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Make POV Work for You: Mixed Point of View

Monday, May 11, 2009

One of the books on my reading list this year is Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. I thought I’d be using it as the cultural theme for A Case for Love—as his favorite book and her favorite movie (the 2006 BBC miniseries)—but that has fallen by the wayside. But my slogging through this ginormous tome has not been in vain. On the contrary, Bleak House has given me a great perspective on how an author can used mixed Points of View to great effect.

What do I mean by mixed Points of View?

Well, here are two examples from Bleak House so you can see for yourself:

Excerpt from Chapter 2:

Mr. Tulkinghorn glances over his spectacles and begins again lower down. My Lady carelessly and scornfully abstracts her attention. Sir Leicester in a great chair looks at the file and appears to have a stately liking for the legal repetitions and prolixities as ranging among the national bulwarks. It happens that the fire is hot where my Lady sits and that the hand-screen is more beautiful than useful, being priceless but small. My Lady, changing her position, sees the papers on the table–looks at them nearer—looks at them nearer still—asks impulsively, “Who copied that?”

Excerpt from Chapter 3:

I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever. I always knew that. I can remember, when I was a very little girl indeed, I used to say to my doll when we were alone together, “Now, Dolly, I am not clever, you know very well, and you must be patient with me, like a dear!” And so she used to sit propped up in a great arm-chair, with her beautiful complexion and rosy lips, staring at me–or not so much at me, I think, as at nothing–while I busily stitched away and told her every one of my secrets.

Can you believe it? A book written in Third Person/Present Tense and First Person/Past Tense! But in this novel it not only works, it works better than any combination of Points of View Dickens could have chosen. Why? Well, because what’s written in Third Person needs to be in third person. It needs to have more distance, needs to be observed by a (relatively) objective narrator. We’re not supposed to get into the heads and thoughts and motivations of the characters of Sir Leicester and Lady Deadlock, Tulkinghorn, Mr. George, Snagsby, Jo, Krook, or Smallweed. We’re not supposed to become intimate with them. There is only one character with whom Dickens wanted his readers to become intimate, and that was with Esther Summerson, the main character of the book, and the “I” in the first person narrative.

What makes the choice of tenses interesting is that while Esther’s narratives read as if she’d written them in a journal (at least in the beginning and end of each chapter—in the middle of her chapters, Dickens slipped it into more of a normal narrative style) and the Third Person chapters are “immediate,” with their present-tense verbs, the story is progressing in a straight line through them both. So what Esther is narrating “after the fact” is happening “live” in the omniscient narrative. And it accomplishes what Dickens (we assume) intended: the reader becomes intimately acquainted and emotionally tied to Esther while, just like Esther, is merely a witness to what’s happening all around her.

There’s a recently published historical novel that I know many people have read which uses two first-person viewpoint characters. I wish I could say that I liked the story and the Point of View choice as much as I liked the design of the cover of the book. However, it didn’t work, mainly because it was too hard to figure out whose head the narrative was in each time a new scene started. I know other authors have done multiple first-person viewpoint character books by indicating which character’s viewpoint it is by “name stamping” the beginning of each scene/chapter. So mixing Point of View or using more than one first-person viewpoint character must be done with caution (I know many, many other people had the same trouble with that historical novel that I had).

Don’t be afraid to experiment with Point of View and viewpoint characters. If you feel you need a third viewpoint character in a romance novel, use one—and put it in first person if you need to. (Suspense writers do this a lot—putting their villain’s viewpoint in first person to keep from having to identify him/her with a name or even gender-specific pronoun.) Don’t do it just to try to be avant-garde and different. Make sure your choice serves your story first and foremost.

What are some unusual but striking Point of View/Viewpoint choices you’ve seen in books you’ve read? What are some that haven’t worked for you?

10 Comments
  1. Monday, May 11, 2009 11:42 am

    I’m reading right now The Patron Saint of Butterflies which tells the story from two POVs (the author uses the same tense though). Basically each chapter is given to one character and each chapter is labeled so we know who’s head we’re in.

    The characters are different so we could probably tell who was speaking without the distinction. Not sure yet if I think using that method was the correct way to tell the story only 80 pages into it.

    There was another book I read recently that have two POVs too but I can’t remember it for the life of me right now. I don’t see multiple POVs much, but that’s mainly because I read Middle Grade Fiction and it’s really not done that much. More so in YA you’ll find multiple POVs but rarely in MG. Book 5-6-7- of my series I’ll actually use two POVs. It’ll be interesting. I haven’t figured out exactly how I’m going to do it yet. Will probably take some trial and error on my part.

  2. Monday, May 11, 2009 1:24 pm

    I know which book you mean, Kaye. Not at every switch, but a few times I did get jarred from the story trying to figure out whose head I was in.

