A recipe for choosing POV

 Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Last week I set a goal of deciding on a POV and then posting about it.
As it transpires, that took more humming and hawing than I'd expected.

First, let's put us all on the same page. What is meant by POV (Point of View)? It is where the narrator is speaking from. I like to imagine it as a camera position, although that analogy doesn't always hold up.

There are many choices, and there are books that move from one POV to another -- sometimes within a paragraph (putting paid to the insistence that there can only be one POV per book which you sometimes hear in writers' groups and classes; it's like being told that you should never paint with black paint because black is made up of all the colors, but Manet, Van Gogh, and Gauguin used Ivory Black straight from the tube...) Oops! Yes, POVs. Here are just the main ones, according to James Hynes:

-- I, me, my: First person. Divided into first person objective, more rarely used, where the narrator reports only on their actions and observations but without interior dialog or direct emotional insight (example: Ishmael in Moby Dick), and first person subjective where you are inside the narrator/protagonist's head and body. This is a very common POV in contemporary fiction, especially YA as it's valued for its immediacy. In my analogy, the camera is mounted behind the narrator's eyes (note that the narrator may not be the main protagonist, as with Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby). The only time we see the narrator's face, it's in a mirror.

-- You: Second person. Believe it or not, it's been done! It's used quite frequently in shorter pieces to put the reader directly in the role of the protagonist, and has been successfully sustained for novels. BUT NOT BY ME. This POV went straight into the too-hard basket. "You entered the room and turned on the light..." Imagine sustaining that for 100,000 words!

-- She, he, it: Third person. Divided into third person omniscient, where the narrator is looking down and has access to all information, including things the characters can't know, the future and the past, intimate thoughts, etc. — this camera can zoom any place it wants to go; third person close - objective, where the narration follows one character, usually the main protagonist, seeing only what she  can see, but with no access to interior dialog — imagine the camera loosely chained to the protagonist, always where she is, recording; and third person close - subjective, where the narration follows the protagonist but also has access to his inner thoughts and feelings. The camera is usually on the protagonist's shoulder, seeing what he's seeing, and has a special mic that can also record his thoughts.

Well, so which way to go now? The only POV that was easily discarded was the second person.  The rest of the process of elimination took ten days and is still not rock solid. I reserve the right to change my mind.

My book is going to be the very personal stories of four women—each story about a dislocation. I need the book to be intimate. Therefore, I disqualified the least intimate of the POVs, the third party omniscient.

First person subjective is arguably the most intimate POV, but in the course of my book, I have four protagonists. To write four first person subjective POVs is possible, but to write them well would be a huge challenge. The first person voice is not only responsible for telling the story. It is also responsible for bringing the character alive, by being individual and specific to the character.  To pull this book off in first person, I would have to create four authentic voices. I'm sweating just thinking about it.

Which leaves us with third person close - objective or subjective.  If I want intimacy, subjective seems the obvious choice. The only problem with this is that I'm by nature more of an objective writer. I put a lot of my energy into trying to find the telling observation. I want my readers to deduce and empathize from what they see. But then again, I've only written short stories to this point. I do believe most novels are less subtle. Maybe readers have less patience over a longer haul? Maybe with short stories they like to be provoked. With novels, they want to be satisfied. But I digress.

So, say for now the POV is third person close - subjective.
This allows the entire book to be written in one voice—my voice. Yippee!

Now, what about the tense? Do I try to put back some of the immediacy I lost when deciding against the first person? I could do this by adopting the present tense. Or do I opt for the greater flexibility of the past tense, which can range from the immediate past to the distant past?

I'm still on the fence on this one. I switched my first four paragraphs back and forth between tenses, and couldn't feel much of a difference. So, I am going to use the past tense for now. It might make more sense, as the book is set in four eras of the past. And, as my excellent writer friend Kara Vernor said, "there's a reason past is the default tense for novels." She's got a point. You don't even need to know what that reason is. If it's good enough for Turgenev...

Postscript: One chapter in, the novel spoke. It's now in the present tense for immediacy.

Happy writing!




Shirin Bridges