Anna asked me to expound a little on points of view in fiction – just the little matters of “how to get it right, how to successfully deal with writing from multiple POVs and how to adequately get inside other characters’ heads by using only one POV… It's an issue that comes up a lot when I review on You Write On stories and even more seasoned writers could use some tips on the subtler angles of [the issue].”
Well, yes, I agree – though funnily enough the very first thing to say about the topic is that your first instinct about how to deal with the matter is quite likely correct. If you’ve always conceived of your novel as having a single first-person narrator, you should probably do just that. If you’ve always seen your narrative as having multiple (probably third-person) viewpoints, then, once again, that’s probably right. Indeed, part of the trouble with the topic is that the more you analyse it, the more complicated it seems to become. Complicated and technical in a way that seems quite opposed to the flow of good, natural creative writing.
So the first message is simply: relax. If you have a vision, go with that vision and you can if necessary tweak things at the editing stage. (Though that’s not giving you permission to make a complete mess of things – see my warning later in this piece.)
Secondly, you need to figure out who your protagonist is. Jonathan Franzen once said, ‘Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.’ That’s a good rule of thumb. Bridget Jones was a fab (first-person) book because of the force and naturalness of Bridget’s voice. The upside of this choice is that you get intense intimacy with your protagonist. You literally see with their eyes, think their thoughts, and so on. The downside is that inevitably you see less into other people. But so what? We humans can’t simply peer inside any skulls we happen to be interested in. We deduce things about other people from what they say, do and manifest. So if you’re writing in the first person, just figure these things out the way you do in your ordinary life. Just be a human. That’s simple, no?
(As an aside, I’d also add that intimacy with character applies as much to the writer as the reader. I’ve written plenty of third person – and mostly multi-protagonist – fiction in the past. Then I embarked on my first ever first-person novel, Talking to the Dead. The central character of that book, a certain Fiona Griffiths, came storming into my head and has never left me since. She’s like an incredibly intense, strange, but welcome intruder. And she could kick Lisbeth Salander’s butt.)
The next main option is to have a single protagonist about whom you write in the third person. You tend to lose a little intimacy here, because although you can listen in to your character’s thoughts and feelings, your expression of those things will normally belong to you rather than your protagonist. (Though the latter’s expressive habits will quite likely creep in a bit anyway.)
The gain, however, is flexibility. So take, for example, Hitchcock’s differentiation between surprise and suspense. If my first person protagonist happens to be sitting for fifteen minutes at a table, beneath which a bomb has been primed and planted … well, she doesn’t know that she’s in peril, so there’s no suspense, only surprise. If you write the same scene from the third person perspective, you can introduce the information about the bomb beforehand, then have the exact same scene play out in a frenzy of tension and suspense. The protagonist may be unaware of her danger, but the reader sure as hell isn’t.
Finally, you can opt to really broaden your novel out: combining multiple major characters and third-person narration. Veronica Henry is one example of an author who succeeds with this kind of technique. Tom Clancy (not normally thought of as similar to Veronica H) is another.
The trick here is to make sure that every character who enjoys significant page space through the course of the novel has their own fully-fledged story. You know what I mean: a challenge, an obstacle, a series of adventures, mounting jeopardy – all that jazz. Clearly that rule doesn’t apply to genuinely minor characters: like a Tom Clancy coastguard captain whose only role in the book is to be the first to die in whatever conflict is brewing up. But certainly any character with more than 20% of the book is a major character and has to have a story. No exceptions. No get-out clauses.
If you take this route, you will enjoy loads of flexibility and breadth in your narrative. The downside: well, you’ll never get the degree of intimacy with character that you have when you have the reader in the first-person shoes of a single protagonist. As a VERY general rule, the more external focus of your story, the more likely you are to pick a multi-protagonist, third-person approach. The more personal and internal the focus, the more likely you are to go for the single protagonist and (possibly) first-person approach.
If this short guide doesn’t answer every question – well, it can’t. Most POV issues are simple and your gut instinct is normally right. But there are exceptions and there are complexities. As it happens, I’ve written about the technicalities at length in my How To Write book, technicalities which take up almost 25,000 words of text. (Though admittedly, the discussion isn’t solely about points of view, but also such things as authorial irony, past tense vs present tense, unreliable narrators and so forth.) If you’re mired in those complexities, then one last bit of advice: it is worth sorting them out before you do anything else at all. Because if you do make a mess of points of view, the consequences in terms of the surgery needed on your manuscript may be horrendous. I’ve certainly seen manuscripts which basically needed to be ditched and rewritten from scratch because their authors got in a tangle on these things.
Does that sound scary? Well it ought to, a bit. But there are plenty of places to get help. My book is one place to go. Writing courses, writing circles and other places where you can exchange thoughts with professionals can also be incredibly valuable. And also, of course, reading fiction is the best possible resource you can have. You want two first person narrators? Well, why not? That’s what Audrey Niffenegger did in Time Traveler’s Wife. You want a multi-narrator dual time-stranded novel? Be my guest: Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers did just that. Hey, you want to fool around and try a first-person plural narration? Read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and watch a master at work.
I hope all that helps – and good luck!
Harry Bingham is the author of various books and also runs the Writers’ Workshop which offers feedback on writing and a variety of writing courses.