Point of View
There are oodles of articles and book chapters about point of view, and most of you know everything there is to know. Here’s one more article just in case.
There are several different possible POVs:
- Omniscient is narrated by a person (even if it’s just the author) who knows everything.
The village of Trunk was filled by the usual suspects: a cooper, an elephant trainer, and a flock of kangaroos who lived down by the river and could be found shooting craps under the bridge every Thursday afternoon…
- First person is written as if the actions are viewed or experienced by a character in the story and that person is narrating.
I glanced up at the ceiling of the car, contemplating the dark brown specks caught in the fabric by the sun visor. Dirt, carelessly placed there after burying that magazine editor that rejected my submission—again? Or just Oreo crumbs?…
- Second person is the narrator talking to the reader, little known save for instruction manuals, be they for installing a satellite disk on your dirigible or having an adventure .
- Third person is as if the actions are viewed or experienced by a character in the story, but that person is not narrating.
He held the ax to his face, stuck out his tongue and licked the thick red stain. Hmm. Strawberry jelly.
Omniscient POV isn’t used too often. It can very easily slide into telling (see: A Tale of Two Cities). In sci fi circles, omniscient POV and telling are big fat no-nos, but I don’t think they should be tossed altogether if only for one purpose: storytelling. Henry can speak to this more, but I don’t see anything wrong with reading or listening to a story that knows it’s a story. Granted, they may be more unique stories; boutique if you will. But you could pull in a lot of humor.
First Person: In my very limited experience, I have found first person POV in sci fi to be used more often in comedic settings. See Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat books, or Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon series. You’ve gotta have a strong hold on who your character is and what his voice is if you try this. And the character’s character should be strong, as well.
The vast majority of sci fi stories are third person. What is annoying to hear when my husband is talking to my son (“Daddy has to go to work now so he can make enough money to send you to Betelgeuse University.”) is an essential skill for any author.
Third person POV means that each scene has a POV character, and nothing is relayed in that scene that the character does not witness, suspect, or think. When the action is more subtle, it leads to a lot of stock phrases whereby the author can give a hint as to what another character is thinking without breaking POV. Stuff like, “Carl furrowed his eyebrows as if contemplating whether he’d shoot Jenkins or just order a turkey on rye.” Or, “The soft mist of memory clouded her eyes.” Or, “He could tell by the way her six bosoms quivered in the vibration of the shuttle that tonight would be a night he’d remember the rest of his life.”
The point is that you have to get into your character’s head. I suspect this takes a strong sense of empathy and a bit of psychosis. Be your character. Imagine where they are, what they’re experiencing, and how they feel about it. It may be that the theme of your book is a retelling of the Renaissance through the eyes of a Morgonian, but, at the moment, your job is to get Gretel down the dark and eerie staircase—and if the scene’s in her POV, she doesn’t know what the slimy shape-shifter taking a ride on the tail of a rat thinks about things.
Third person POV is particularly challenging in action scenes. A one-on-one fight, in the POV of one of the fighters, might be all right. But the words you'd need to describe a one-on-several would take too much away from the quickness of the action. And a several-on-several is ridiculously hard. If your POV character is in the fight, how would they keep track of everything else that's going on? If they're not in the fight, how do you keep immediacy and tension? Maybe that's why Westerns are filled with lone heroes—it's too hard to write a fight with a group.
Third person POV can be narrow or broad. A broad POV pulls away from the drama. The narrative voice is more anonymous; actions and dialogue are given in a fairly straight-forward manner. You still can’t reveal anything the POV character doesn’t witness, but you don’t go too deep, either. A narrow POV is narrated in the “voice” of the POV character. Interior dialogue can be slipped in seamlessly (yes, without italics!). The opinion and motivations of the POV character can be revealed by how settings and people are described. Narrow POV can bring in more tension and empathy.
Either way, third or first person POV limits what you can divulge at any given moment. You cannot reveal what a non-POV person is thinking. (“Bert wondered if the ship would start. Tifani wondered when lunch would be served. Vladamir stood and glared at them both, wishing them dead at the hands of the nearest sentient mailbox.”) You cannot mention what is going on outside the POV character’s awareness. (“King Rupert rode his horse down the street, waving to his people, grateful that Clarisse had found a hemorrhoid ring that fit on his saddle, while, behind him, Cecil picked his nose.”) Unless the person is a child or an idiot, it’s pretty difficult to reveal something to the reader without the POV character knowing, as well. (“Libby ate her Cheerios, wondering who the strange woman was making coffee and why she was wearing nothing but Daddy’s button-down shirt.”) But if done skillfully, it is most apt to draw a reader into the story, help them identify with what’s going on.
A last word on characters’ appearance in the second person. Unless your POV character is a vain seductress, she does not “toss her golden locks.” There are very few reasons she would think about her hair color at all. If it’s terribly important to you, and you can’t cut away to another POV, you need to manufacture a legitimate reason to mention it. For some reason, I have a main character with short hair. In order to point that out, her mother criticizes it. To point out her height, she’s self-conscious of being shorter than those around her.
Many writers use the mirror trick. Many, many, MANY writers use the mirror trick. They stick their POV character in front of a mirror and have them tick off their physical characteristics. Don’t do this. Just don’t. I’ve only read it done legitimately once; the woman had been healed from the scars of a brutal attack and was dressing for her wedding. Part of the main resolution of the plot was her physical restoration.
If the characters’ physical characteristics are not relevant to the plot or the story, reconsider whether to worry about it at all. If it is important, be creative about getting that information out there. The only reason your POV character is going to “glare at the Grazglemorph with piercing blue eyes” is if his dull blue eyes are glancing around the Tardaxian’s lounge and his purple eyes are glued to the eight-legged waitress.
So it’s a good thing that you can switch POV characters within a text. Most sci fi keeps one POV character for a scene, separated either by a chapter break or a scene break before moving on to a different POV character. POV switches help you intertwine story lines, adding tension as you cut away just as things get interesting, and reveal to the reader more than any one character may reasonably know.
Next week: But, wait! There's more!
Kersley Fitzgerald's point of view is presently of the Rocky Mountains towering over the Air Force Academy Chapel and Maj Tom's office, twelve miles away.
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