Make POV Work for You: Mixed Point of View
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?