Thursday, September 29, 2016

Editor's Notes #25: Points of View Part 3—How Many Are Too Many?

My previous two posts discussed first-person POV and third-person POV with guidelines as to the logic behind each choice, based on four roles: author, narrator, viewpoint person, and protagonist. I showed how these roles sifted out or interacted, depending on the POV chosen.

Since POV deals with . . . uh . . . viewpoint, the role of the viewpoint person seemed to warrant its own blog post. And I can't talk about viewpoint without talking about a "workable" number, how many is too many, and why so many inexperienced authors have their characters head-hopping without even realizing it.

If you're writing in the first-person POV, the viewpoint person is almost a no-brainer. It's you. You may or may not be the protagonist, but you're telling the story, so we see and hear it because you've seen it. Whether your thoughts are neutral or not is neither here nor there; this is your story, dang it, and you'll tell it the way you want to.

This can be a powerful way to introduce an element of surprise during a climax in the plot because there may be a turn of events you never saw coming. What? The murderer is WHO? How did I not notice? It can also be a limiting factor when knowledge is needed and you're the only source of it with your eyes and ears—and biased interpretation of events.

Third-person POV can give a little more lenience with the information that's doled out, because the narrator can fill in bits of information the viewpoint person may or may not see. We hear the viewpoint character's voice through dialogue and thoughts, and see the other characters through their reactions. If we want to know the thoughts of the other characters, they either have to say them aloud or the author needs to change the viewpoint character temporarily.

Writing in the third person can be done with an omniscient narrator who seems to touch upon each character's thoughts from time to time as needed; however, skill is needed or everything will become a big, jumbled mess. It's not technically head-hopping if you choose this route, but it's also not likely to allow the reader to connect with a particular character, either, and may cause a complete disconnect with the reader and book.

The "limited third-person POV" is a more common one in use today. You either have one viewpoint person, or you change views at logical, designated, easy-to-follow places.

And there lies the hard part. How often is too often? How many viewpoints are too many? I'm a firm believer in the "less is more" adage when it comes to viewpoints. There can be exceptions, of course, because there always are: the juvenile fiction book, The Westing Game, has about a dozen viewpoints, each one with its own chapter, and it's done so skillfully that the book became a favorite of everyone in my family after we discovered it.

On the other hand, if you ever want to see multiple viewpoints done badly, go to the Kindle freebies and take your pick of sample chapters. For every author who takes his work seriously, writing and rewriting, getting betas and edits, there are at least ten others who think they'll make an easy fortune by writing a book and getting it out there in all its first-draft glory. I've read books that have had viewpoint people change every paragraph or so, and without a distinct "voice" to the character, I couldn't guess which character was speaking. Those are, not surprisingly, the books I don't bother to continue reading past the first chapter or so.

It's too frustrating to hop around that many heads, and you don't want a frustrated reader on your hands, because a frustrated reader is one who will put your book down and never look back.

One of the best examples of a changing POV that works extremely well is in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. (No, I did not jump on the bandwagon because there's now an Outlander TV series with a hot Scot.) I started reading Gabaldon's books about 11 years ago and was hooked on her superb storytelling skills. She has a way of making the reader feel immersed in not only the sights, but the sounds and smells and texture of the time period. And her historical research is top-notch.

Gabaldon's first book in the series was written from the first-person point of view. She's since said that was simply the way it came out when she started writing, so that's how she kept it. However, when she began to write the second book, she realized the first-person POV would be too limiting, so she did something unique: the chapters/sections where we see things from the viewpoint of the main character (Claire) are all first-person POV. The remaining portions of the book may be from the viewpoint of a select few of the other main characters, but they are all written in third person. I love this because it's such an original way of changing things up. When I see "I" in the narrative, my brain immediately shifts to the way Claire thinks and acts, and I'm right there with her. When I see "he" or "she," on the other hand, I know we'll be seeing events from the perspective of her husband, daughter, son-in-law, or other primary character. We're not hopping around like crazy people, mind you, but each person has such a unique voice that I can tell whose eyes I'm seeing through, even if it's just a simple narrative of the character making his way through the woods.

So tell me: can you spot a head-hop a mile away, or are you unaware until someone points it out to you?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Editor's Notes #24: Points of View Part 2—How Do I Choose?

My previous post began to explore points of view and how to choose which one is right for your story. Many of you said your characters dictated what POV they wanted you to write from. I'm not surprised. Though I suppose an author can have one that's more comfortable for his writing style, each story is unique and should never become a cookie-cutter presentation. Nobody wants boring and predictable, after all.

We've already explored the first-person point of view, with its advantages and limitations; the next step is to look at the third-person point of view—a commonly-used way of showing what's going on in more than one head.

The four major players are the same: author, narrator, viewpoint person, and protagonist. However, their roles are divvied up differently this time.

In the third-person POV, the author is still the author, but that's pretty much the only similarity. The narrator doesn't actually participate in the action this time. The author and the narrator in third-person POV are the same . . . but they aren't, which can be confusing. Whereas there's a clear line to divide the author from the narrator in a first-person piece (because the narrator is the viewpoint person), the narrator in a third-person story is seen by the reader in a different light.

