Photo courtesy Boing! Boing!
Beyond “write! write! write!”, there are few real rules to follow when you become a writer. You are expected to know how to spell and use grammar properly, but once you do that, you can — if you’re very careful and good — break them in creative ways. I say this because I have to say here that there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to writing point of view. Even so, I have been somewhat evangelical about the subject.
Point of view describes how a story or scene is told — basically, which character’s eyes is the reader seeing the story through? Now, most of you know the difference between first person and third person points of view (a book in the first person reads, “I saw this. I did that”, while the third person says, “He saw this. She did that.”), but it goes beyond just using I’s, he’s or she’s. Even in the third person, if you are getting windows into what a particular character is thinking (such as, “Perpetua thought”), then chances are that the scene or story is told from that character’s point of view.
I’m evangelical about Point of View because I didn’t used to use it very well. My Doctor Who fan fiction, written to a fictional universe that’s most often seen through an omniscient camera, often applied something that some reviewers called “ping-pong point of view”, where I’d dip into different characters’ actions, reactions and thoughts within the same scene, in the same tone. It was, I’m told, a disrupting feeling that jarred some readers out of their willing suspension of disbelief. Starting with The Unwritten Girl, I paid more attention to point-of-view, writing the story just from Rosemary’s eyes, or making sure there was a scene break before transferring over to Peter’s thoughts and reactions.
There is in writing such a thing as the omniscient third person point of view, where the author pulls away from the characters and tells the story as if he or she is looking down from heaven (or, up from hell, depending on the temperament of the author). Sometimes they delve into the various characters’ thoughts; sometimes they don’t, focusing like a camera simply on the characters’ physical reactions. In my opinion, this works far better in movies and television, where the camera becomes a narrator character that doesn’t care to say “I” or “me”. But even in movies and television, a close point of view can be important.
Consider the pilot episode of the Doctor Who revival, Rose. Russell T. Davies made a decision early on that makes the story, in my opinion: he tells it in Rose’s point of view. There are few, if any, scenes where Rose isn’t observing the proceedings (the scene where Mickey is abducted by an Auton-influenced recycling bin and the scene where Terence gets shot are the only two I can come up with).
This decision was critical to the success of Rose, and played a large part in the ultimate success of the Doctor Who revival, largely because Russell T. Davies was walking thin line between a large and active fan base that knew everything about Doctor Who’s forty-two year history, and a larger general audience who, by and large, did not. How could he craft a story that was still Doctor Who without alienating the general audience with too much detail? He did it through Rose.
Having a nineteen-year-old girl with no knowledge of the Doctor take centre stage is something both fans and non fans alike can understand and appreciate. Any references that the fans get won’t bother the general audience that don’t get it because Rose doesn’t get it either. It’s important for the general audience to share Rose’s point of view as she leads the way into the continuity of the series.
In my opinion, the written versions of omniscient third person tend to be dry. I know there are exceptions, and people will shout them out in the comments, but the fact remains that I struggle with books that don’t have strong characters I identify with, and basing the point of view on those characters helps me identify with those characters. I am drawn to books with a first person narrative as well, such as Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, but the danger there is getting the voice right. Sometimes the character just takes on the voice of the author, which is out of character from who the character actually is, or the character takes on the voice perfectly, but speaks in such a way as to drive you up the wall. Icarus Down represents my first attempt at a first person narrative; I’ve been reluctant to try it as I’m afraid that all of my narrator characters will end up speaking just like me.
But one thing I’ve been trying with The Night Girl is a deep point-of-view take on the third person narrative. The story follows Perpetua so closely that occasionally her thoughts become the narrative, such that the story almost takes on a first person appearance. Sometimes this has worked; other times readers have been confused (“why are you saying this? Is she thinking this? You should put a ‘she thought’ somewhere”), so it’s something I still have to work on. But I still think this will provide a story that’s as intimate as a camera perched on Perpetua’s shoulder.
I guess we’ll see if it works, or not.