Wednesday, October 14, 2009

POV Problems

Current Project: NMMNG
Status: The eternal outline of doom (or success)

My title sounds like the sort of . . . performance "problem" one might need a little blue pill for, and in a way, it is. If you don't have a point-of-view, you don't have a story. However, I have a story, but I'm still searching for the perfect POV. Or to put it bluntly, I have a POV dysfunction. Now, as we all know, we have three main choices:

First Person: I love to talk about me, me, me, me and more me. This is the darling of YA and Chick Lit authors alike.

Second Person: You shouldn't be reading this. You should be off doing your laundry. And if you want to be really annoying, you should be doing it in the past tense: you ate your lunch. And if you want to drive everyone to click the nearest LOLcat just to escape, do it in the present tense: You go into a room, and you look around. And unless there is a stack of cash and a signed contract for a choose-your-own adventure book waiting there, RUN! Don't look back. I'm sure that a huge second-person trend is just around the corner, but since you'll be the one running my story, I'll never know. Don't hand over your story to an anonymous "you," because YOU might not like what they do with it.

Third Person: The dear old grandpappy of fiction. "Once upon a time, there lived a Prince . . ." When writing as the all-knowing and all-powerful author who knows all, sees all, and shares judiciously, this is known as third-person omniscient, otherwise known as "Please, do head-hop your way through this nice Regency novel." Third-person limited or Deep Third Person retains the barrier between author and character, but limits it to what that particular character knows, feels, thinks, smells, etc at that exact moment in time much like first person. See the altar I have made to Suzanne Brockmann and Jennifer Crusie for more on how this POV works.

Now, literary fiction throws all the rules out the window and will often do things like alternate chapters of first-person, third-person omniscient, and deep third person POV all while playing with the time continuum, but if you are up for such POV Olympics, you probably aren't in the market for POV aids. Also, you probably hate POV monogamists like myself who insist that you should choose one POV strategy for your story and stick with it to the bitter end. And even worse, I am a this-life-and-the-next monogamist and think that you should choose one POV strategy for your book series and stick with it until the voices in your head (or pictures, thank you, Debbie) hand you a new universe to play with.

Thus, I'm struggling with making the choice between First and Third Person POV for my current WIP. As I have outlined this book, the other books in the series have also become clearer to me (I think I am channeling the lovely Genene), and I envision a point where I really want to use Third Person in my series. Maybe. And thus I dicker, and I will subject you to my dickering because if I can't use my POV yet, I can at least dicker with it.

First Person POV:
  • PRO: This is the current gold standard in YA. I personally miss the days when there were more third-person books on shelves, but absent flying fairies and space ships, the contemporary YA subgenre truly is all about ME. And I. And ME some more. And god forbid we see YOU, but we might squeeze HER in somewhere over there. In a dusty corner.
  • CON: Is it possible that something so fresh can go stale?
  • CON: It often feels like there needs to be a reason for the narrator to share his or her story, and lord save us from a heroine with a diary. Absent the diary though, and the device sometimes feels a bit artificial.
  • PRO: The reader gets an immediate connection with the hero(ine) and gets to see their inner workings and insecurities in minute detail.
  • CON: The reader only gets that connection with one character. The audience is left in the dark about other characters' inner lives.
  • CON: Any sub-plots need to happen "on-camera" for the first person narrator to be able to share them. This limits the ability to advance character arcs for secondary characters.
  • PRO: The readers get to feel smart when they realize things before the hero(ine) does.
  • CON: The readers are left in the dark a lot of times all the way up until the end of the book when the big reveal happens.
  • CON: The plot limitations of this device can often result in the hero(ine) looking clueless and less than sympathetic.
Third Person (I only do this "deep" so that's what I'm referring to here):
  • PRO: Your reader gets to live in the heads of multiple characters.
  • CON: They lack the commentary and intense connection of first person POV.
  • PRO: Multiple story arcs can be advanced.
  • CON: If you have a story that's big on character and light on plot, third person can make it feel smaller and fluffier.
  • CON: If most of your story happens from one POV anyway, the other character's "head time" can seem forced.
  • PRO: You can reveal motivations and causes for actions before the hero(ine) becomes aware of them.
  • CON: You miss out on the big reveal of first person stories.
  • CON: There's an emotional distance between the reader and the story. This is a huge factor in YA, less so in other genres, but still a key consideration.
Now, 90% of the time, you probably know what POV you want to use before you even begin to plot (or pants :)). Perhaps your voices (pictures) only speak to you in third person. Perhaps your particular sub-genre has firm rules about POV and how it is handled, and you lack any real choice. But what about when the choice isn't clear cut? How do you solve this? Write entire chapters and then compare? Write an entire draft and then decide? And can we talk about series that switch POV style partway through the series? Is this universally hated or can it work? Share your POV problems. Anonymously if you must, but you know, even Senators and Football Stars have POV problems from time to time . . .


Paty Jager said...

LOL- Fun post, Bethany! Though I know that you are looking for answers it was still fun. ;)
I'm not going to be much help.

A long time ago I wrote a mystery in first person, because I was reading Sue Grafton at the time and thought that's the way they should be written. I sent it to an agent who said, you can't sell it in first person change it to third. I did, and he still didn't want it. But ever since I have stuck exclusively with third person.

And I haven't read a YA.

I say go with what feels right and if you need to change POV's in the series I think as long as you do it per book I think your readers will go along for the ride.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Personally, I don't think there's enough 2nd person narrative.

Tee hee hee (kidding). ACK!