Harvey Chapman (from the Writers After Dark link I shared last time) explains it like this:
The author of a novel is a real-life person who has made up the events and written the words. 
But in order to feel like what we are reading actually happened, [we] readers need to forget about the author and imagine instead that the words have been written by a kind of invisible witness to the events—a person with godlike powers, perhaps, who can look down upon reality from above and describe it to the readers. 
The crucial point here is that this godlike narrator, as unlikely as such a figure might be, witnesses something that actually happened—whereas authors merely write about events they have made up. 
And so readers will ignore the author's name on the novel's cover and imagine instead that they are being told about the events by someone who actually witnessed them firsthand.
Also unlike the first-person POV, the narrator is not the story's viewpoint person. The narrator in a third-person POV is basically someone who gets us from here to there: this happened, and let me tell you all about it. Otherwise, narrating is kind of a thankless job: readers care about the characters, not the narrator . . . so, dear Narrator Person, please don't give us your opinion. Just enough facts so we can picture it all in our heads, and then step aside so the characters can speak.

Next is the viewpoint character, but the third part of this three-part series deals with viewpoint, so I'll only touch on it here. In short, if you tell the story through one person's eyes, there's a single viewpoint. If you choose to write from multiple viewpoints, different sections or chapters will feature different eyes to see through—aka different viewpoints. This deserves a good deal of detail, so look for it in my next post in two weeks.

Finally, the protagonist comes into play. The protagonist in a third-person POV novel is the leading or central character. The character the book is written about. The main attraction. The big Kahuna. He or she is the entire reason we're reading this story.

The protagonist may or may not be the viewpoint character. If you have a single viewpoint, then the protagonist will most definitely be your viewpoint character. However, if you have multiple viewpoints, there's no guarantee that these two roles will mesh. Imagine reading a novel based on two of my favorite cartoon characters, Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy (yes, I'm an unapologetic fan of SpongeBob). Mermaid Man may be the protagonist, but perhaps his adventure is told through Barnacle Boy's eyes. Sidekicks come in handy that way. And since sidekicks typically idolize the heroes whose sides they're kicking, it might be a pretty good gig to have if you're the hero, because your story from his view will make you sound even better than you are. Unless you have a rotten, bitter sidekick who has always wanted to be #1 but you've never given him the chance to shine. In that case, "interesting" is probably the best you can hope for.

Until next time, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Not all of them . . . just the good ones.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Editor's Notes #23: Points of View Part 1—How Do I Choose?

I have this glass (from one of my favorite websites, Despair, Inc., home of demotivational everything), and in addition to always making me smile, it reminds me that different people can look at the same thing in a variety of ways. Often, this helps to fill out the bigger picture of an issue. Other times, it only serves to confuse things, like when writing a book.

It takes real talent to write from multiple points of view. Some people do it without even realizing it, but that's not what we're discussing today. Well, maybe we'll use those people as bad examples, but for now, the ones we're talking about today and next time are those writers who actually do it on purpose.

When an author sits down to put pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard, or crayon to napkin, or Sharpie to forearm—the story that flows usually takes on a voice that's easily discernible. Sometimes it's in the form of a first-person narrative, sometimes a third-person "outside voice."

There is no "right choice" that an author can make for every occasion. Each book's POV choice should be as individual as its plotline. It all depends on what you hope to accomplish, and that's where a few guidelines help.

I recently read an article featured on the Writers After Dark website, titled "The Complete Guide to Point of View," by Harvey Chapman. Not only did the post feature the two most common points of view (first person and third person), but it linked to another article (same author) which explained the logic behind the different choices. According to Chapman, many authors are tempted to skip the fundamentals and simply look at the pros and cons, but there are a few things which should be understood before choosing.

The theory and logic behind choosing a point of view boils down to the roles of four people: the author, the narrator, the viewpoint character, and the protagonist. Now of course, the author is the author, but the narrator (the one who tells the story as compared to the one who writes the story) takes on a different role, depending on the POV chosen.

In the first-person POV, the narrator is also the viewpoint character. We see what he sees, but only what he sees. This can keep things simple and focused, but can also be tricky in a few ways. Anything that happens "offscreen," so to speak, can only be learned through conversation or eavesdropping. In other words, if the main viewpoint character wasn't there, it didn't happen . . . unless the event is discovered through other means.

First-person narrative also has the tendency to give us a not-so-objective "truth" as we read along. Think of any occasion where there is more than one person. There will be, of course, more than one opinion, and each person is sure his is the right one.

Chapman's article points out another interesting aspect of the first-person narrative: because a first-person narrator/viewpoint person is retelling something that happened in the past, the viewpoint may change, depending on whether that action or event happened in the immediate past or many years ago. As he states, ". . . if a forty-year-old adult tells us something that happened to him as a thirteen-year-old kid, that makes the narrator twenty-seven years older than the viewpoint person. And which of us can claim to be the same person at forty as we were at thirteen?"

The first-person narrator/viewpoint person may also be the protagonist, but this not a hard and fast rule. The person telling the story may just as easily be recounting a tale that happened to his best friend.

The important part is to know why you're choosing the point of view you're working with, and the rest should sort itself out much easier as the writing progresses.

Part 2 of this post will explain these roles (author, narrator, viewpoint person, protagonist) in the context of the third-person point of view.

Do you have a favorite POV to write from, do you have to think about it at great length, or does each book just present itself to you with a POV already chosen by the characters? I'm curious.