Friday, August 12, 2005

Points of View

There seems to be some confusion about points of view and how they are used in the context of fiction. We've all heard many times that you shouldn't change points of view within a scene, and you should handle changes of viewpoint at any time with extreme caution. I recently read an article by Sheri Szeman that, while trying to simplify things, actually complicated the issue quite a bit, in my opinion. Szeman defines point of view by the powers granted to the narrator. These are all familiar to us: first person, third person omniscient, third person limited, and second person*. What gets confusing is that Szeman says that if you change from, for example, one first person narrator to another first person narrator then you have not changed point of view. The story is still in first person. All right, sure, but so what? You have still changed viewpoint characters, and that, I think, is the real no-no. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think even a rookie would unconsciously slip from first person to third person accidentally. If you read Szeman's article as-is, you might think this was the mistake everyone is talking about and say to yourself, "Oh, okay, no problem -- I never do that, so I don't have to worry about it." The novice writer then goes on to change viewpoint characters in the middle of a scene and gets his piece added to the rejection pile.

Does this mean that you should never change viewpoints characters? No, Don Maass says, and I agree, that multiple viewpoint characters (I'm trying to avoid the term "points of view", to avoid confusion with Szeman's definition) adds depth and richness to a novel. The main thing you have to be careful about is how you handle the transitions between viewpoint characters. The best advice I have seen is that if ou are going to change viewpoint characters at some time during your story, put in a change of viewpoint very early on, within the first few pages. That establishes the "rules" for your reader, and so long as you don't change in the middle of a scene, they will willingly follow along. The thing to be concerned about is that you want to make sure that both viewpoint characters are supporting the same story. Too many viewpoint characters and too many story unrelated story threads can cause a novel to unravel. I've read fantasy books that seemed to actually be two stories at once, since the two viewpoint characters never seemed to interact much with each other at all.

Multiple viewpoint characters can be a powerful way to add depth to your story. Like TNT, however, a little can clear a straight path, but too much can blow your novel apart.

*By the way, Szeman also points out a valid use of second person beyond the "Choose Your Own Adventure" format that is so often quoted: You can write a complete fiction story as a letter addressed to the reader. This is still little more than a gimmick, I think, but I can at least see this as a more creative possibility.

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