Friday, January 19, 2018

Point of View: Getting Inside Your Character's Heads

Point of View Made Simple In This Link!

When I began to write, the first person (the "I" narrator) felt most comfortable.  When you are in a character's head, "I" helps you relate to that character.  I wrote 5 novels ( 3 published) using the "I" (first person voice) to help me understand the character of my narrators. 
I  wrote short stories from various points of view, including even some beavers, but I was still most comfortable in "I' mode.  Here is an example from "The Rich Are Different" in the anthology Coast to Coast: Murder From Sea to Shining Sea. Here us Molly introducing herself. 

I got off the plane in Fort Lauderdale in early June hoping to find a cooking gig. What turned up was a chance to sling hash for the hired crew sailing the Marie Galante, a sixty-three foot yawl, to New England for the summer. Except for a husband who wants to kill me, I’d still live in my old Chicago neighborhood. Said husband is just your normal Neanderthal who went bat shit crazy when served with divorce papers and a restraining order. 
Bud, the skipper, took me under his wing, and gave me a small advance. I bought some warm second-hand clothes that I hadn’t thought to bring along and a cheap cell with pre-paid minutes. I had much to be thankful for, and I didn’t want to screw up.  
Then I began a new book with a character, Maxine. It was weird. Maxine sat on my shoulder and practically dictated the first quarter of the book to me.  But Maxine was never "I."  She was always "she."  And then I needed to get into the head of Lotto, the drug lord who wanted Maxine to disappear. It was fun to be Lotto.  He had a weird sense of humor and he fainted at the sight of blood. He thought everyone he dealt with was stupid. Lotto was not the main character, but his point of view was necessary. Maxine had a sister she was searching for. If only she could find the sister. But the sister had gone off track many years back, and wasn't anyone Maxine wanted to find, but she didn't know that. When Maxine finally found her, I was in the sister's head. She was terrible, but it was fun. She had great survival instincts, and a yen for money.  I enjoyed writing in the sister's head as much as in Lotto's.  
I wrote a women's novel and also used she, not I. It's actually the story you are writing that dictates the point of view, which writers abbreviate POV.  In that novel, I only used one point of view. Now I have started a novel set in two time periods, 1953 and the present, and of course I have two narrators. One is "I" and the other is "she." We'll see how this works out. So far so good. 
I have never written in second person, the "you" voice, but a few writers have had success with it. Here is a passage by Annie Dillard in the second person "You." 
"You are a sculptor. You climb a great ladder; you pour grease all over a growing longleaf pine. Next, you build a hollow cylinder like a cofferdam around the entire pine, and grease its inside walls. You climb your ladder and spend the next week pouring wet plaster into the cofferdam, over and inside the pine. You wait; the plaster hardens. Now open the walls of the dam, split the plaster, saw down the tree, remove it, discard, and your intricate sculpture is ready: this is the shape of part of the air." (Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Harper, 1974)
 There is also the omniscient POV,  in which the author is in everybody's head.  This was more common in prior periods, although some authors (especially in Britain) are very adept at it. It's called "head hopping." In the hands of an inexperienced writer, it can be deadly.  
When we learn to write, we learn that there is such a thing as a point of view violation, which comes from not understanding the rules. It can be blatant or so subtle no one is likely to notice.But it's best to learn and apply the rules.
Writing is a part art and part craft. The craft can be learned. My college English teacher told the class, "I can teach you to write not badly, but not well."
Ah, the subtle difference.     

These writers also have something to say on the subject.  You will be pleasantly surprised at the different takes on the same topic. Take a gander.

Dr. Bob Rich
Connie Vines
Helena Fairfax
Fiona McGier
Judith Copek
Marci Baun
Anne de Gruchy
A.J. Maguire
Skye Taylor
Anne Stenhouse
Beverley Bateman
Rhobin L Courtright

Diane Bator 


  1. Hi Judy, Interesting to learn that you've used different VP approaches, but not 2nd. I needed more than two VPs when writing a magazine serial recently and I'm doing another one at present. It's quite liberating, but I would not want to head-hop. Anne Stenhouse

  2. I love your teacher's quote! And I found it interesting that you sometimes write in first then third person to differentiate between your characters.

  3. Hi Judy!
    Fun examples of varying viewpoints and how the author uses them. I agree with all you said.

  4. I posted before, but I'm not sure it posted and I also wanted to say I liked your instructor's comment: "I can teach you to write not badly, but not well." ... and your response: Ah, the subtle difference.
    It seems to me much of writing is that subtle difference.

  5. Interesting post. Makes one wonder why Maxine was always she without you actually thinking about it when Molly just naturally fell into the first person. Maybe it has something to do with the characters as we create them? But it works. I shared a the short beginning of my new book, done in first person to my brainstorming group for comment and later we got to talking about POV and one of my buddies spoke up - but you have second person on page three. And sure enough, I did. When I thought about it, I realized that what I'd wanted to emphasize was the temperament of her boss, rather than her. This was what my friend had pointed out: "I tried to corral my unruly mane of curls and push them out of my face. I hadn't had time to put it into the French braid I usually use to keep it subdued during working hours when I got the early morning call. When the sergeant suggested you get right on a case, you got right on it. Without delay." We all discussed it and decided it actually worked there, but I didn't consciously do it.

  6. I tell my students that second person is so difficult to write that it's rarely used. I read a teenager essay once that was in second person and it was so well-written that I voted for it to win the writing contest! I don't think it won, but the sheer grasp of how to use such a difficult form made me vote it best in category.

  7. Interesting post and I enjoyed your examples, particularly Lotto and Maxine's sister. You also mentioned the story dictates the POV, which I hadn't thought of before, but it makes sense.

  8. Hi Judy - It was interesting to read about the progression you made from first to third person, and how your character, Maxine, practically dictated the viewpoint for you. I love it when character's do this! Thanks for an interesting post. Anne


Your comments are always welcome!