rachel1121's picture
rachel1121 from Colorado is reading anything I can get my hands on. August 6, 2015 - 3:10pm

I was looking to get some thoughts on POV.  As a reader, what's your opinion on books with multiple viewpoints (think Game of Thrones) verses a single viewpoint.  Or third person compared to first person.  Or some combination thereof.  I'm working on rewriting part of a novel from a different point of view to see if that moves the story better.  I was curious what other people prefer.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami August 6, 2015 - 8:11pm

I personally prefer first person multiple pov. You get all the benefits of first person, as well as the benefits of getting inside multiple characters heads.

I've personally encountered way to many advice collums, that honestly don't know what their talking about when it comes to decrying one POV over the other.

So write whichever POV you prefer.

rachel1121's picture
rachel1121 from Colorado is reading anything I can get my hands on. August 6, 2015 - 9:02pm

Multiple first person.  I may give that a try and see if it works. 

Jimothy Scott's picture
Jimothy Scott from Canada is reading The Anatomy of Story by John Truby August 6, 2015 - 10:38pm

As a reader I most enjoy third person. If that happens to be one view point or many so be it. If there are a lot of POV characters (Game of Thrones) they all must be interesting or you run the risk of losing me. I skipped big chuncks of Game of Thrones because I didn't like the character's chapters. As a writer I try to write third but have had more success with first person.

Brandon's picture
Brandon from KCMO is reading Made to Break August 7, 2015 - 9:14am

I enjoy multi-POV when it works. Rant, for instance, is a good one. World War Z...not so much.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 7, 2015 - 1:38pm

I hate to give this same old answer, but it totally depends on the story. GoT works in large part because of it's huge cast, which of course requires a lot of POVs. If you've read Damned at least half the reason it's so great is the voice of the (first person) narrator. And if you want an airport novel thriller, one POV in third makes it simple enough to keep things moving quickly and maybe still keep some secrets from the reader. 

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 7, 2015 - 1:40pm

PS 

I'd say the only way multiple first-person POVs work is with two, you go back and forth, and name the chapters after the narrator. Ideally the font will be different in each chapter. Legend did this, it worked. And it was a neat way to be able to still hide things from the reader, while still having that first person insight and voice. Kind of a neat hybrid.

But if you do three first person POVs you're probably going to confuse the shit out of everyone.

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer August 7, 2015 - 3:08pm

I don't care whether it is first or third, as long as it a tight, limited third. Omniscent POV's bore me.

Chris DePoy's picture
Chris DePoy August 8, 2015 - 5:01pm

In my opinion, first person often risks getting bogged down with needless exposition, but it does work nicely for building tension or isolation.

Marša's picture
Marša from Wrocław (Poland) August 10, 2015 - 12:07am

In general I would say that if POV fits the story it's OK. But personally I have to admit that when I see first person POV I have red alert in my head because I've read too many bad things written in such way. First person has its limitations (first person in present tense has even more of them and people tend to forget it) that may cause problems in ling term. But if author knows what he is doing - it can give great story when reader can really relate to the character. 
Still what I like the best is third person with multiple POV so I can understand more than one side of conflict and learn more about more than one character. :)

 

Keiri LaPrade's picture
Keiri LaPrade from Virginia is reading Beowulf August 11, 2015 - 9:31pm

I really think that it does depend on how you want your reader to experieince the story.  First person can give a more personal feel and make the reader feel a bit more connected to the main character (since it's assumed that the main is telling the story to the reader or that the reader is in the main's head).

Thrid person keeps a slight seperation from the main but allows for you to put in details that the main character doesn't see. It also makes switiching POV's easier because you can you the character's names outside of dialogue to make it clear who it is (I like third person).

 

Also, speaking about the multiple POV is first person.  I just finished Dracula and Bram Stoker uses mutliple first person and it can be a bit confusing.

XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money August 19, 2015 - 2:40pm

I really think that it does depend on how you want your reader to experieince the story. First person can give a more personal feel and make the reader feel a bit more connected to the main character (since it's assumed that the main is telling the story to the reader or that the reader is in the main's head).

