Last time I introduced point of view (POV), the perspective from which you are writing. It can be from the perspective of a single character as in first person or third person limited. Or, it can be from different perspectives as in third person omniscient and enter the thoughts and feelings of a variety characters over the course of a chapter or section. Either way, there are certain rules or guidelines, if you wish, to follow in writing from different points of view. My previous blog touched on this, but lets look at some do’s and don’ts as to how we write in the more popular POV’s in more detail.
As mentioned previously, the first person POV allows for greater intimacy. You can explore your narrating character in as much detail as you’d like. After all, he or she is the one telling the story and can reveal as much or as little of themselves as you, the writer wants. Also, because it is first person, the narrating character can be unreliable. He or she can embellish their story, withhold information, or even outright lie. This makes for a more interesting narrative in many cases.
But, be careful. Generally, you should plant clues throughout the narrative that the narrator is unreliable. Making the person so evil or so erratic that your audience knows something is up can do this. Or, in a mystery you may plant actual clues along the way to contradict the narrator’s account. Otherwise, you risk confusing and ultimately losing your audience.
Here is an example of an unreliable first person narrator from Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho: “I had all the characteristics of a human being—flesh, blood, skin, hair—but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that my normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning.” He sounds very intriguing, but who would want to trust the veracity of a character like this?
What the reliable first person narrator cannot do is know certain things in the story. For example, suppose your story revolves around a bank robbery and your narrator tells the audience that he knows who robbed a bank. Unless you show the narrator talking with one of the robbers or actually being at the scene while the robbery was taking place then you’ve committed a big “no, no”. Otherwise, how would your narrator know the information? What happens then is your audience no longer suspends their disbelief (a subject I’ll tackle next time) and your story tailspins into the earth.
In the third person limited POV there is a similar process going on. You’re allowed to enter the thoughts and feelings of one character at a time. It may be one character for the entire story or a variety of characters throughout. Generally, if you want to tell the story from the perspective of several viewpoint characters you allow one character per chapter or section (that part of a chapter separated by a break such as “***”). That way your audience knows which character is the limited POV character for that part of your story.
Here is an example of the third person limited POV from Catch-22 by Joseph Heller told from the character Yossarian’s POV:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.
"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.”
If you want a good primer on how this can work, just browse G. R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Each chapter, written in the third person, is entitled with the name of the viewpoint character. Read the book and you’ll see that each chapter is told through the thoughts and feelings of that particular “title” character.
One thing to avoid with the third person viewpoint is what’s called head hopping. This is the tendency to change viewpoint characters within a chapter or section without warning. The result can be confusing and down right maddening for your audience. You have to give your readers a chance to settle in and get to know one character before going to another.
Follow these guidelines. They will help you avoid costly mistakes in whichever point of view you choose.