Point of View


So, today I’m thinking about point of view. I’ve noticed that my natural inclination when beginning books is to start off writing in omniscient POV and then drop into third person when the person whose viewpoint the first scene is in shows up. I did it with Heavy Ice, and I’ve found myself doing it again when beginning the new thing, which is tentatively titled Emma Dread, Or, Camelot By Gaslight. Here’s the beginning of Heavy Ice in first draft, which is subject to change without notice:

In 650 S.F the world changed. For Raj Cordoval: for Prince Vane-Egypt Considine, recently made Considine Prime: for the man calling himself Zak Liang, whose name wasn’t Zak or Liang either: but most of all for Kallisty Hawkwood, who very nearly didn’t survive long enough to notice.

It was night. It wouldn’t be dawn for another thirty-five hours. Kallisty and her followers were returning from a foray into the iceworks, and had camped in the rock-shelter known as the Roof of the World. Their vrykols were bundled up at the back of the cave, shivering under blankets and trying to chew off the strips of fur bound around their claws.

Kallisty was outside, sharing the watch even though it wasn’t her turn, perched on a knife-edge that divided one world from another. It wasn’t altruism that made her share the watch. It was the sure and scratchy knowledge that if she had to spend another moment inside she’d start a fight and end up having to knife somebody.

I rewrote the beginning of The Maker’s Mask so many times that I couldn’t actually remember what I’d done with it, but it looks as if it and The Hawkwood War both hop into Tzenni’s and Ligeia’s viewpoints pretty quickly; and Firebrand is a special case because it’s first person and also starts off right in the middle of a conversation.

I can’t write long-form in omniscient: I’ve tried. I admire how the Victorian writers did it, though I haven’t really been able to get into anything modern written in omniscient POV unless it’s humour. I keep trying to anchor myself in the heads of whoever’s thoughts are being described, and getting mental whiplash when the narrative strolls off to read the mind of someone else.

On the other hand, I don’t have any problem reading first person, which I know a lot of people find hard to get into. I have a lot of sympathy for people who can’t read first person, because I have my own ‘no, this gives me the nails-run-down-a-blackboard of the soul’ hard limit, and that’s the viewpoint where where the action is described as if it was taking place on a stage, and no one’s thoughts ever get mentioned at all. As soon as I work out that that’s what I’m reading I can’t go any further. I’m sure I’m missing out, but what can I say, I need that level of involvement with the characters in order to engage.

I’m almost as intolerant of books where we never get to see the hero’s point of view though we often get their sidekick’s point of view, or other people’s. I say almost, because I love the Sherlock Holmes stories, but I bounced hard off Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond series.

I’m finding it interesting that I was willing to follow my natural inclinations with my fourth and the very beginnings of what will hopefully be my fifth book [1] whereas I didn’t with the first three, and I think it comes down to confidence. Firstly in the sense of willingness to follow my own voice, and secondly in that what I think I’m subconsciously saying to the reader by addressing them directly at the start is ‘Don’t worry. You’re in capable hands. Relax and engage with the story.’

Do you have any thoughts on POV, or anything else? You can comment telling me how much I’m missing out by not reading Dunnett, but I’ve tried several times and been unsatisfied, so the likelihood of me finding the time to give them another go in the near future is not high.

[1] Not counting things written but unpublished, because if I did that I’d be here all day. Also, no guarantees are offered that Emma Dread won’t morph into something else altogether.

Image © FreeFoto.com

9 thoughts on “Point of View

  1. First-person used to be so easy for me, but it’s now rather difficult. I find I like limited third-person the best from one to three narrative viewpoints. George R. R. Martin does some amazing things with third-person limited, so right now I find that I tend to follow his example and tell things only through the eyes of certain narrators.

    I think I probably got turned off of first-person limited point of view with the Twilight series and books following that formula. Maybe if I go back and read stuff I liked I might be able to do first-person POV more easily.

  2. I often have trouble with tenses with first person, and tie myself in knots trying to work out whether what I’ve got is the narrator speaking at the time or recollecting in tranquillity. First person present tense helps with that, though I know a lot of people find it hard to get into.

    Oh, I forgot a POV option – epistolary. I keep wanting to write an epistolary novel sometime. I was fascinated by the spate of novels-in-emails that started showing up in the early 00s and then fizzled, not so much because I found any of them particularly compelling as because I was interested in the stylistic choices they made.

  3. That’s shame about Dunnett – I haven’t read the Lymond Chronicles yet but I’ve read all but the last Niccolo book and absolutely loved them. There’s no getting around the POV issue though, the whole point is that you never know what is going on in Niccolo’s head and whether he’s the hero or the villain.

    I’m intrigued by the new project 🙂

    1. Weirdly, I’m happy to watch ‘is X a hero or a villain’ on TV (unless the answer is ‘X is supposed to be the hero but behaves as badly as the villains, it’s just that they’re in the wrong and he’s not because X is the hero’ which drives me batty, or ‘X is Evil but Misunderstood’ which I can only watch when I’m in the right kind of mood) but I can’t cope with it in print. I don’t know why.

      1. *Shrug* I hated Lost even though I have no problem with books where you don’t know what the hell is going on. Something about the way I engage with books is just different to watching TV or films…

        (Niccolo is actually more complicated of course, it’s probably more accurate to say you don’t know whether he’ll choose to be the hero or the villain but that’s by the by, if you can’t cope, you can’t cope.)

        1. I like the Lost kind of show if I believe the showrunners know what’s going on. The moment I think they’re just throwing stuff in and hoping no one will notice it doesn’t make sense, I’m out of there. Which is why Once Upon A Time is on borrowed time with me.

  4. The absolute worst POV is first-person *with* the action-taking-place-on-a-stage thing. (Margaret Drabble/Barbara Vine, I’m looking at YOU.) I mean, srsly, why should I even bother reading the emotionless, detached blitherings of some idiot narrator who lives their life like it’s happening to someone else? Gah!!!

    1. I wonder whether it’s that kind of thing that puts people off first person. Given that overly close-focus blitherings are also annoying (I really do not need to hear every time the narrator thinks ‘hmmm’) it’s a hard balancing act.

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