Thrid person keeps a slight seperation from the main but allows for you to put in details that the main character doesn't see.

Yes, I think this is a good direction to take. When we generally talk about point of view, and certainly how I was taught in school, it seems that we get stuck in talking only about the personhood of the narrator as though that were the only important distinction we could make. Keiri broaches a more interesting area that is largely ignored in the standard definitions. Point of view should absolutely talk about the personhood of the narrator, but not ignore the techniques that a narrator can use to connect the reader to the story, or to keep separation between the reader and the story. That concept of distance between the reader and the narrative is what point of view is all about, but we don't usually get there before doing a lot of hand waving and claiming "it works if it fits the story" or defaulting to personal opinion. (Which is not to say that there is anything wrong with personal opinions or hand waving (other than that they are uncontestable positions so only serve to end conversation) or that we won't end up there anyway (which is inevitable) but there is so much more that we could talk about before we resort to those positions.)

I suppose another bald assertion is as good a place to begin as any: All narrative techniques are available to all narrators regardless of person. (Though, for the sake of full-disclosure, I first found this formation of this idea in the essay From Long Shots to X-Rays: Distance & Point of View in Fiction Writing by David Jauss in his explication of Wayne C. Booth's work. But to put my own bold twist on this; to deny the validity of a narrator's use of any narrative techniques based solely on personhood, is to deny the validity of any author's use of any narrative techniques in any context.) 

So what does this mean for our discussion thus far? It means we need a more nuanced way of talking about point of view. A 1st-person narrator can be just as distant and outside the events of a story (the 'dramatic' point of view) as a 3rd-person narrator. A 3rd-person narrator can delve just as deep into a character as a 1st-person narrator (through direct and indirect interior monologue.) But while it's important to remember this, (there are still some general trends we can fall on (stream of consciousness is really hard to do in 3rd-person, for example)) the most interesting point of discussion this opens is within the typical bracketing of personhood. To ignore "all narrative techniques are available to all narrators" is to say that Ishmael describing the technical details of processing whale-oil aboard the Pequod, Huck Finn's conversational description of missing the landing at Cairo, Nick Carraway's poetic renderings of Gatsby's past, and Molly Bloom's chapter-long soliloquy at the end of Ulysses are all the same point of view because they're all 1st-person. The only thing they have in common is the use of the pronoun 'I', and huge sections of each don't even share that (Chapters of Moby Dick read 3rd-person dramatic, and much of The Great Gatsby feels 3rd-person omniscient... Huck Finn starts off addressing the reader as 'You'.) So it's a ridiculous, if not actually meaningless way to group these works together. Being 1st-person or 3rd-person (in itself) tells you nothing useful about the narrative techniques used to convey point of view... and unless you are really naively reductionist, shouldn't tell you anything about the story or your reaction to the story before you've read it.

And all this before we've even started to talk about time as narrative distance (past tense versus present tense versus future tense) or the reliability of a narrator creating or contracting emotional/moral distance. Or indeed the inherent problems that have already cropped up; is there an actual difference between "limited" and "omniscient" as we commonly refer to them, what role does consistency play in all this, where do 2nd-person or 3rd-person-plural perspectives fit in? It just feels like there is so much more we have to actually consider before we can justify the broad generalizations that inevitably crop up in discussing point of view. Because as long as we keep using the same basic terminology, it doesn't even matter what the actual terms are, we are only saying, "one third/half of all writing is good/boring/confusing because of what pronoun the narrator uses most."

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 20, 2015 - 9:45am

Damned also uses "you" a lot when the narrator is talking directly to the audience. Hilariously, at that.

 

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore August 25, 2015 - 7:48am

I love first person because every single word is revealing character. But like someone else said, it's often the most poorly-written, being a common vehicle for young writers. My debut novel was in first, because it was a character study whose unreliability I could manipulate, while also frequently doing the "you" reader implication thing, which was part of a twist. First doesn't allow the reader to ever be ahead of the characters, which can be a thrilling advantage, but I prefer the suspense that comes from a balance of what third allows, where sometimes the reader knows what the characters don't and vice-versa.