    There’s a secular historical/time travel series I’ve followed over the years. The first book was purely from the female protag’s POV, and in first person. With each new book in the series, more POVs have been added, but they are all in third person. I like it done this way, because the first person POV feels like an anchor. No matter what else is going on in this complex, sprawling series, her character remains the centering force.

    In my WIP, I’ve used first person present/past and third person present/past. The only time I’ve used present tense in either case, though, is in brief flashbacks or dreams. I find it gives them a heightened sense of urgency. As in this snip from Kindred:

    “Ye’ll have never seen the sea?” he asks. I shake my head and tell him no, while from the stool I watch him saw through a length of poplar. His shirtsleeves are rolled high. He’s taken off his neck cloth. The skin at the V of his shirt is golden, but his arms are sun-browned, sprinkled with bleached hairs that curve round his wrist. His hand on the saw is broad and long-fingered. There’s a cut on a knuckle that’s broke open and bled, and one nail is bruised. I’ve never found beauty in a man’s hand till now. Before I know it, I’m drawing his hand.

    He glances down.

    “Will you tell me more about it?” I say quick so he won’t look and see what I’ve drawn. “More about the sea?”

    He’s happy to be asked, and soon I see a boy racing barefoot over sand and splashing his feet in something like our creek, only colder, darker, and in my mind I make the far bank go away so there’s no end to it, thinking maybe that’s what the sea is like. Then the boy stops and hunkers and I try to draw this thing he’s bent to pick up, this thing he calls a sand-shilling….

    [end]

    I only mixed first and third because I couldn’t “hear” my female protag’s voice in third. I may end up switching her back to third, if an agent or editor wants me to. But I had to write her in first to capture what makes her voice distinct.

  3. Monday, May 11, 2009 4:16 pm

    Death as the narrator in The Book Thief is the most interesting POV I’ve ever read. He becomes a character, and gives away bits of the story in apologetic foreshadowing, like he’s sorry to have to tell you what happens to your favorite characters. He “fades” from view at different points and you forget he’s narrating, and then he pops back in to comment on the action. It allows a certain amount of omniscience because Death is free to move around but is so busy during the war that he misses some things.

    Lori, I like your character’s voice in that excerpt.

    • Friday, July 6, 2012 6:19 pm

      Becky, I agree completely with your comment on The Book Thief. It was so cleverly written and you’re right, ‘death’ did pop up when the reader had almost forgotten he was the narrator. It flowed beautifully in that respect.

  4. Renee permalink
    Monday, May 11, 2009 10:17 pm

    I read a very popular book recently that was a good story but I HATED that the author told the stories of 2 charaters both in the first person POV, both in the same book. It was nerve racking to read the story of one person for a few hundred pages and then all of a sudden switch to the other person. The author should have left one of the characters out of the book and wrote a different novel all together if she had to tell that other persons story! I skipped over the one characters chapters and still understood everything that happened in the story.

    • ElizaAnderson permalink
      Thursday, August 9, 2012 11:30 am

      I may know which book you’re talking about, although I can’t be sure…and I agree. It was jarring, and frankly, when the author suddenly switched to the second character’s POV, it was annoying. I really didn’t care about the second character’s POV. I think, if you’re going to change viewpoints, you have to do it regularly – maybe you don’t have to switch EVERY chapter, but the non-MC POVs should be sprinkled throughout the story, not suddenly switched to half way through the book.

  5. Monday, May 11, 2009 11:49 pm

    I find that I’m a bit afraid of trying different POVs for fear of using them in the worst possible moments. I’m so used to chick lit being in first person and just about everything else being in third person. It’s not easy getting out of that rut.

    It’s been a while since I’ve read Atonement, but I remember being amazed at how Ian McEwan used POV in the first third of the book to tell the same instance from 5 or 6 different views. It was really amazing, and definitely added to my reading enjoyment.

  6. Jess permalink
    Tuesday, May 12, 2009 10:34 am

    In “A Good Woman” by Kaye Gibbons there are two first-person points of view, every other chapter. I know she did it well because it took me about eight chapters to realize she was doing it at all.

  7. Thursday, May 14, 2009 7:05 am

    My memory is pretty much “shot.” So, I can’t remember a POV that stands out right now from something I’ve read.

    I just recently starting blogging and seems like this is for serious writers, but I’ll see what I can do.

  8. Carman Boley permalink
    Thursday, May 14, 2009 4:05 pm

    First of all, I adore Bleak House! I think it is one of the best stories ever. I hope you do include something about it in your book.

    Kaye said, “(Suspense writers do this a lot—putting their villain’s viewpoint in first person to keep from having to identify him/her with a name or even gender-specific pronoun.)”

    This was done in one of the series I read by Susan May Warren, the Noble Legacy series. She would have the villian do something from his own POV, but would not name them, then she would switch to the main character and you would find out the results of the villian’s act. Which makes for great suspense. The whole time I kept saying to myself, “This is the villian!…No! This is!”, I never could figure it out. I like when they give you just enough info to suspect the villian, but not enough to be sure who it is.

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