It’s been awhile since we’ve posted a writing technique post, so coming off of reading Steering the Craft, it seemed like a good idea to share a little more of my continuing efforts to improve my writing. Specifically, I’d like to talk about points of view, because I realized as I was reading Steering the Craft that I might have been thinking about my POVs incorrectly for years. For those who aren’t familiar, POV (point of view) is the literary term for the perspective from which a piece is written.
Of course, there are multiple ways to define POV, and some of them are very closely related to each other, so there is an argument to be made that nothing much as changed, as long as I was being consistent and conscious of what I was doing with POV. After all, a name is just a name, and while a useful descriptor, what matters is that I as the author understand what it is that I am attempting to do. What I call it only matters when it comes time to explain what it is that I’m trying to do to somebody else. I do like things to be consistent, however, and I like calling things by their proper terms, so I have undertaken a reexamination of how I do POV.
When I was in school, English class taught me three points of view: first person, second person, and third person. I did enough creative writing, and have read other books about writing, to know that for genre fiction the list is more like this: first person, third person limited, and third person omniscient. Although I suppose you could technically write a story in the second person, and there are always people who will try, just to be contrarian, but I’m not sure what kind of story would actually be best told from that POV.
First person, to me, was anything told from the perspective of a single narrator, using the pronoun “I.” Technically speaking, you can have multiple “I”s in a single book, but that gets confusing, and only rarely works. You need to be very careful if you’re going to try to write multiple characters all in the first person. For example:
I ducked, narrowly avoiding the thrown vase, and stood up sharply. “Missed!” I yelled. Then the vase exploded, and I was flung backward against the wall, my vision blanking for a moment. When I could see again, the priestess was standing over me, and my hands were trussed behind my back. This, I considered, was probably not going to end well.-Lloyd Earickson
Third person limited, as I used to think of it, was very similar to first person, but not as stuck inside the character’s head. However, its key limitation was that only one character’s perspective could be told at one time, with occasional breaks for scene setting and other narration. Those breaks, however, should still be what the POV character is noticing. I had heard that most modern genre fiction was written this way, and since my writing is at least similar in type to such works, I thought I was writing in third person limited. This excerpt from Fo’Fonas, for example:
They couldn’t leave it at that, of course. Lomboc knew that. As he had anticipated, the lumberjack swung a meaty fist at him. Ducking in and to the side, Lomboc drove his elbow forcefully into the man’s stomach, doubling him over, and calmly rested his now unsheathed blade on the back of the man’s neck. As soon as the cold metal touched his skin, the man froze, and the others all hesitated.Fo’Fonas Book 1, Lloyd Earickson
Finally, third person omniscient, to my original way of thinking, was the classic, involved narrator, as seen in older works of fiction, such as Dickens novels, or The Lord of the Rings. In third person omniscient, the narrator is sort of a character of its own, sharing insights and thoughts with the reader, and capable of jumping from head to head to share the action from different perspectives within a single scene. A good example of this would be from A Christmas Carol:
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
It turns out that there are different ways of using these POV terms that are better suited for genre fiction, and which can better describe how a given narration is formatted. Therefore, mostly in accordance with Le Guin’s presentation in Steering the Craft, we have: first person, third person limited, third person omniscient involved, and third person omniscient objective. Among other things, these designations will help avoid the tricky bit in the above A Christmas Carol excerpt where in the previous definition, Dickens technically slipped into second person. First person, under these categories, remains largely unchanged.
Third person limited, under this definition, can pass very close indeed to omniscient, especially if you have a story that jumps from POV character to POV character. However, what sets third person limited apart is that it will strongly signal any change of POV, and will tend to stay in a single POV for an extended period of time, usually a chapter, or at least a section.
Third person omniscient involved is the author who is commentating on the action as it is occurring. Part of why I chose that particularly A Christmas Carol quote is because it is a very overt example of that practice, although it does not need to be quite so heavy handed to qualify for this category. The line between involved and objective is, of course, blurry, since there is an inherent level of involvement by any narrator; let us simply say that the involved narrator is more deliberate about it.
Third person omniscient objective, on the other hand, remains relatively distanced from the action, although I hate to use the term “distanced,” since it gives rather the wrong impression about how this POV works. It merely means that the narrator is written as having less of an involved stake in the action of the story than they might otherwise have. They are, in essence, not judging the action as it is occurring. Please note that in both versions of omniscient, the narrator can jump from character POV to character POV, or not settle into one at all. Tolkien has a famous scene in The Lord of the Rings that is narrated from the perspective of a passing fox. However, although the sign posts will not be as overt as in the limited third person version of such a jump, it is still important for the author to signal the shift to the reader, or else confusion will be the inevitable result.
With all of this in mind, I have realized that part of the reason I have been struggling to write Blood Magic episodes recently is that I was trying to force parts of the story into third person limited, writing from exclusively Kiluron or Doil’s perspective, when the story was best told from a third person omniscient perspective. That POV is also most in keeping with the idea of this being a sort of written television series. It has made the writing of the fifth episode easier, and I’m hoping that the sixth episode, for the whole writing of which I will be bearing this new understanding in mind, will be significantly stronger as a result.