Quick update before I start: I have just approved the proof of the print copy of my novel and it should be available through Amazon in the next 5-7 business days, apparently. This makes me happy, though 2-3 business days would make me even happier. But then, I’m an impatient sod really.
So, today’s post will be on points of view. Literary points of view that is, not opinions. I have plenty of those, but I’ll spare you them (for today at least).
Back when I was in secondary school I was taught that there are three possible points of view that can be used by a writer: first person, hidden first person and third person. I have since learnt that there is also second person, but whether that simply wasn’t used at the time (ie. 25 years ago in the Netherlands) or whether my teacher didn’t think it worth discussing I don’t know. Also, I believe that the ‘hidden first person’ is more generally known as ‘third person limited’, and what my teacher called ‘third person’ is ‘third person omniscient’.
That’s the boring stuff out of the way. Plus I just realised that you’re going to get my opinions anyway, because that’s rather the point of me doing this blog entry.
Let’s start with third person omniscient. I personally think that there are actually two types of third person omniscient. First there are books like George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, in which each chapter is written in third person limited viewpoint, but because each chapter switches to a different character, the book as a whole is 3rd omniscient. Many other writers I have read will do the same, but they might switch PoV from paragraph to paragraph, even if within those paragraphs they remain with a certain character. In such instances I mean paragraph as in a section of the book separated from other sections by a white line or any other type of separator. Is there a word for that? I don’t actually know, but let’s call it a meta-paragraph.
And then there are those writers who don’t really stick with anyone’s PoV but hop all over the place. Nora Roberts is a prime example of that, and it used to bug the hell out of me. I really don’t mind switching between characters, but initially I found it very confusing that this happened from one sentence to the next. One moment you’re in one character’s head, the next moment you’ve hopped to the other one. Usually while they’re kissing each other.
Note that I say this used to bug me, because it doesn’t anymore. Not necessarily because I think it’s a good thing to do, but because I’ve got used to it, and Nora Roberts’ books are just too damn entertaining to abandon them for something as trivial as whether the PoV appeals to me or not.
That said, it isn’t the type of PoV I would ever knowingly use. In previous stories I have written I’m pretty sure I’ve always used 3rd limited with character hopping, and until fairly recently this would have been my preferred PoV as a writer. The one full-length novel I wrote before The Ritual was 3rd limited in its entirety, though I later noticed that I’d inadvertently slipped into someone else’s head at one point. I intend to rewrite this novel at some point and publish it on here as a serial, and that will certainly be an issue I will fix, because it was sloppy of me.
Most books I read as a teenager/tweener were third person in some way, and I’m sure it’s safe to say that it’s the most popular PoV in use by writers. Whether it’s the easiest one is probably a matter of debate – I’m sure there are many writers who find first person easier. I do believe that it is easier to accidentally slip into someone else’s head if you’re referring to the protagonist as he/she throughout the book, as I mentioned in the paragraph above, whereas if they’re an ‘I’ it might make you more aware of the fact that you’re in their head, and therefore cannot know what other people know unless they tell you.
Second person PoV isn’t something I came across in books until very recently, and I doubt it is a narrative mode I’ll ever get used to. It might work in short bursts, like poems or songs (or letters! Does anyone still write letters?), but poetry is entirely wasted on me, and while I will quite happily bellow along to any song I really love (as my husband can testify), I often don’t start paying attention to what they are actually singing about until two years after I first heard the song.
(In fact, I pay more attention to getting the words right, which may not sound difficult until you find out that one of my favourite bands is Värttinä, a Finnish folksy ensemble. Since my knowledge of Finnish is extremely limited, it becomes quite a challenge to learn the words by heart so I can confidently sing along. But I digress again.)
So, 2nd person PoV is something I personally wouldn’t touch even if you paid me, and I can recall only one short story in which it didn’t bug me. This was most likely because the bulk of the story was essentially in 1st person, with only the odd ‘you would have thought [blah] about it’ thrown in.
Which brings me to the last PoV, which is 1st person.