While I enjoy when multiple narratives converge, I don't particularly like reading multiple POVs. There tends to be a lot of repetition, interpreting the same events from different perspectives. And while that can be clever, it often makes the story drag. It's also an incredible amount of work to make their writing styles distinct when it comes to formality, education, jargon, catchphrases, etc.

The short answer (too late!) is I'd tend to use third for plot-heavy stories, and first for character ones. And I guess second if I were an asshole.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 25, 2015 - 8:23am

Oh, yes! Unreliable narrator! How'd we forget to mention that?

 

Wait. Do you mean, use second if YOU'RE an asshole?

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore August 25, 2015 - 9:33am

Haha. Yes, yes, I suppose one becomes the asshole by writing that you're an asshole.

XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money August 27, 2015 - 10:47am

Damned also uses "you" a lot when the narrator is talking directly to the audience. Hilariously, at that.

So does Diary. Much of Palahniuk's work is a deft manipulation of point of view, it's one of his strongest features as a writer.

First doesn't allow the reader to ever be ahead of the characters, which can be a thrilling advantage, but I prefer the suspense that comes from a balance of what third allows, where sometimes the reader knows what the characters don't and vice-versa.

I'm not sure I agree with this proscription, but perhaps I'm just misunderstanding what you mean by 'doesn't allow the reader to ever be ahead of the characters...' especially when contrasted with third person: "sometimes the reader knows what the characters don't..." Which is dramatic irony, but certainly we can do dramatic irony in first person, right? Did you mean something else?

Oh, yes! Unreliable narrator! How'd we forget to mention that?

We didn't :)

But I do think the unreliable narrator actually ties into the previous point about the reader getting ahead of the characters. If the reader were constrained to what the first person narrator revealed, we couldn't have unreliable narrators. We'd have to take the Duke of Ferrara's word about what happened to his last duchess. But we don't take his word for it, because we know what he doesn't tell us; he's an egotistical monster. Or indeed, Flowers for Algernon would lose all of its pathos if we did not know more than what Charlie knows.

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore August 27, 2015 - 11:35am

The reader could be ahead of the first-person narrator if it took place in a historical context or some universally shared knowledge scenario where we just know they're wrong. But otherwise if all of our story information comes from them, they're either withholding info and ahead of the reader, or at best we're even with them. I meant character, singular, as in the narrator. Sure, the reader could be ahead of other characters, if the narrator permits. I also meant ahead when it comes to plot. In third-person, maybe we know the monster is lurking around the corner before the character does, and that gap creates tension, whereas in first we share the surprise with him, though our visceral experience of his terror could more than make up for it. 

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 27, 2015 - 5:05pm

That, and we know in third (if the author wants) what another character is up to. In first, we can't until the narrator knows.

Unless maybe there are reeeeeally clever ways to figure it out like a mystery novel or something. So maybe the reader puts it together before the narrator. But that's unreliable narrator stuff right there, isn't it?

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami August 27, 2015 - 8:41pm

But honestly tense is also is as tricky if not more so than POV. In venturing back into short fiction (it so happens I prefer this), 2 minutes in the future doesn't work so well using say the 'In the future, she will board the train' instead of 'in the future, I will go board the land liner at three o'clock sharp after midnight.'

That's even if you're not jumping back and forth between first person past and future.

XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money August 31, 2015 - 12:21pm

Yes! Nuance. That's what I'm talking about... or rather what I think we should be talking about. There's so much here to talk about and unpack now, but in the spirit of concision, I'll shelve some of these topics until later.

The reader could be ahead of the first-person narrator if it took place in a historical context or some universally shared knowledge scenario...

Yes, so if I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, then I can know some things ahead of the narrative as part of its historical context, agreed. "Universally shared knowledge scenario" is a little vague though. Maybe you mean something like 'Genre'? Like, I know some things about a noir-detective novel because it's a noir-detective novel before the narrator tells me? Or maybe something like "The Hero's Journey" where I know some things about the story because it is a Hero's Journey Story? That's about as universal as I can think of with shared knowledge scenarios... but in either case, I agree.

