December 1, 2018

The Perils of Point of View

In the early stages of writing, there can be a lot of road blocks that prevent writers from getting into their stories. Most people seem to struggle with something like not having a plot figured out, or not having a good opening scene, but for me, the biggest struggle when beginning a new project is pinning down a point of view, or POV. While I advise the aforementioned writers to just wing it or to write later scenes, respectively, there isn’t really a work around for POV. You can’t write a text-based story without a POV.

Or, I suppose, POV matters a lot more in text than in visual mediums. All movies and comics I have ever encountered are third person, whether close or omniscient, or some mix of the two. There are, however, instances where one might slip into first person for a few seconds or a couple panels, such as when monster-cam is used to show us what the monster is seeing, or when a character wakes up disoriented and takes in their surroundings, which we see from their eye-view. Video games are generally third person, in games where you can see your character running around (think Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda, etc), or first, as in the aptly named first person shooters. Some games will let you switch between the two (Skyrim springs readily to mind) or will switch depending on the scene (Ace Attorney is first person during investigations, but third person in court scenes). I would even argue that the vast majority of games now are also in the second person, since the NPCs talking to your character are talking to you: if they ask the character to fight some monster or bring back an item, they are asking you, the player, to fight that monster or get that item.

Thus, in a visual medium, you can play fast and loose with POV, and no one cares. It barely registers with the audience that there even is a POV in most visual stories. But with text, it becomes more apparent, and can be more perilous. As mentioned before, I’ve played games that switch from first to third person seamlessly and also incorporate second person; most gamers have. Additionally, there are hundreds of comics that will switch from people speaking to what a character is thinking, sometimes even shifting to another character’s thoughts in the same scene, or using a characters thoughts as a transition from scene to scene. If you tried anything like that in a book, people would lose their minds. I’ve even heard people complain about switching between close and omniscient third person, as if no one can live at that speed!

On the one hand, I get it. Visual mediums are doing most of the work for us in terms of knowing who is speaking or thinking. It can be confusing to be reading something and not know whose POV we are experiencing. But that’s just it; people opposed to playing with POV assume that readers will be confused, but will they? I think that people who watch movies and play video games and read comics can handle book chapters written in different POVs, or even switching from close to omniscient within a scene.  

That being said, I personally still like to stick with one POV—either first or third—and for some writers, this would be an easy choice to make. From what I can tell, most writers get some sentence or paragraph or something in their head, and that happens to be either “I did X” or “So-and-so did X”, and depending on which sentence appears in their brain, that is the POV of the story. Easy! Not so for me. I do not think in words, which is sort of a big problem for a writer. I think about what the setting looks like, and what the characters are doing, right down to blocking and close-ups and wide shots. I can spend hours pinning down exactly who says what when, and what non-verbal cues are present in the conversation. But describing any of this? That takes effort. When it comes time to actually get all of these images in my head out on paper, I’m always struck with the question of which POV to use. Of my four stories that I’ve actually decided to write, rather than dream about, three have given me trouble with POV (Love & Chaos was a spin-off, so it was easy).

When The Styx Trilogy was just an egg of an idea, that is, a setting and a handful of characters but no plot, I played with the idea of first person. I knew that it couldn’t only be Bostwick’s POV, as he wouldn’t be in every scene, but I also didn’t want to give too much away about Delilah and Millicent by having them be viewpoint characters. Thus, I decided that Bostwick’s white rabbit would be an interesting first-person narrator, and, well, the rest is history (For those of you who haven’t read Miscast Spells (and you really should!), I ended up going with third, and yes, I do switch between close and omniscient, so there!).

My alternate-history/fantasy/mystery, by virtue of what it’s a pastiche of, really ought to be first person. One character would make a splendid semi-unreliable narrator, as there are many things she doesn’t notice, but others which only she can see. But I also want a few scenes she isn’t in, particularly scenes where the villains sit around and talk in vague terms about their schemes. Will I end up going with third person entirely? Or will I switch between first and third depending on the chapter? Shouldn’t the whole thing just be a graphic novel instead? Yes, it should, but that’s not going to happen, so… The jury is still out on this book’s POV.

And then, there is my novella-in-verse WIP, which should have given me the least amount of trouble, since I knew from the get-go that it would be in multiple people’s first person POV. But then I started to write it, and it didn’t flow very well. Perhaps that is the secret to why people avoid different poetry forms for novels-in-verse? I still loved the idea, but for this story, there was so much back and forth—I mean, I’m wrangling ten characters—that it seemed choppy. Any page might have a cinquain and a limerick and a haiku and just… ugh! It was too much!

I thought of giving up the whole in-verse aspect of it, and for a brief second, the clouds seemed to clear. It would be so much easier to write! But then I realized that the multiple viewpoints were very important. That POV choice, made on a whim, had become integral to the story! No one character knows exactly what is going on, and all of the characters eventually start to suspect each other. I needed to switch between character POVs many times per chapter, but I didn’t want to confuse readers, and the best way not to do that is to continue in verse. After explain the issue to my father, while trying not to give away the ending, I’ve settled on less back and forth. That is, Character A may speak in a sonnet, and one sonnet might include his exchange with Character B, as well as the description of a body (there are a lot of bodies in this story!). Then the next page might be Character B’s garland cinquain about how they think Character A is full of it, and also the killer, and that we all need to be on guard.

I think I can make this work. The story is still in its baby stages (I lost NaNo(inVerse)WriMo, by the way), but I’m excited for it. It will still be very experimental, but that’s have the fun of playing around with point of view.

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