Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Point of View - Rules and Breaking the Rules

Point of View is a tricky thing. The popularity of each approach varies over time. 1st person (especially in Young Adult books) and deep 3rd person have the benefits of connecting directly to the reader and drawing on empathy early to maintain that sense of personal-stakes-in-the-conflict (when done well with a fascinating character). In the current reading climate I vote for a novel limited to one POV in a scene, if not chapter, if not entire book.

In my own books, I've mixed it up. I've used a single 3rd person POV in an entire book, 3rd person alternating (every other chapter) between two characters, and a more complicated method of three POVs - two of them 3rd person protagonists and one 1st person serial killer.

I tend to have a personal theme running through my books that is essentially: "The bad guy is a misunderstood good guy." That requires that I paint skin-crawling, dangerous bad guys that have motivations that can be understood and even sympathetic to the good guy and reader by the end. This is particularly tough to pull off with a character that kills, but being deep inside the antagonist and slowly revealing the cause of his/her behavior is easier to pull off using very deep 3rd person or 1st person. It is a challenge, for sure, the reason I didn't attempt it until my forth book.

If we decide to change Points of View within a scene, each change in POV needs to be handled so deftly that it is a huge challenge (or more simply handled with a drop down as a signal) Rarely can a writer pull off abrupt changes in POV with no signal.

Omniscent is still used, as is 2nd person and present and future tense; but they often fall into the experimental category now rather than popular fiction. I frequently catch slips of POV in popular fiction, but in the context of deep 3rd person POV it is often ignored, forgiven, or missed by readers (unless they are also writers or editors who are trained to flag the slips - you should see me putting sticky notes into novels - sometimes it is a curse to be an editor) It isn't a cardinal sin, just head-bouncing if done frequently. And editors give less leeway to new writers - thus my seeming obsession over it.

In the spirit of "exceptions proving rules," if you'd like to see every writing guideline broken in an amazing, magnetic and shocking way, capturing even the Pulitzer Prize, take a luxury dip into TINKERS by Paul Harding. If I tried my entire life, I couldn't do what he did. I believe devoted writers, on the other hand, could do something off the beaten track after 100% mastering the more accessible POVs. A strong writing voice would carry the reader over the waves of atypical craft - not because it is easy to read, but because it is poetry to the heart. TINKERS may have still worked and had a wider readership if Harding had stayed within today's expectations. We can't know for sure.

Do you have any favorite books that break POV "rules" successfully?

I'd love to hear about them - Inkpot


  1. Excellent post, Inkpot! I recently re-read DUNE and noticed how Herbert changed POV in the middle of a page. It doesn't slow down the read at all. I wonder if the POV "rule" became more prevalent in the 70s or 80s and if there might now be some kickback against it. Sounds as if I should put TINKERS on my list. ~Folio

  2. I usually hate books that "headhop" and would put them down without finishing. I recently read TROUBLESHOOTERS by Ian Healy, which rotates freely between three characters, even in the middle of a scene. Somehow, it didn't bother me at all. I'm still trying to figure out how he got past my defenses.

  3. Intriguing! I just downloaded a sample onto my Kindle. Thanks for posting about this topic. I love reading about writing.

  4. I come from a poetry background, so now that I'm writing fiction, I struggle with POV. I think I'm sticking to alternating chapters of 3rd person "close." Is that the same as "deep"?

  5. close/deep. I think they can be used interchangeably. Though the image that works for me is as if you are wearing blinders or looking through a camera lens and can only see (experience) the world from your pov's perspective. Inkpot