Point of View: 2

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Thanks to everyone who’s left a comment or question on my previous post. Because I don’t want the discussion to get lost in comments, I’ll talk about the questions in later posts. Today I’m going to talk about how I choose the point of view for my novels. The answer is, in every case, by thinking about the reader.

When I was writing for Mills & Boon, I didn’t have much choice: the vast majority of their novels are in third person limited POV, from the heroine and the hero only. Most of the story is in the heroine’s POV. There’s a really good reason for this. The reader of the story is supposed to identify strongly with the heroine; that’s why readers pick up a M&B novel. They also want to fall in love with the hero, and it’s easier to fall in love with the hero if you can understand what he’s thinking. In a M&B novel, it’s all about the romance, and it feeds into the fantasy if you can witness the hero falling in love with the heroine. Also, it’s all about the conflict keeping these two people apart, and at its best, the dual POV can heighten this conflict. Heroine has a reason she can’t be with the hero; hero has a whole different reason he can’t be with the heroine.

I had a lot of fun with this dual POV sometimes, especially in All Work and No Play… (aka Mistress in Private in the US) because at the start of the book, the heroine doesn’t know who the hero is, but the hero does know who the heroine is, and he thinks she’s pretending not to know who he is, so there’s all this misunderstanding and conflict being built up. I loved balancing that, and it would have never worked with a single POV or in first person. You would have lost half the fun, and also probably thought that the hero was a jerk because you wouldn’t know why he was behaving as he was.

When I started writing my Little Black Dress books, I started playing around with the possibilities of first person POV, and to me, first person achieves a whole different set of things than third person POV. Limiting the perspective can help you tell the story. For example, in One Night Stand, the heroine doesn’t know the hero’s feelings for her, for most of the book. If I’d given Hugh’s point of view, I think it would have diluted the effect of Eleanor’s journey, the way she gradually comes to understand that her best friend is something much, much more. However, even though Eleanor doesn’t see that her best friend Hugh is in love with her, I expected the reader to understand that he was, fairly early in the book. One of the pleasures of that book, for me, is watching Eleanor being clueless, while the reader can understand what’s really happening from how he was behaving, and the clues I’d planted.

This is called “dramatic irony” (when the reader knows something the character doesn’t), and for me, it’s one of the biggest joys of writing in the first person. Dramatic irony all over the place. Of course, there are limitations to first person POV. You can’t write about anything that the viewpoint character doesn’t know, or at least not directly. But then you have to do all this delicious figuring out of how to get around those limitations, or even better, how to use them so that the reader is as deluded as the heroine, and you can bring in a great twist or surprise. I love that stuff.

But sometimes you can’t use it. In Honey Trap, for example, I went back to third person limited, from the heroine and hero’s POV. There was a simple reason for this: the hero, Dominick Steele, is a former alcoholic and serial adulterer. He’s an asshole. But I needed the reader to love him, to understand that while he was still struggling with his darker side, he’d truly reformed by the time the book began. I couldn’t do that from the POV of my heroine, who hated him for the sins he’d committed years before.

Getting Away With It was another case in point. I wanted the story to be in first person, because it’s so, so important that the reader sees the world through Liza’s eyes. Her perceptions of everything, including herself, change so much as the book goes on, and I wanted the reader with her on that entire journey. However, there’s a whole story strand about her twin sister, Lee, who disappears. Since Liza isn’t with her, I couldn’t keep it in Liza’s POV. And I didn’t want to have another first person POV; I thought it would be confusing, and also I wanted the book to emphasize the difference between these two sisters. That they were really two separate people. So I chose to narrate Liza’s story in first person past tense, and Lee’s scenes in third person present tense.

It worked out pretty well, I think, because Liza’s story is about identity and who that “I” really is. Whereas Lee, for most of her story, is feeling isolated from herself, distant from her life, yet feeling the immediacy of taking risks. Having the two points of view also let me, at key moments in the story, offer a bit of perspective on Liza’s life and story, which she never sees herself.

Whew. I think I’ve babbled long enough. It’s your turn now—why have you made the decisions you’ve made, about which POV to use in your book?

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  1. Excellent examples. I agree, it wouldn’t have been half as much fun seeing Hugh’s POV as it was seeing Eleanor being so adorably clueless about him. Likewise Fil and Jim in Girl from Mars (in which, BTW, my mother expected she’d end up with Jim. She loves telling me romance novels are so predictable…hah!). I can also see his Nina Jones needed a 1st person POV since…well, it’s really all about her, at least to begin with.

    I tend to think about how I hear the story in my head, but that’s not always the right indicator. I do have a WIP that I started over and over as a 1st person narrative from the heroine, but I couldn’t crack it until I realised I needed the hero’s POV in there. She begins the story as an abused character and she’s literally terrified of him, and I wanted to put that fear in…but her thoughts were too scrambled, and I didn’t really want the reader to think he was actually the devil. Plus, seeing her from his POV helps to explain why she’s so afraid. So he carries the early chapters while she gains in strength enough to narrate her own, but apart from the occasional flashback I kept it in 3rd. 1st simply felt too intimate for those characters.

