Point of view can be quite tricky, no? When I speak at literary conferences on book editing, I begin with the truth that point of view is the hub around which the whole wheel of a book revolves. Yes—it’s that important. But how is writing in third person different from the first person? And how can you do it successfully?
Point of View is whether the story is told from the first, second, or third person. Viewpoint, on the other hand, is the perception of one character; the eyes and ears and senses the reader must use to experience the story.
It’s a subtle distinction but helps to keep things straight as you’re mastering this.
First, a note on the first-person point of view. So many writers begin with this, and it can sure be a trap. First-person is unwieldy to work in, for a variety of reasons. Although writers tend to believe first-person brings more immediacy to a book, if done correctly, third-person is every bit as intimate.
Especially as you’re finding your sea legs, third-person will help give you the distance from your characters, so that you create them and the events they go through, rather than tell about them.
All that said, I’m a firm believer that every book dictates its own point of view, and it’s a writer’s job to follow that.
So, how while writing in the third person, do we bring our stories to intimate life? Here are 7 tips for success:
Designating Who Gets a Viewpoint.
This, too, is trickier than it might seem. So let’s break it down some.
a. Your Protagonist, of course. That one is easy. Our hero carries the story, so naturally, we get into his head.
And we need to stay there about 75% of the time.
b. Sometimes, however, we have tales told by a narrator who isn’t the Protagonist. Think Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. This takes a pretty skilled hand to pull off, but the device works wonderfully when done well.
c. Your Antagonist or Villain. This one isn’t quite as straightforward. Often, the bad guy doesn’t get a viewpoint. This device can quite successfully be implemented to heighten the suspense in any category of Thriller or Mystery, as neither our hero nor readers know exactly what the bad guy is up to, or where he is. Weigh the options carefully here. Choosing is always about balance.
d. Secondary Characters with a big impact on the story. But, these folks must have a big piece to get an internal voice and be fleshed out into whole human beings.
Remember: all the secondary characters believe the story is about them, so choose these people carefully.
Strictly Limit the Number of VP Characters.
You can have more than one viewpoint character, however, know that to give someone a viewpoint makes him or her very significant in the story. I.e., only the most important ones get internal voices.
While book editing, what I see so, so often, is the writer going into everybody’s head, Everybody’s. Or, a whole host of them. Which waters down the effect and leaves all the characters on the surface.
Rule of Thumb: Use no more than two major and two minor viewpoint characters. That’s about all the full storyline arcs you can cram into one book anyway. And know that the more you use, the more watered down the story becomes. Also, the more you jump into different heads, the more telling you’re doing of thoughts, emotions, etc., rather than creating, evoking, etc.
The key here is that every single viewpoint character must go through his own arc of the storyline.
You can’t do this within scenes. In other words, pick one character, and one alone, from which to create each scene. You cannot shift perspectives through the entire scene, and never within a paragraph. This seems straightforward enough, but I’ll see writers shift within a sentence.
Writers often resist this. But this plays back into how VP and scenes and plot all weave together. Any time you change the viewpoint in a scene, you risk confusing the reader about the goal of the scene and put the spotlight of the reader’s identification in the wrong place.
Be careful about this. Even seasoned authors get tripped up by it.
Once you establish your VP character, you can only show that which he or she knows, sees, experiences, etc. And then evoke his emotions, what he sees, hears, smells, etc., and show everyone else’s reactions, rather than tell how they feel.
See how this helps keep you on track to show and not tell? It’s all about focus, as you’re shooting through the camera lens to help your reader have the best experience possible.
Yes, this makes your job, as the writer, more difficult. Because if your viewpoint character doesn’t notice or know something, then we, the reader, cannot notice it either. Until of course, you find a creative way to get the thing across 🙂
This helps you flex and strengthen your writing muscle!
Limit or Avoid altogether First-Person Introspection.
This has become more and more common these days. But it’s jolting to the reader when overused. And, it points itself out (otherwise seen as amateurish).
Successful authors learn to stay in the third-person, past tense. We want the character’s thoughts to be seamlessly woven into the story, without pointing attention to itself.
One way to utilize a similar affect seamlessly is to use more sentence fragments in interior dialogue. We rarely think in complete sentences, and this brings an immediacy to the character as if we’re under his skin and thinking the thoughts as well.
Be very Careful of Cross-Gender Viewpoint.
Men and women are different. Not a newsflash! We see the world differently. We think differently. We do pretty much everything, well, differently.
What I so often see is a female writing a male viewpoint character (or vice versa) the way she thinks a man sees and feels and experiences the events.
And you know what? This almost always reads just like someone thinking he knows what the “other” in our midst is perceiving.
In other words, it most often doesn’t work.
Rethink this in your novel. Do you really need the opposite-gender viewpoint? If so, truly study the men in your midst if you’re a woman (and vice versa), and get their opinions on how you see your male character—from the inside.
Finally, Avoid Telling Us that We’re in a Character’s Head.
Continually pointing that out paradoxically keeps your readers at arm’s length from him. Instead, we want to get deeper under the character’s skin.
In other words, once viewpoint is established, avoid writing, ‘He saw X.’ ‘He heard y.’ ‘He smelled z.’ Instead, show me what he saw. Evoke the sounds and aromas of what he heard and smelled. Let me experience the senses along with him so that I can participate as the characters in the novel do.
You want to include as much sensory input as possible, in order to put your reader in the scene. And–and this is of vital importance–you want to do this through the viewpoint character’s perceptions.
Yep, point of view and viewpoint are tricky little demons. But, they can be tamed! Now, go jump back into your novel and have these devices work for you.