On Point of View

posted January 26, 2024
Me and my pals

Practically the first thing you need to decide when writing fiction is “who is telling this story?” Historically, we novelists have had many options. When novel-writing in English began in the 18th century, it most commonly took the form of first person. Robinson Crusoe tells us directly about his adventures on his island:

I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull.

Tristram Shandy regales us with the story of his life (though much of the narrative is spent recalling his months in his mother’s womb); Pamela is an epistolary novel, in which the horrible Mr. B writes about his intentions to seduce a 15-year-old maid.

With Jane Austin, writing in the early 19th century, we moved to the omniscient narrator, where a god-like voice speaks to the reader and can pop into the heads of all the characters at will. 

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Pride & Prejudice, of course)

(That said, even in omniscient there’s still usually a dominant consciousness belonging to the protagonist.)

By the twentieth century, and continuing to this day, many if not most authors opt for what we call as “close third” meaning we see the story almost 100 percent from the point of view of the protagonist. Think Harry Potter. Although even in that series, there are a couple of scenes (beginnings of Book 4 and Book 6) where we see the nefarious Voldemort talking to his some of his followers. In this case, the reader has information that the narrator doesn’t share. 

Using first person doesn’t necessarily mean the narrator is the protagonist. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald uses Nick Carraway’s first-person account to reflect on and show us Jay Gatsby, the protagonist, but Nick is really just an observer. In Moby-Dick, the tragic hero is Ahab, not Ishmael. 

My favorite novels involve more than one narrator. (Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads, Ann Napolitano’s Hello Beautiful, Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr to name just a handful). I love hearing about a situation from several points of view. Aren’t there always at least two sides to a story? For this purpose, close third works well, because you can see the world through one character’s eyes, and alternate chapters by character. While there’s usually still one dominant voice or character, each one has an arc of sorts.

I first conceived of my novel The Big Idea as a family saga, with the focus on the middle child, Rhodie. She would be my protagonist. But as I started to write her, I got stuck. She was so cranky and insecure. It was depressing to be in her voice at least at first. Much more fun to write from her older brother Peter’s voice, brash and cocky and ruminative. Zhsanna, the easiest and freest of the siblings, was observed by the others in my early drafts, perhaps because I wasn’t so free and easy myself at the time.

But within a few months of starting to draft this book, my 10-year-old marriage started to crumble. The person I thought I knew was a chimera. Aren’t we all? At what point do we become honest enough with the world to be the person we really are? In any event, I had a whole lot to write about marriage and betrayal. Which character would that be? The Becket siblings were…well, siblings. I needed an outsider. Peter had a wife. Her name was Liv First.

But Liv told me her story in the first person. She was that outsider looking in, observing the eccentric Becket family at close range. She was their manager as well as Peter’s wife. How did the sisters feel about that? Suddenly, there was conflict. Not only that, as Rhodie said, “Liv First arrived like a hawk, with the subtly of a season. And now she was threatening to take over the narrative.”

Maybe it should be Liv’s book, not the Beckets’.

But if I wrote the book solely from Liv’s first person point of view, how could she know what Rhodie and Peter were thinking? Did I throw out all that third-person-close material and leave the reader in the dark? Rhodie and Peter were sure not willing to shut up. So early drafts of The Big Idea had Liv’s first person narration alternate with Rhodie’s close third. Peter, like Zhsanna, was simply observed by the other two, though they both communicated a lot through their dialogue and actions.

The draft didn’t entirely work this way. The characters kept fighting within my pages about whose book this was. Beta readers and editors scratched their heads, weighing in on one side or the other. 

Finally, I gave up on first person Liv and put her in third person like the others, which felt a bit like a demotion. Switching POVs isn’t as simple as changing all the “I”s to “She”s. You lose something when you get out of that confessional first-person voice. Imagine Moby-Dick’s beginning switched from first person to close-third: “Call him Ishmael.” ?????

Writing fiction or writing anything for publication is about making decisions, and a decision is a cutting in two a discarding of the untaken fork in the road. 

Or is it? 

One of my favorite novels—perhaps my all-time favorite—is Columbus McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. This masterpiece has it all—brief sections in omniscient, a kind of communal “we” voice as the ground-level observers watch Philippe Petit’s journey from one World Trade Center tower’s roof to the other’s. Chapter One is from Ciaran Corrigan’s first person. Chapter Two is close third from Claire’s. Later, we get another first person account—but it’s Gloria’s Bronx voice, an entirely different narrator from Chapter One’s Irish one. 

The Big Idea is now three books. The middle one, which I worked on for years, is in boxes in the attic, folders on my shelf, files on my computer, and for certain in my heart and mind. But I realized I needed to tell this family saga slowly, let the characters grow up. The novel I’m polishing and hoping to bring to the world first is a book I’ve been working on since my graduation from my MFA program: Pimmit Run. This is the story of the three Becket siblings coming to maturity, and while Liv does make an appearance, she doesn’t get to narrate. The novel alternates between the points of view of Peter, Rhodie and Zhsanna, just as my initial inspiration commanded. 

For your amusement, I made a series of Instagram videos on the topic of Point of View, which you can find on my Instagram. The last one in the series of five is below:

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