May 30

An in-depth talk about POV from Doctor Bowman, an editor friend of mine.

 

‘Third-person past-tense is the go-to form, because that’s how we usually talk to one another when relating stories.  First and second person are used for particular instances, as is present-tense and occasionally future-tense.  Though I’ve never encountered future-tense used as a prose style, it’s still used to convey a certain type of information in both prose and in speech.  (Though there are plenty of poems written mostly or entirely in future-tense.)

‘The argument for present-tense is that it helps to convey an immediacy on a story.  This is true; but that creates its own difficulty.  Because present-tense conveys immediacy very well, it becomes a clunky style when you get to “slow parts.”  Every novel is going to have slow parts, and unless you work very hard to minimize them the style will start feeling schizophrenic as the story continues.

‘The most difficult part is when you have to convey information.  Even if you’re able to avoid infodumping (a near-unforgivable sin for me, and one of the surest ways to get your manuscript covered in editor’s ink), it’s difficult to convey background information while still maintaining the pace needed for present-tense.

‘Since it’s mostly used in conjunction with first-person, a lot of this information is conveyed through viewing the protagonist’s thoughts.  It’s almost impossible to do that with immediacy outside of an action scene, and it’s one of two reasons why I was unable to read The Hunger Games.  (The other being that I can’t stand present-tense stories.)  I couldn’t get past the first chapter, which is pretty much all slow-paced infodumping.

‘Another argument for present-tense is that it’s how we talk (or sometimes I get an explanation like “It’s how teens talk,” which usually smacks of patronization).  It’s not.  Or rather, it’s how we convey information, but it’s not how we tell stories.  If you want to write a book, don’t write in present-tense unless you simply can’t tell the story in another way.  (And before you tell me you tried and failed, I want to see evidence that you tried.  Give me the version you rejected.  And if you deleted it, then let that be a lesson to you: never delete old drafts, because you never know what you might change your mind about.)

‘As for first- and second-person POVs, they too are for particular stories.  A second-person POV is almost always combined with present tense, though that’s not always a certainty.  The advantage of second-person stories is the same as for present-tense: the immediacy factor.  It’s best for short forms, action stories, and mysteries if you can work it.  The type of book you find it in the most is the choose-your-own-adventure style.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s that or short stories; otherwise you need to rethink why you want to use it in the first place.

‘A first-person story is best used for something about personal struggle, without an ensemble cast.  Star Wars is about personal struggle, but you have too many character POVs to let it be first-person.  (There is one very good Star Wars novel, I, Jedi that’s written in first person; if you’re a Star Wars fan, I recommend studying the differences between that novel and the X-Wing novels by the same author to see the benefits and limitations of first-person POVs.)

‘The Hunger Games may or may not be a good book for present-tense (I can’t say one way or the other without getting past that first chapter), but I’m certain it’s an excellent example of a story that is best told in first-person.

‘So is The Dresden Files (very good series, but not for kids), which is about personal struggles as well as having a lot of action scenes.  Harry Dresden, the viewpoint character, conveys a lot of information through what he notices and what passes through his (hilarious and sarcastic) head.

‘Now, when I say “personal struggle,” I’m actually casting a pretty wide net; but a common thread is the uncertainty of action.  When a third-person story shows a character considering what to do, you’re at a comfortable distance.  When a first-person story shows the same thing, you’re inside the protagonist’s head.

‘You could say that first person provides a sense of immediacy, but it’s a different type from the kind provided by present-tense or second-person.  Present tense is an immediacy of action: this is happening right now.  First- or second-person is an immediacy of experience: this is either happening to me or to you, respectively.

‘The problem with second-person is that if it describes something that is contrary to what you yourself would do, it makes it hard to suspend disbelief.  (That’s why it’s best in short-form or as a choose-your-own-adventure story. The first doesn’t give you a lot of time to notice fundamental differences, and the second still gives you the ability to choose.)

‘First-person, therefore, is best when you want to center a story less around physical action (though you can have plenty of that still) and more around a single character making key choices that have lasting repercussions.

‘And on that note, I want to draw your attention to something I said earlier: that first-person puts you in the head of the protagonist.  Mark that word.  There is a difference, you see, between a “main character,” a “hero,” and a “protagonist.”  Not all stories have all three as one single character.

‘I guarantee you’ve noticed this before with stories where you try to say who “the” main character is.  Sometimes it’s a group, which is where you have an ensemble cast.  Is the main character of Star Wars Luke Skywalker?  Then why do we cut away to show other characters having meaningful, important, life-changing stories?  You actually have several main characters in the original trilogy; but Luke becomes both the hero and the protagonist by the end of A New Hope.  Similarly, the original Star Trek has three main characters (Kirk, Spock, and McCoy), but only one hero and protagonist (Kirk).

‘I don’t want to get into details about what a hero is here; what I want to draw attention to is the protagonist.  The protagonist is the person who is most active toward the ultimate goal of the main character(s).  Conversely, the antagonist is there to frustrate that goal.  Together, both of them fuel the entire story.

‘So, to continue the Star Wars example (and sticking with A New Hope for convenience), you can see who the antagonist is: Grand Moff Tarkin.  (If you were tempted to say “Darth Vader,” he doesn’t get his moment until the next two movies.)  Who is the protagonist, then?  If you take what I said a couple paragraphs ago, it shouldn’t be hard to guess: initially, it’s Obi-wan Kenobi, with Luke taking over that role during his trench run.  (That’s also where he finally takes up the mantle of “hero,” but that’s another discussion.)

‘In a first-person story, your POV character is obviously the main character; but he must also be your protagonist, or else he’s going to come off as passive.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe would not nearly be so exciting if it were told in first-person (aside from the obvious issues in how it needs multiple POVs), because none of the Pevensie children are the protagonists.  That role belongs to Aslan.  The Pevensies make choices that further the story, but each choice actually serves to allow Aslan or the White Witch (the antagonist, obviously) to make their own moves.  (This is one of the reasons why Tolkien wasn’t so fond of that first Narnia story.)

‘If you want an example of a story that would almost have worked in first-person, then I’d point you to the Harry Potter series.  For about 98% of the series, it might as well be first-person.  We generally only see things through Harry’s perspective, and almost all the information we receive is filtered through his way of thinking.  He is almost — but not quite — an unreliable narrator.

‘However, in addition to a few occasional breaks to other perspectives, there is another reason why it would be frustrating as a first-person story: for most of the series, Harry tends to sit around doing nothing.  Granted, he’s under significant constraints on his actions (mostly having to do with school and classwork), and the decision to act is always a crucial moment in each of the seven books; but if you haven’t occasionally felt like things were dragging a little at about the two-thirds mark (around March and April in the school year), then you must have skipped some passages here and there.  It’s a near-necessary feature of the school-story genre; and while it could be livened up for a first-person view, it would have been hard to do it with the sort of story that Rowling wanted to tell.

‘If you are having trouble writing in one perspective (or even in the past tense), then odds are that the problem is two-fold.  First, you’ve probably been reading a lot of the one perspective and not the other, which is filtering how you think in terms of stories.  Second, your story may have a natural fit for a particular perspective.

‘Either way, the best thing to do is to practice in other forms.  Pay attention to what you want to write about, and see what you can do with it.  Some stories just can’t be told in third-person, for the same reason that romance stories don’t tend to feature a lot of World War II tank battles.   Sometimes your story just doesn’t call for it!’

A great  bit of wisdom there!  Find which POV you write best, but also keep in mind which one your story would be best told in.