Choose Your Weapon: The Power of POV

Perspective is one of the most powerful weapons of warfare you have at your disposal.  When loading words into your literary cannon, you need to decide who is going to be firing them at the reader.  Put clearly, from whose perspective is your book written?

Most instructional books title this perspective as Point of View (POV), and most agree that there are three main approaches to it: first person, third person, and omniscient.  After this, the agreement ends.  I have seen texts offer more than 20 variations of these three.  Let’s take a day to focus on the basics.  After all, to wield the weapon, we must understand it.

scalpel.jpgFirst Person is the surgical blade many mystery writers use to carve out their manuscripts. When taking advantage of this the writer adopts the “I” voice.  You relay the story through the eyes, mouth, and mind of one of the books characters.

Renni Browne and Dave King explain in their book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, “…in order to succeed in the first-person point of view, you have to create a character strong enough and interesting enough to keep your readers going for an entire novel, yet not so eccentric or bizarre that your readers feel trapped inside his or her head” (p. 42).

First Person is also a double edged blade (it cuts both ways).  You gain the advantage of intimacy, but lose the ability to offer insights outside of the characters range of knowledge.  You can only offer suggestions as to what other characters are feeling, based upon the understanding (or lack there of) of your narrator.  It’s fun to write, but over the long haul, challenging.  Trust me, my current book Wastelander, is in this POV.

Here is a brief example/teaser (the unedited first two paragraphs) from my book.  It is first person-tastic.  I don’t want to hear any cyber scoffs…

          As far as luck goes, it hadn’t been my greatest day.  It’s hard to cling to those sparkly, silver linings when you’re buried underneath no less than ten-and-a-half bloated decaying bodies in the hopes you don’t get eaten alive by a bunch of inbred, radioactive cannibals. 
          Believe it or not, this predicament was premeditated by yours truly.  The plan was to collect on cannibal heads.  Four to be exact.  I figured four heads should net me a couple jugs of water, some grub to munch on, some rounds, or maybe the sweet comforts of the female persuasion.  I hadn’t really worked out those details just yet.

mushroom cloud.jpgAt the opposite end of the weapon rack is omniscient.  Where you could only cut with precision from the viewpoint of a single character with first person, you now can drop a hydrogen bomb of information on the reader with omniscient POV.  The omniscient narrator is godlike in their knowledge.  They have the inside scoop on character motivations, historical background, and everything in-between.

The challenge with omniscience is you can struggle to create a deep bond with the reader.  The all-knowing being can be hard to relate to.  It obviously can be done and there are countless books out there written from this POV.  The website, Literary Devices, has some great excerpts, as well as more information about omniscient voice.  You can check it out here.

bayonet rifle.jpgNestled snugly in the middle of the rack is Third Person.  It is the bayonet adorned rifle that allows you to shoot at a distance, or stab from up close.  In plain terms, with third person we can create distance in the narrative and we can close it.  How do we do this?  One of the best examples I have seen comes again from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (p. 48-49).  Check out these two examples from that book and look for those differences in word choices.  How do they make you feel?

Coral Blake mopped the gritty sweat out of her eyes and gazed up at the dusty green underside of the oak.  The dog days of August had settled in, it seemed, and like most folks in Greeleyville, South Carolina, she took cover from the sun on her front porch under that grandfatherly tree. 

          My, how she hated that tree in autumn.  Then, she’d stand out in the scraggly front yard with a rake and curse the leaves that multiplied like loaves and fishes as they fell.  But now, with her head up against the cool metal of the glider, the tree was a positive blessing. 

Compare that excerpt to this revised one, also in third person.

self editing for fiction writers.jpg          Coral Blake mopped the sweat out of her eyes and gazed up at the dusty green underside of the oak.  It seemed the dog days of August had arrived, and like most of the citizens of Greeleyville, South Carolina, she took refuge from the sun on her front porch under the tree.
          Ironic how much she hated that tree at other times.  Every fall she’d stand in her threadbare front yard with a rake and curse the leaves that multiplied as they fell.  But now, resting her head against the cool metal of the glider, she considered the tree to be a blessing. 

The differences in language and word choice are subtle, but they create the differing distances I was talking about earlier.  Depended on your particular work, and what you are trying to accomplish with a passage, you may need some distance from the reader, or you may need to breath down their neck.  This is the power of third person.

That’s it for today.  Like I said when I started this post, there are more variations on these three POVs than I have fingers and toes.  One of these days we might examine those variations more, but for now, go forth with these weapons of war.  Just don’t put your eye out…

red ryder bb gun.jpg

What are you favorite perspectives to write and read from?  I am enjoying writing in first person (but am looking forward to finishing this book so I can write in something else).  I’m not a huge fan of reading omniscient narrative, but easily sink into third and first.  There are exceptions to this, but there is it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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19 responses

  1. In a future blog, I go into this in more detail, but I find first person narrative the most polarizing. When done right, it’s amazing. When done wrong, it’s pretty hard to get through. My favorite to read and write are both third person. That also opens the door to some impossibly difficult connotative meanings. Like you said, there are so many variations of perspective and narrative, it’s hard to be sure who means what. That said, what you describe as third person is my favorite style. If I were ever going to write non-fiction (…I’m trying to type that without laughing out loud…), I’d write a book on perspective. The lack of standard terms is one of the difficulties in writing and discussing writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m going to read that post when you make it, because frankly, writing about perspective can be confusing. Many authors struggle with it as they inadvertently switch to different tenses/POVs leaving the reader lost and confused. Like you said, lack of standardization makes it a hard topic to cover, that’s why I stuck with the meat and potatoes of the core three.

