Thursday, August 9, 2012

Deborah Holds Forth on Point of View

SF Signal's MIND MELD just concluded a two-part discussion on Point of View (that's POV to the acronym-enabled), hosted by the wonderful Paul Weimer. Yesterday, I strewed links to it about the intarwebs, with snippets of my favorite parts. Today, I'm sticking my own oar in.

First of all, I'm struck by how every writer I know has an opinion about POV, and a personal preference as well. It's rare to hear someone say she enjoys writing ominiscent third every bit as much as first person. We've all got our quirks, shaped by our personalities, our experiences as readers, and what books on writing we've read or teachers we've studied with or editors we've worked with.

Second, I loved that the writers did not agree with one another. There is no "party line," no singular truth about "which is better." (See my first point.) The obvious explanation is that different POVs are better suited to different types of stories. Sure thing. The less obvious explanation is that POVs are subject to cycles of popularity. Today the publishing world values the 3 i's: immediacy, intensity, and intimacy. This hasn't always been so, and may not continue to be so. The Victorian writers embraced omniscient third, and saying that their work was therefore inferior is a bit like saying Baroque music isn't as good as Romantic because it has more ornamentation.

So here's my take on the issue. Far too many beginning writers fall in love with first person.
It's popular, especially with best-selling genres (YA, paranormal romance, etc.), so chances are we've read it, alas in our formative years. First person gives the illusion of the three i's, whether it genuinely creates them or not. It's a trap that's especially deadly for beginners. All they see is that first allows them inside the head of the protagonist, so the reader gets to experience the character's emotions at a raw, gut level that is not achievable any other way. I think this is nonsense. (Actually, I was about to type a stronger word, one syllable, but got polite at the last instant.) For myself, if I find myself thinking I have to use first, that I can't use third, then I am in danger of being complacent and superficial.

First person carries with it a temptation to writerly arrogance. I might venture to suggest it creates it because of the splash and ease of angsty melodrama. We don't have to consider all the nuances of a character's behavior, movement, speech pacing, posture, vocal tone, word choice, what details he notices and which he ignores, not to mention those he doesn't see but which are important, in order to know what he's feeling. He tells us in so many words, and we get lazy.

Writing in first person is like walking a tightrope with blinders on. It's far, far harder to do well than it looks. There's so much we can't do, and so much we can and should but don't because of this illusion of emotional accessibility. Well and appropriately done, it's a marvelous feat of skill and control. It's just too dratted easy to do poorly.

As writers, we have an immense amount to learn from actors, not to mention screenplay writers. Because they can (generally) tell a story only from the outside, they pay close attention to all the ways humans communicate. In many ways, third person, whether tight or distant, encourages us to incorporate these dimensions.

Here's what Judith Tarr had to say, very much in line with my own thoughts: For me, the most intimate mode is third person limited. I find that most transparent, though it has its own quirks (on which more below). First person would seem to be the most direct way to get into a story, wouldn’t it? But it’s not. As soon as your narrator uses that “I,” there’s a filter between the reader and the story, namely, the personality and viewpoint of the person telling it. Third person removes the filter, so it’s just the reader and the character–though the author can and will create a bias through word choice and selection of details, reactions, etc. 

I'm as guilty as the next one of indulging in first person, thinking I was making the story more vivid and immediate. Through many missteps and some very sage feedback, I began to question my choice of POV. Rewriting in third was an eye-opener. It revealed all the places I'd skimmed over crucial material, all the lazy other words, sloppy writing disguised under overemotional first person POV. I set aside first person, with considerable respect for its power and seductiveness, and worked on craft issues. I do sometimes write in first now, but only when it is the best way to tell the story, when the strengths of this POV are assets, not smoke-screens for poor writing.

This may not be true for every writer. I certainly hope it isn't. I'm happy to admit that we each have our temperamental preferences, and perhaps I am leery of first person for reasons peculiar to myself. I'm even more suspicious of wedding myself to only one POV -- first, tight third, flexible third, omniscient (I won't even discuss second; I've never been able to read or contemplate writing it.) One of the tasks of a beginning writer, as I see it, is developing as broad a range of skills as possible, as big and varied a tool chest. First person POV certainly belongs there, but if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. As glitzy as first person is these days, I think it should be handled with great care.

Your mileage may vary. Please jump in and let me know what you think!

Image by Bcjordan from work by Alex Shunkov, licensed under Creative Commons


  1. Thank you.

    Clearly I should have asked you, as well as Dave, into this Mind Meld, given your abiding thoughts on the subject.

    But then I was surprised and delighted to get positively inundated with responses...

  2. Paul, please don't take my comments as flouncing around because I wasn't asked! I think it's great to present a wide range of opinions, and I can always declaim my own on my blog!

  3. That's not quite what I intended to imply. :)

  4. Hi Deborah.

    Since we don't have an email address for you on file, I have sent you an invitation to the next Mind Meld via that contact form.

    Alternatively, if you could email me at jvstin at, I'd love for you to participate.