As I said earlier, back in the day, everything I read was in some kind of 3rd person PoV. I even recall the very first novel I read in which I consciously noted that the narrative wasn’t in 3rd person, and it was Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice. Boy, did it throw me at the time. For the first few chapters I’m sure I came close to hating it, but then I got into the book and I got used to it. I am still very grateful for that, because it remains one of my favourite books ever.
And it was that book which made me curious: would I be able to do that? Having always written in 3rd person it was such an unusual concept to me that I figured it must be a lot more difficult to limit yourself to just one person’s head. I decided to give it a go, and thus the very first chapter of The Ritual was written.
I can’t remember exactly how long ago this was, but it must have been at least six or seven years, and of course I never touched it again after the tabletop roleplaying campaign that it was based on was abandoned. It was a short-lived experiment, and I happily returned to my 3rd person writing, which I did whenever the mood took me.
When I went back to that chapter around a year ago, I initially simply continued the story, so I continued it in the PoV it had started out in. Only once I had about five or six chapters in total did I realise that chapter one was very old, far too closely linked to roleplaying in terms of what the characters were, what they did and how they were defined, and that it was simply too dissimilar to my new writings to be fit for purpose. So I rewrote it.
It makes me wonder whether I would have changed it to 3rd person limited if I had started from scratch immediately. As it stands, the story itself requires that you only see things from Chiarin’s point of view, so I would never have character-hopped anyway, but I suppose there is no real reason why it couldn’t have been 3rd person limited. Still, it is essential to the plot that you can only speculate about Zashter’s motives, and that you don’t find out exactly what’s going on until you get towards the end of the book.
For me, I think it remained an experiment right until the moment I finished the first draft, and at the time I was still living in the blissful delusion that 1st person PoV books were rare.
Hah. Enter Twilight *shudder*. Enter Fifty Shades of Grey *double shudder*. Enter The Hunger Games. (No, no shudder. I really like the Hunger Games, actually.) Three very popular series of books (two of them bafflingly so), all written in 1st person PoV. So, I wasn’t as niche and out there as I thought I was. Which I suppose means that at least people won’t reject my book because of the viewpoint it’s written from.
So that’s the story of how The Ritual came to be 1st person PoV. Since it’s the first of a trilogy, and I have an innate need for consistency, this meant that the two sequels had to be in the same narrative as well, even if there is less of a need for it from a plot perspective.
From my own experience I believe that the hardest part of first person writing is to ensure that you truly write as the person would. My editor has on many occasions chided me for being too detached, for taking a step back from action or feelings when I should be more emotional about it. I think I’m getting better at it, but it has certainly been a learning curve.
As a last part in this post I’d like to briefly comment on tense, because two of the three series mentioned above are not only in 1st person PoV, they are also written in present tense rather than past. (Twilight I think was past tense, though I may be mistaken. I honestly can’t bring myself to care either way, since I never managed to finish the book.)
Personally, I genuinely dislike present tense writing (in novels that is, before anyone points out that these blog posts are in present tense). It is the one thing that continued to bug me throughout reading The Hunger Games, and if I hadn’t liked the books as much as I did, I’d have abandoned them because of that. Some people say that the present tense is essential, since past tense writing in 1st person PoV books implies that the protagonist has survived whatever has happened to him/her in the book, but I remember reading at least one series where this is not the case. I admit that it did startle me very much when the protagonist died in that series, but it happened nonetheless. In any case, it bothers me more that a book would try to present things to me as if they were happening now, when I know this cannot be the case: I’m holding the book, am I not? So it must have happened in the past.
Note that I’m not mentioning it as the one thing that bugged me about Fifty Shades of Grey, but that is because there were far worse things that bothered me about that book. In fact, I could write an entire blog post about all the things I hated about it. Maybe one day, if I feel masochistic enough, I might.
Will I ever publish a novel which is written in 3rd person PoV? I honestly have no idea. Right now I am still mulling over book three in the Theft and Sorcery trilogy, and I don’t have a clue whether I have any other books left in me after that. My gut instinct says no, but then I didn’t think I had anything else in me while I was writing The Ritual, until I spent an hour in the car on the way to visit friends (which meant I wasn’t able to write) and I got the initial idea for The Conspiracy.
Never say never, right?