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. Good luck with your continuing edits of Caught!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My own choice these days is limited third person, with the camera for each scene rigorously “attached” to one character (unless they happen to die mid-scene). I didn’t, in fact, steal this characteristic from George R R Martin, but it was very validating to find out he’d been there before me. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for stopping by and reading. I really enjoy this sort of viewpoint you are talking about. Getting those glimpses into each character helps me feel attachment to them, especially when we are dealing with multiple characters in a larger world.

      Congratulations on completing your first draft of Wolves of Dacia! If I had more time (fatherhood, my own book, editing, this blog) I would gladly give it a beta-read. But alas, time is fleeting. I will grab a copy once you get it out there – dieselpunk tales from the WWII era sounds right up my alley. Good luck moving forward.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. For reading I prefer third person. First person feels a little voyeuristic to me so it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure at times but can also be cringeworthy and painful depending on the characters. For writing, same thing. I’m experimenting with first person though and finding it fun bur challenging. Losing control of a character/voice is a great new experience!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for stopping in. I couldn’t agree more about losing control of character voice. You narrator can almost become autonomous sometimes.

      It’s also challenging finding ways to provide the details readers need/want from the viewpoint of a single person. A couple weeks ago, one of my alpha readers asked me what was happening in an area outside of my narrators knowledge/visible range. It’s moments like that you wish you could just snap back and forth from one perspective to the other. Instead you jot it down, and during re-writes think about grabbing him/her by the collar and dropping them 100 yards to the left or right.

      Thanks again for reading, good luck with your projects.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I checked out the book you suggested, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. It’s on my list to buy now. I’ve read that some authors write their first draft in first person to get that deep POV, but switch to third after that. I don’t know if I could do that myself though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you’ll enjoy the book – I’ve found a lot of good information in it and have seen it referenced by many editors/writers in their blogs.

      That’s interesting about writing the first draft in 1st person. I feel like it would make your writing center more around one character and leave the others in the dust, but hey, the golden rule is to do whatever you need to do to get the words down. Like you said, it could be solved in rewrites (what a chore that would be). Whatever methods you employ, best of luck in your writing. Thanks for stopping by and reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting stuff! I struggled with this early on in my manuscript but the book you mentioned changed my life! I now write in the third person, but change “distance” based on the necessity of the passage and the intensity of the emotions the characters are experiencing. I also have 7 or 8 characters that I switch between to get all sides of the story! Ever since learning about POV, it’s become my pet peeve in other authors.

    Thanks for posting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing your success with us. It makes me happy to know I’m reading the right stuff.

      Juggling that many characters can be a chore, but like you said, if you can master POV it becomes easier and provides the reader great insights. I will swing by your page and see what you are working on for sure.

      Thanks again for stopping by and posting. Happy reading and writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Can I just say that I hate when authors write in first person omniscient? It’s so annoying because it makes their characters sound like complete know-it-alls and the only people who should be are empaths or mind-readers. *sigh* That being said, I like limited POV. It adds so much more tension and curiosity in the reader. Having everything spelled out isn’t always the best, in my opinion.

    P.s. Have you ever found a 2nd POV book? I’m just curious.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for stopping by today! Honestly, when it comes to 2nd person POV, outside of how-to books (non-fiction) the only thing I can think of that I really enjoyed were the Choose Your Own Adventure books when I was a kid. Kind of makes me want to find some of those and read them. There are some lists on Goodreads full of them you could check out. Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hmm… I never read those as a child, which would explain my lack of knowledge. So, thank you for the suggestion!
        I’m still curious though, why 2nd POV books (such as the choose your own adventure) aren’t more common in young adult or even adult literature. Any thoughts on the subject?

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think there a few reasons if I am grasping this correctly.

        When the writer begins using “you, dear reader,” language it can easily morph into almost a condescending tone. Sure it can be done, but I think it’s a tightrope.

        Another reason would be you begin to limit the readers connection with the story by constantly reminding them they are just a reader. Each time, “you dear reader,” language is used the imagination station grinds to a halt and they are reminded these are just pages in a book and they are casual observers.

        In my opinion, powerful fiction is an escape. I forget I’m reading, where I am, and get lost in the story. You remind me this is just a story every few pages and suddenly my process stops.

        Lastly, when addressing the reader in your fiction, the danger becomes who you are addressing. A letter written to my mother is different than a letter to a friend. How do you make the, “dear reader,” language inclusive to a wide range of people? I’m not sure of the answer.

        That’s just my take on it, I’m still learning every day.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Narrative: The pros and cons of 1st person narrative – M.L.S. Weech

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