    • That’s really interesting, Kate. I agree that 1st person can be very intimate. And giving the story to another POV sounds like a great way to sidestep the problem of a traumatised, or weakened character, especially at the beginning of the book. Someone who might not be coping very well might come across as too weak to be appealing in first person, but seen from the outside, you can understand much better. That might not work all the time, but it sounds like you found the key.

      It sort of highlights one of the problems with 1st person though—it can be hard to find the balance between your narrator getting too chatty and telling the reader all about herself, and a compelling story shown from your character’s eyes. Your first person character might simply not want to explain vital information; she might be avoiding it, or too traumatised by it. It’s a challenge to write 1st person in those circumstances.

  2. Hi Julie – great info, as always!

    I have questions…

    You mention: ‘The scene should be in the POV of the person who has the most at stake at the time.’

    Do you think it’s dangerous to have two POVs in the same scene – or can it work to give the reader insights into both of their situations?

    How does it work best, do you think?

    Jan xx

    • Ahhh I was going to talk about that in my next post, Jan—multiple POVs and head-hopping. I hope you don’t mind waiting a couple of days so the discussion doesn’t get lost in the comments?

      Thank you so much for the question!

      • Brill! I can wait! :o)

  3. Really interesting blog thanks Julie. I tend to stick to 3rd person because I like the opportunity to get inside more than one character’s head and give that POV to the reader. I want the reader to be in on the secret most of the time, in fact my reader tends to know more than the character’s know about each other. But the most important thing I’ve learnt from you is KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid and reading through your post I’m now realising I might need to rewind and cut out some POV’s…

    I also like the idea of writing in 1st person but I’ve often been afraid of how to get across other’s characters feelings and emotions. When I read Nina Jones I started to get an idea of how to achieve it (I tend to stray away from reading 1st person fiction too) but you’ve summed it up perfectly in this blog; it’s a challenge. It’s finding a way to subtley hint and yet keep the story succinct. It’s like a Eureka moment for me, so thank you, I shall have to push myself a bit more and give it a go 🙂

    Thank you again, Lisa x

    • I do think you have to be ruthless with your POVs if you’re using multiple ones, Lisa, and make sure they add something material to the story. They certainly shouldn’t be repetitive, or kill the tension by giving information too early. Basically the rule is—does it add, or does it take away? I’ll talk a bit more about this in my next post about multiple POVs.

      Nina Jones was a challenge to write first person. It wouldn’t have worked at all as third person, I don’t think; you needed that extra bit of connection with her, as she’s not always 100% sympathetic at the beginning. I tried third person, and also first person past tense, and neither one worked. In the end I went with first person present tense, to show how much she changes from the beginning, and subtly hint that she might be ignoring various elements of her past by being preoccupied with her “perfect” present.

      Good luck with your revisions, I know you will crack it!

  4. Another fabulous post! Thanks Julie!

  5. fantastically useful two posts, Julie. Am applying myself to what is wrong with current chapter and am almost certain, after reading your blog, that it’s POV.

    Now to see if I can extrapolate from your examples and PUT IT RIGHT.

    THANK you.

    • I’m honoured if I’ve helped you, Jenny. I hope the POV fiddling works.

  6. Lisa, I had the same problem with too many POVs in the book I just sold to Choc Lit. It was too long, messy and sprawling, and I realised I didn’t really need several other narrators in there. I either cut their scenes or rewrote from the POV of my hero or heroine. In some instances I realised I had two scenes basically giving the same information to the reader. In one, my hero is given his mission, and in the other he explains it to his second-in-command, who narrates. I cut them both down so part of it is explained in the first scene, and rewrote the second scene from his POV. It was a wrench because there were a couple of scenes I really loved that just didn’t work from someone else’s POV, but the book came out stronger for it.

  7. Hi Julie,
    Thanks for posting all this – it’s really interesting stuff. I’m currently editing a mystery/historical MS that’s set in 2010 (England) and 1876 (Bulgaria). I opted to use limited third person POV because I’m dealing with two heroines + respective heroes (I don’t like to make things easy on myself!) – and I was worried that constraints with various scenarios, some big action scenes and then alternating chapters would be too choppy for anything else to work.

    I do fancy having a go at that dramatic irony though, I must admit!

  8. […] After a week’s rest, a visit to the doctor and a reacquaintance with yoga, my hands are better today so I’m going to start to try to answer some of the questions I’ve been sent about point of view. First, though, if you haven’t read my previous posts, this one is about what point of view is, and this one is about how I’ve chosen the points of view for my novels. […]

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