And I'm glad you brought up context, but that's a huge topic, so perhaps we should shelve that for later.

But maybe now we see the bind we put ourselves in when we use these too-broad categories to talk about point of view: "First-person narrators don't let readers get ahead of the characters... except when they do." And so we refined this to: "First-person narrators don't let readers know about the plot that they are themselves unaware of..." which I think is better, but still a little sticky. Especially trying to control what a reader knows, which you can't do (another topic to shelve) so perhaps better to say "First-person narrators don't tell readers about the plot..." But again, this only applies to narratives where the first-person narrator is unaware of the events. Sure, this is the usual case when the story occurs in the present tense. But, if there was a monster in my closet yesterday, I can tell you that ahead of the time in my narration where 'I' open the door... just as a third-person narrator could. Or if the events involve another character... "Tom could no longer deny," what Nick has already told us, that "Gatsby and Daisy are having an affair" (which we all seem to agree on) or in cases where the narrator is not a limited perspective: Tristram Shandy is a great example of an omniscient first-person narrator.

So if we refine this down to "Limited first-person, present-tense, protagonist narrators don't tell readers plot ahead of the characters..." we're close. (Though it now feels like we're saying first-person narrators can't foreshadow, which seems wrong.) But look how we stumbled to get here. I think there is a better way, and that is to stop thinking of POV as categories with particular qualities (First-person does 'X', third-person does 'Y'...) but as a tool to control the distance between reader and text to achieve the effects we want:

I want the reader to experience this story as this character does, so they can share in that character's surprise and tensions, but not so close that I'd have to narrate the unnarratable, though not so distant that the reader is not complicit in the mistakes/assumptions that the narrator makes. These sort of considerations start to guide us in deciding what techniques we want our narrator to use; limited perspective, indirect interior monologue perhaps, maybe present-tense framed within a past-tense... and if we want it in that character's language, use first-person. But it is all of these things working together that we should be talking about with POV.

And there are a few things here we should probably shelve for later as well... but then you all knew I was going to say that. You're always a step ahead of me :)

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore September 2, 2015 - 1:25am

I see what you did there. Dammit.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal September 11, 2015 - 11:28am

is it too late to say that someone's view on point of view is on point?

... 

. . .

XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money September 15, 2015 - 2:23pm

I see what you did there. Dammit.

Well, thank you for indulging me my snide sense of humor. I knew there was a reason I still liked you after all these years :)

is it too late to say that someone's view on point of view is on point?

I'm going to go ahead and arrogantly presume you were talking about me... and so no, it's never too late to make that point :) I would like to point out that the point of my pointed comments was to point the way to more interesting topics we could discuss... point by point...

And now "point" just looks like gibberish to me. I guess my work is done here...

But what I would like to talk about is your brief back and forth with Gordon about 2nd-person.

And I guess second if I were an asshole.

Wait. Do you mean, use second if YOU'RE an asshole?

2nd-person is such a strange animal, but I think you're right, and not just in a "funny because it's true" sort of way. It's probably a bit different in other languages that have more varied and distinctive 2nd-person pronouns, but in English we only have the one (well, three if you count the possessive cases) so it gets muddy and ambiguous (ambiguous like whom does the 'you' in this paragraph refer to.) And ambiguity usually leads to doing a little extra work to parse meaning from context, and these days "work" in reading is usually seen as anathema to entertainment/interest, or at least pretentious on the part of the writer (but that's an entirely different subject for another time). So a naive, though not wholly unjustified, reaction is to just shut the book, call the writer an ass, and move on to something else. That's one mark against 2nd-person in the "asshole" column.

