes you angry when reading?