Alina Popescu, Writer

From Authors to Authors: Who’s Singing Your Song? Point of View in Writing

From Authors to Authors: Who’s Singing Your Song? Point of View in Writing
June 03
14:00 2017

Hello everyone and welcome back to a new post in our From Authors to Authors series. Anna Butler is back with a piece on point of view in writing. Stay tuned for this week’s amazing post highlighting the ins and outs of POV.

Point of View in Writing – Who’s Singing Your Song?

A few weeks ago, members of the Queer Sci Fi group on Facebook debated Point of View in writing. The person who opened the discussion asked if First-Person-Past-Tense was a deal-breaker for readers. Would they just stop reading if the narrator was from any point of view other than a closed third person?

Once I’d reattached my sagging bottom jaw—why should ANY point of view narrator be a deal-breaker? Surely it depends on the story and how the characters want to speak and react?—I loved that discussion. It covered a lot of ground on which POV a narration might take (notice, I don’t say ‘should’ take) and best thing of all, I got to pontificate. So I thought I’d record that pontification here. For posterity. And to inflict it on you.

Opera Singers - Southerly Clubs of Stockholm

Writing pundits tell us that writers shouldn’t (!) use dialogue tags beyond he said, she said because to use something else—shouted, whispered, mourned, trumpeted—is the cheat’s way out of making the dialogue, action, and the characters show the reader how (as well as what) the characters are speaking and acting. More than that, these more exotic, less workmanlike words draw the reader’s attention to the actual nuts and bolts the writer is using in the narration. It pulls them out of the story, apparently. By contrast, said is an ‘invisible’ word that people are so used to seeing that their brains skim over it, and readers absorb it without noticing or being pulled out of the narrative to analyse a word they weren’t expecting.

Mostly, I agree with this. I’ll use something occasionally instead of ‘said’ if the narrative warrants it, but mostly I avoid using a dialogue tag at all. And by that, I mean that I prefer an action tag—I have my characters do something (fiddling with a button, sighting along the barrel of an aether pistol) to make it clear who’s speaking, and use a ‘said’ now and again to clue the reader in when an action tag isn’t appropriate. Not least, because action tags allow you far more scope to show your characters’ reactions by what they do, or don’t do, as they talk to each other.

But the point about ‘said’ being invisible is a hard one to refute. And to get us back to narrative point of view, then Third-Person-Limited-Past-Tense is the equivalent. It’s the invisible PoV. It’s by far the one in most common use, so common that readers are conditioned to think of it as the ‘norm’, as something so unremarkable they really don’t realise that’s what they’re reading.

Here’s a tiny scene in Third-Person-Limited-Past-Tense:

Time was slow and sticky, stretching and contracting, muffling the voices around him, blurring the edges of sight. Rafe tilted his head to look more closely at the rock face. There. Just there on the edge of a stone, a gleam of blue. Something caught there, thousands of years ago. Lapis lazuli, maybe? Or faience? A bit of an amulet perhaps, lost by one of Seti’s workmen. Or a piece of decorated stone from the passage roof. Ned would know. He’d have to remember to ask him.

“Are you cold?” Hugh asked.

What?

“No,” Rafe said, slowly. “I’m not cold.”

And the same scene, as it was actually written, in First-Person-Past-Tense

Time was slow and sticky, stretching and contracting, muffling the voices around me, blurring the edges of sight. I tilted my head to look more closely at the rock face. There. Just there on the edge of a stone, a gleam of blue. Something caught there, thousands of years ago. Lapis lazuli, maybe? Or faience? A bit of an amulet perhaps, lost by one of Seti’s workmen. Or a piece of decorated stone from the passage roof. Ned would know. I’d have to remember to ask him.

“Are you cold?” Hugh asked.

What?

“No,” I said, slowly. “I’m not cold.”

From The Jackal’s House, coming later in 2017

I’d argue that both of these are pretty unremarkable. In both, readers can tell who the main POV character is (even if he’s only named in Third) because they are experiencing what he did. They understand that something has happened. There’s a sense of Rafe’s slight disengagement from whatever’s going on around him: he’s caught up and fascinated by the gleaming blue fragment, focusing on that to block out what’s going on. Readers know that other people are there in the scene, but have no insight to their feelings and thoughts because Rafe has none. In both PoV examples, they’re limited to knowing what Rafe thinks and feels.

Probably 80-90% of the books I read would take the line of the first example, the Third-Person-Limited-Past-Tense. I have to make an effort to notice it. Totally invisible, it’s what readers expect when you pick up a book. There’s a slight sense of distance, a less intense emotional connection to the character.

But that First Person POV? Far more intimate, I think. The reader has a much greater sense that they aren’t sitting watching a drama at some remove, safe and distant, but that Rafe (to use my example) is sitting with them, his hand on their arm, close in and confidential as he tells and shows them directly what the he was thinking and feeling when it all happened. Rafe’s almost looking them in the eye as he’s telling his story, gauging their reactions. He’s drawing attention to himself as narrator, and to his story. He’s sharing.

