Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

CRAFT: Point of View and Genre

Point of View and Genre

Before you even set pen to paper, there is one major question the writer must consider. What point of view should you use? Should you use first person, I should have known better, or third person, She should have known better? A combination of both? Some weird point of view?

Perhaps I should first define point of view...
Point of view is perhaps easier to explain if you think of making a movie. You can think of point of view as the angle from which the camera is filming the movie.

First Person
In first person point of view, the camera is stuck in one character's head and you "film" the entire story through that character's eyes. This character is essentially the narrator and the entire story is colored by the narrator's perceptions.

I wouldn't have shot Harry last Thursday if I had known what a world of hurt this would bring down on me less than two days later...

Strengths and Weaknesses
First person is great for stories that mainly concern the journey of one person--the narrator character. They are often used in mysteries because you learn what is happening as the narrator, who is usually the detective, discovers it.

Unfortunately, it also prevents you from showing what the other characters are thinking or feeling, except as interpreted by the narrator. All the other characters are kept at a bit of a distance and the reader never really knows what they are thinking--they can only infer it from the characters' actions and speech. Even the narrator is controlling what they allow the reader to see, by what information they chose to "tell". However, this can be very useful in a mystery.

Egregious Mistakes
It's easier to avoid POV mistakes in first person, because you're stuck in first person, but you do want to avoid things like: I flung my long, flowing locks of blond hair over my shoulder. No one thinks of themselves--or their hair--that way, so the challenge is to give the reader a picture of the narrator character without looking into mirrors or talking about themselves in an abnormally narcissistic way.

Third Person (Often called Limited Third Person)
This is the most common point of view used in the majority of fiction. In third person, the writer refers to all characters in third person, e.g. she done me wrong, or he done me wrong. The camera is external to all characters but rests on one character's shoulder, focused on the other characters as seen from the perspective of the point of view character. Usually, this perspective is maintained throughout a scene, with the perspective hopping over to other characters in other scenes (i.e. the camera is moved to rest on other characters' shoulders to film the scene from their view point).

She rested her head on her arm for a moment before turning back to Bill to complete the dismemberment process.

Deep Point of View
This is usually seen in third person and it is as if the camera moved inside the head of the point of view (POV) character--not to focus on the other characters--but to actually film what is going on inside the POV character's head. In this POV, you can take something like: Darn it--why couldn't she have arrived early for a change, he thought. And you make it as if you are inside the person, listening, so you don't have the "he thought" part, you just have: Darn it--why couldn't she have arrived early?

This helps the reader to feel and think what the POV character is feeling and thinking more intensely.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Third person is the most commonly used POV and you really can't go too wrong with it. It lets you show the actions, thoughts and emotions from any of your characters, and by using deep POV, you can even show what they are thinking.

However, you lose the immediacy and identification with the narrator that you have in first person, because third person POV puts all the characters at a slight distance, which is only partly remedied through the occassional use of deep POV.

Egregious Mistakes
Head hopping (see below), where you suddenly change your focus from one POV character to a different one can be a problem if done poorly. The most common mistake, however, is similar to the one listed for First Person POV. She tossed her blond, flowing locks over her shoulder. Again, no character (or person) thinks of their hair, or any other part of them, like this. You have to remember to stay in the POV you select.

Second Person
I'm debating even mentioning this POV because it is so incredibly annoying. It's the you did this POV, which is sort of the psychotic camera POV. It takes a lot of skill to write in second person and not just anger your readers, and mostly you would never see this except in literary fiction or highly experimental stuff. Definitely not something I would recommend unless you have a specific and very good reason.

Head Hopping
When you switch from one POV character's perspective to another, it's called head hopping. Most articles on writing recommend that you stick with one character's POV per scene, to avoid the unsettling shifts in perspective that can occur when you suddenly switch to another character's POV--sort of like the main POV character suddenly tossing the camera to another character. It can be done, but you need to be aware of the transition and write it smoothly. One way is to write enough description to make the scene seem as if the camera panned out to the broad scene before changing to focus tightly on a different character's POV.

When to Use What POV
A lot of the decision on what POV to use boils down to what sells in the genre you are writing, and what works best for the story you are telling. Some fiction lends itself more readily to one point of view over the other, and some genres pretty much insist on a specific point of view. The information below is not all-inclusive--I'm just trying to give you some general guidelines--so keep that in mind.

Third person is used for almost all categories of romance fiction. Some of the women's fiction, and modern, sassy contemporary fiction (e.g. Chick Lit, Mommy Lit, and all the other "Lits") is now being done in first person, because they are less concerned about the hero (or there may not even BE a hero). Third person is almost a requirement for romance fiction because it allows you to show both the heroine's and hero's perspectives and their emotional arcs as they grow to love one another.

Romance that has to be third person POV
Category Romances, e.g. Most Harlequin Lines
Historical Romances

Romances that are traditionally third person POV, but *might* possibly allow first person POV, although to be honest, they will probably make you change it to third person POV...
Romantic Suspense
Romantic Mysteries
Romantic Comedy

Romances that allow first person POV
Women's fiction

Smart/Sassy Contemporary (perhaps not specifically a romance, either) such as Chick Lit, Mommy Lit, Boy Lit, all the Lits and their currently morphing offspring

Gothics (many are now written in third person POV, but traditionally, many Gothics were written in first person)

Mystery and Suspense
Mystery and Suspense genres have many, many subgenres and break down very similar to the Romance field. There tends to be a little more latitude in these genres, however, because there is less pressure to show the emotional arcs of two people as you must in a romance--you usually just have one main character, an antagonist, and then the protagonist.

Third Person POV
Suspense (traditionally third person)
Contemporary and Historical Mysteries can vary between third and first person POV
Cozy Mysteries

First Person POV
Contemporary and Historical Mysteries, some Cozy Mysteries (see above)
Crime and "Neo Noir" or "Crime Noir", Florida Crime (which seems to be a genre in itself)

Science Fiction
Science Fiction is *mostly* written in third person POV. However, because it often embraces more experimental fiction, there is some small use of first person POV, but it is rare.

Third Person POV almost exclusively.

Literary Fiction
Anything goes in Literary Fiction.

That's about it for this blog! Let me know what POV you prefer...

1 comment:

Naomi said...

I write a lot of short stories in first person, but my current novel is being written in third. I can't really put my finger on why I chose which viewpoint, but some characters seem better suited to first person than third, and vice versa.