When you’re writing a story, you have to ask yourself two questions, says Geraldine Mills, the Irish writer who ran a workshop on point of view (POV) for the Singapore Writers’ Group. ‘Whose story do you want to tell? And who do you want to tell it?’
For those who haven’t previously heard of POV in writing, basically, it’s the decision of whether to write in the first person or the third person along with which character’s POV you’re taking in the telling of your story. So you need to decide who your main character is and the narrative voice.
I know from personal experience that when you first start writing, you can find yourself ‘head-hopping’ from one POV to another, making it difficult for the reader to really engage and sympathise with any one character. This is because you’re preoccupied with the story. It’s only later that you think about who is telling it.
Geraldine says that the character dictates the decision. Sometimes the POV is obvious because a character will talk to you and will have a distinctive voice. In Geraldine’s short story ‘The Weight of Feathers’ in her short story collection of the same title, she said the first line just came to her. ‘A man fell out of the sky and into my garden.’
And she knew she had to tell the story in that voice, in the first person. ‘I found the slump of his body by the pomegranate trees when I went out to water the terraces. The evening burned itself into the mountain. There were feathers all around me, some stuck to his arms, some to his legs, a golden syrup of wax melted on his face. I thought he was dead until I touched some part of his shoulder and a low groan came from his cracked lips.’
I wish characters talked to me like that!
Other times, like in the YA novel Geraldine is currently writing, it is more difficult to decide and she’s experimenting, telling the story from each of her three characters POVs to see which is strongest. She’s finding each of them limiting because there are aspects of the story that can’t be told as a result. It is a comfort that established, published writers wrestle with this stuff too.
Geraldine says you have to look for the conflict and ask yourself, ‘which is the most pressing story? Who has the most to lose? And who has the most to gain from the telling?’ Once you’ve decided, you then have to remain consistent.
So what are the different POVs? We all know the first person, the third person and, more rarely, the second person – ‘you’. But it turns out there are different options among those. Let me summarise Geraldine’s low-down on these.
Writing in the first person can lend an immediacy to the writing. When using ‘I’, it’s usually the main character telling the story from their POV and it’s what they see or hear and you can’t go into anyone else’s head. This can be powerful at one level and limiting at another.
There is also the first person witness / peripheral, where the narrator is not the protagonist. The Great Gatsby could have been told from Gatsby’s POV, but F Scott Fitzgerald chose to tell it from Nick Caraway’s POV, who witnesses what happens. So we only know what Nick sees or what Gatsby or another character tells him. But the reader gets Nicks relationship with Jordan and the Buchanans and an eye on their world that Gatsby doesn’t have.
It is more rare to read the first person omniscient, who is all-knowing, as in The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, where the main character has been killed and is telling the story from the other side.
And one that had never even crossed my mind before is the first person plural, ‘we’. Geraldine gives the example of Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story The Treatment of Bibi Haldar. A collective, in this case the local people in a community, tell of how they treat a woman who has fits.
‘In efforts to cure her, concerned members of our town brought her holy water from seven holy rivers. When we heard her screams and throes in the night, when her wrists were bound with ropes and stinging poultices pressed upon her, we named her in our prayers.’
It would be difficult to sustain in a novel. It only really works when the collective witnesses something and the conflict has to be outside the ‘we’. While in Lahiri’s story the community are helping Bibi Haldar, the first person plural can have a creepy effect, with people clubbing together, a mob.
You can write in the first person from more than one character’s POV (first person multiple) but you have to be careful to make each of the voices distinctive so the reader knows which character is speaking / whose view we’re getting. You also have to be sure of who the protagonist is and give weight to that character. And make it easier for the reader by using section breaks or chapter breaks when you swap POV.
‘You’. Again, this could be hard to sustain over a novel and might grate. It can bring you closer to the narrator if they are talking directly to the reader but it can also be used to distance the narrator from the protagonist.
I thought Mohsin Hamid used it to brilliant effect in ‘How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’, a novel in the style of a self-help book.
‘This book is a self-help book. Its objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia. And to do that it has to find you, huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning. Your anguish is the anguish of a boy whose chocolate has been thrown away, whose remote controls are out of batteries, whose scooter is busted, whose sneakers have been stolen. This is all the more remarkable since you’ve never in your life seen any of these things.’
There’s more freedom writing in the third person and it can be easier to create tone and atmosphere. With the third person limited, the narrator hones in on one character and can get inside his or her head and is privy to their thoughts and feelings. J.K Rowling does this in Harry Potter. We can see and hear all the other characters but we see and understand the action from Harry’s POV, following him like a camera is on his shoulder.
More old-fashioned, is the third person omniscient, as Charles Dickens or Jane Austen would use, where the narrator can take a wide-angle view of events or close in on one character or another and can even draw moral thoughts or judgments.
There’s also the objective narrator, relating what he sees or hears, which Raymond Carver uses skilfully in Little Things.
You can have multiple narrators in the third person. In Capital by John Lanchester, you get the POVs of 15 to 20 characters. Geraldine says that while the writing is superb and humorous, ‘there was no one character I could have sympathy with. I’d just get into one person’s story and it would move on to another POV.’
During the workshop we did an exercise writing from a particular POV. As we read them out, it was interesting hearing the different effects gained by simply replacing ‘I’ with ‘she’ or ‘you’. Geraldine suggests playing with different POVs and to move out of our comfort zones in order to grow as writers. And it’s important to know the rules before bending them. You can use POV to create an effect structurally across a book. For instance, Alice Clark-Platts, in her debut novel Bitter Fruits, due out on July 2, deliberately swaps between the third person for the police investigation and the first person for a particular character and you don’t know who that person is until the end.
So take Geraldine’s advice and play with POV. Challenge yourself with new narrative voices. Happy writing.