It’s the difference, I think, between a narration that’s out there for absolutely everyone, a less-intimate free for all where the reader is kept at a distance, and one that feels as though it’s being told to just one special person. But beware: the reader is being told Rafe’s story. It may not be the whole story.

So, how do you, dear writer, decide what voice the narrator of your stories will have?

Simple. Remember that point of view filters everything in a narrative, and let your characters free to find their own voices to sing their own songs.

When I wrote the first Rafe and Ned book, I started in Third, and as an experiment changed to First, to allow Rafe to tell his story himself, with no filters or mediation. Though I say it myself (cough) he leapt off the page: alive and vibrant. He’s sardonic, a little cynical, but still generous and compassionate. First person, when the character is strong enough to shoulder the burden, works. Rafe works. He took over his story from the first sentence and ran with it. He’s the sort of character that First Person was invented for. I can’t imagine writing him in any other way now.

Lego Opera singer by Ted Drake on flickr. Creative Commons

Lego Opera singer by Ted Drake on flickr. Creative Commons

I have another character, the hero of a genre science fiction series. But where Rafe is loud, bright, extroverted and passionate, Shield Captain Bennet of the Taking Shield series is reserved, clever, serious, intense and focused, logical and practical. He’s as strong a character as Rafe, but it’s in a different way. Where Rafe is exuberant, Bennet is quiet and watchful. Where Rafe is all about people, Bennet is better with abstract principles. Frankly, Bennet would suck in first person. He holds too much back, and wouldn’t reveal himself. The reader would feel they were pulling every word out of him even if they could prove to him they had the necessary high security clearances for him to speak to them in the first place. He would be profoundly uncomfortable with the emotional connection that fires Rafe’s story.

Different characters, different strokes.

It’s as simple as that. If the character wants to tell his or her story directly, First will work. And if he’s a little too buttoned up and reserved to expose himself to view like that, then keep his voice in Third person and allow him the little bit of distance that keeps him comfortable. This is a ‘know the characters’ thing.

Neither one PoV is better than the other. It’s what suits the characters and what suits the story. If the narrator’s voice is compelling and sounds real, if he’s or she’s a strong and engaging personality, and if the author doesn’t intrude at all but keeps invisible and silent, then whichever voice you choose will have the potential for emotional connection. First or third, use them to create a character that readers will come to feel they know, and hopefully, they’ll come to love.

I want to end on a slightly provocative note. If we agree that writing in First draws more attention to the narrative and the narrator than does Third and is more emotional and intimate, then what about a Second-Person POV? It’s even more out there, leaping up and down in our minds and yelling “Look at me! Look at me! Look, look, look!” Is there ever a time that one would work?

You tell me. 

Meet Anna Butler

Author Anna ButlerAnna was a communications specialist for many years, working in various UK government departments on everything from marketing employment schemes to organizing conferences for 10,000 civil servants to running an internal TV service. These days, though, she is writing full time. She recently moved out of the ethnic and cultural melting pot of East London to the rather slower environs of a quiet village tucked deep in the Nottinghamshire countryside, where she lives with her husband and the Deputy Editor, aka Molly the cockerpoo.

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Anna is currently working on two, quite different, series of books:

  • The Taking Shield series is a classic space opera with handsome young men wielding lasers and trying to save the last remnants of humanity. This is a profound love story, but it isn’t a romance. Four books and still no HEA for Bennet and Flynn!
  • The Lancaster’s Luck series (The Gilded Scarab is published, The Dog Who Swallows Millions is coming soon) is a classic m/m romance, but with the added twist of a steampunk world setting where aeroships fill the skies of Victorian London and our hero uses pistols powered by luminferous aether and phlogiston.

About Author

Alina Popescu

Alina Popescu

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7 Comments

  1. Anna
    Anna June 03, 19:18

    Thank you for letting me come here to pontificate on! This is a great series of posts you’re doing here.

    Reply to this comment
  2. kira
    kira June 05, 16:13

    As a reader, I prefer stories written in 3rd person as I find 1st person very hard to get into. It could be beautifully written, but I find I don’t like the main character/narrator, mainly because I don’t like people who are boastful in real life & those types of characters come across that way to me. So instead of it being intimate to the point of me caring about a character like your Rafe, I’m repulsed by them 9 times out of 10.

    Reply to this comment
    • Alina Popescu
      Alina Popescu Author June 07, 22:52

      As a reader (not a writer), I have no preference lol. If the POV fits the story, then great! I am open to any of them.

      Reply to this comment
    • Anna
      Anna June 08, 16:55

      Oh, we can’t all like the same things! Life would be very boring otherwise. I’m quite fond of first person, and (obviously!) don’t see it as boastful. It’s a very traditional PoV to write in, but I agree that they don’t all work. You need a strong character to pull it off.

      Reply to this comment
  3. kira
    kira June 08, 00:02

    I have friends like that, but it just doesn’t engage me as a reader.

    Reply to this comment

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