A second strike comes up when we consider the different moods available, and how we perceive them differently between 1st- and 3rd-person narrators and 2nd-person. And this will tie into my third topic about structural differences, but on the whole this comes down to the difference between the indicative mood and the irrealis moods (subjunctive, imperative, interrogative, potential... etc.) We spend a lot of energy as writers convincing our readers that our narrators have the authority to make indicative claims. (Palahniuk's essay on authority is a good one to check out.) And again a lot of this comes down to structure, but we allow Marlowe "I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it." or Austen's opening "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." where we would not in the 2nd-person: "You were neat, clean, shaved and sober, and you didn't care who knew it." or "It is a truth you acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune..." 2nd-person is so tightly wound up in the irrealis moods (in English, for example, imperative defaults to 2nd-person when there is no pronoun indicator, "Go to bed." just means "You, go to bed.") that unprompted, 2nd-person indicative still has all this baggage that other narrators don't inherently carry. And when we encounter these ambiguous pronouns in these ambiguous moods, it almost always feels like some drunken relative has pulled us off to the side at a reunion... "Let me tell you something about you that you don't know..." (Thanks, Tom Robbins, I was unaware that I was an ambitious yet ineffectual and not entirely ethical young broker...) It's a weird disconnect between the concrete (indicative mood) that the story is trying to live in, and using language married to the potential/imperative/impelled moods that 2nd-person is most associated with. See what I'm saying?

And structurally, it gets even weirder. In 3rd-person (and in particular the modern transparent 3rd-person we use most) there is usually a clear, objective view/relationship with the reader. And though 1st-person, complicates that relationship, it is still mostly clear who is the observer and what is being observed. But in 2nd-person, if not properly established, we default the ambiguous 'you' to imperative or subjunctive statements about 'me', the reader. And how can 'I' be the subject of this story, written by someone I don't know, that involve events/claims that are clearly not true about 'me'? Or inversely, how can 'I' be the observer of these events when I have no control over what 'I' look at, engage with... How can I be telling this story that someone else has written? In our static forms, there is no room for including the reader to the degree that we'd otherwise want, and it more just feels a cheat to get the intimacy inherent in 2nd-person, without actually using the context that makes 2nd-person make any sense. So, that's three asshole points. (Okay, so "points" looks like a word again, but now "ambiguous" looks like gibberish...)

Though, none of this precludes the possibility of doing 2nd-person, they're all things that should be accounted for in the story. On the whole we're not usually stuck in any of these difficulties as readers, they're mostly just distracting. As in Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, I'm not so confused as to the who the 'you' is that I can't read the novel, it's just distracting because it seems none of these difficulties were considered; the story is otherwise a 3rd-person narrator that uses the wrong pronoun the whole time. Or even the observer/observed loop that inevitably crashes in on itself is not unintelligible... Italo Calvino gets very close to pulling this off in If on a winter's night a traveler, though it does feel a bit dated these days (I read it on a kindle, which sort of destroys that particular illusion right off the bat.) But probably the best way to use 2nd-person is in epistolary forms. The Raw Shark Texts uses this briefly to great effect, as does the aforementioned Diary. The biggest problem here being that we don't write letters anymore.

But even then, I think the best way to do 2nd-person is not our current static forms. Choose-your-own-adventure books, hypertext, roleplaying games, video games, and ARGs I think are all great ways to convey narrative in the 2nd-person, because they actually use a context that makes 'you' a sensible part of the story... at least without being an asshole.

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore September 16, 2015 - 5:21pm

Yep, the first thing that second-person always makes me think of is some roleplay-ey Dungeons & Dragons scenario. "You're traipsing through the forest when a Downsy halfling accosts you, demanding 100 krilken for expedited passage via the Toadscrote." Wait, who the presumptuous fuck are you, author? I've never traipsed in my entire life … and now I'm suddenly sucked right out of the story like some zweigendorc through a fleekchute, amirite? (© 2015 Gordon Highland)

I've enjoyed some short stories in second-person, though. It can be kinda fun to be implicated like that, thrust into someone's heel-blistering shoes for a few miles. And it's also effective as a semi-transparent device when making some empathetic point for a paragraph in the middle of a piece that's otherwise in a different POV. I did grow up on Choose Your Own Adventures, but they catered to short attention spans.

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading All the books by Tana French! September 17, 2015 - 1:50am

I always ended up cheating on those choose your own adventures...