I'll state plainly that I'm not a huge 1st person fan. And here's why: I don't find I "relate" very well to most book characters and it jars me to read "me" all the time because "I" would never do/behave/see the way the main character does. For me, the 1st person narrative stories are often harder for me to get into than 3rd person. I also dislike 1st person for the following reasons:

1) In 1st person stories I find myself wading through paragraphs and paragraphs of backstory that feel more like info dumps rather than discovering nuggets of backstory through dialogue.

2) There tends to be way more introspection in 1st person stories, which slows pace.

3) Limiting the POV to ONE character in a book feels stifling to me. I want to know what the other characters are thinking now and then too!

However, I realize 1st person is the gold standard in YA. But that doesn't mean it has to be YOUR gold standard. In your case, I'd pick one POV style and start writing. I think you'll figure out pretty quickly if it works or doesn't.

As for books that switch POV style mid-way through a series...the last YA I read was the Twilight series, and I disliked book one mostly for all the reasons I listed above. Too much explaining, way too much introspection, I hated not knowing why certain people were acting the way they were, etc. The author stuck with first person all the way through book four and then divided the final book into three sections - 1) heroine's POV (the POV we were in through all three other books) 2) secondary character POV and 3) back to heroine POV. Normally I'd say this "change" wouldn't work for me, but because that secondary character was the ONLY reason I kept reading, I liked it. Now, I've heard other Twilight fans say of all 4 books, #4 was the one they disliked the most - maybe because of that switch? I don't know. But it is something to think about.

Karen Duvall said...

I enjoy reading and writing in both 3rd and 1st person POVs, and I see the benefits of both. When it comes right down to it, the decision on which to use should be based on how to best tell the story you're wanting to tell and which will serve your characters best.

I've been reading a lot of YA lately and in some ways prefer it to adult fiction. It just seems "purer" to me somehow. Hard to explain, but what I've read has been extremely well-written. I've seen both POVs used. My all time favorite trilogy of which only 2 books exist so far is Suzanne Collins' HUNGER GAMES. That one is 1st person present tense and it's AWESOME!

For myself, I have 2 urban series started, one in 1st and one in 3rd. The 1st person book is very focused on the MC's internal conflict and how it drives the plot, so that's the right point of view for that book. The second book is about a partnership between two opposites fighting for a common goal, so 3rd was the obvious choice. There's more mystery surrounding this series, so more misdirection was used to up the tension and that made 3rd work best for that one.

If the story's effect on secondary characters is important to the overall plot, you might consider using 3rd, even if it is YA. Best selling author Melissa Marr uses it successfully in her YA novel, WICKED LOVELY. Terrific book with a beautiful love story at its core.

Good luck with whatever you choose to do! :)

Alice Sharpe said...

I think everyone has given you good advice. I've read YA in first and third and both are fine, it's whatever suits the story telling. I'm one of those who don't have much of a choice what POV I choose although there's always the dilemma of whose POV to be in to advance each scene. I used to prefer writing first person, but now for the reasons you and the others mentioned, I like third better.

I don't know about switching POV formats within a series. On the surface, it would seem to me to be a poor idea, but who knows?

As usual, your blog is fun and thought provoking at the same time.

Oh, and 2nd person drives me stark, raving bonkers. I cannot stand it.

Bethany Gabbert said...


I could actually seeing you doing another first person mystery series at some point--you have the kind of strong voice that can carry that sort of book. Linda Lael Miller did a few first person westerns though, and oh my, is that ever hard to pull off. I much prefer historicals to be in the third person.

Bethany Gabbert said...


Most of the time I agree with everything you say--it takes a very strong voice to make me love a first person book. Most of the time, I want a more complex story. And, I think there is room for more complexity in YA. This particular YA is not especially complex, but I have future plans for an entirely different YA that will absolutely use multiple viewpoints.

Bethany Gabbert said...

Awesome words of advice, Karen, and I can't wait to read that book (and yours too :)) :)

Bethany Gabbert said...


I was counting on SOMEONE to have an opinion on the series question, and so I appreciate your words of wisdom as always.

I'm still playing with this question. This book is entirely Hero's (this is the one I pitched at the September meeting); however, I have ideas involving the secondary characters for future books, and I'd like to start laying the groundwork for those stories in this book.

One thing that comes up in a number of comments here is the question of pacing--first person books lend themselves to a lot of info dumping and slow pacing and tend be conflict-lite. In the past, pacing has been my number one problem and conflict my number two. I wonder if this dickering over POV is also me trying to confront the pacing issue head on. Perhaps this series is crying out for more suspense to drive the plot rather than just angst? I'm not sure, but I do know that this wrestling is getting me places.

Paty Jager said...

Bethany, you're making me blush. I know you'll get this figured out and be winning contests and agents hearts. Speaking of- Elaine Spencer of the Knight agency likes YA. ;) And she is very, very nice and personable.

Karen Duvall said...

I think I gave the impression I change POVs from book to book in each series, but what I meant and didn't get across very well is that I'm writing 2 different series, one in 1st and the other in 3rd. The one is 1st will stay in 1st for consecutive books, and the series written in 3rd will stay in 3rd. I don't know how I'd feel about series books that bounced between 1st and 3rd, and I couldn't write that way, but I wouldn't be opposed to reading them.

Karen Duvall said...

I've never had the impression that 1st person books tend to be slower paced, but I suppose if it's poorly written that could surely be the case. I've read plenty of 3rd person books that dragged so bad I couldn't finish reading them.

I think the guidelines are clear regardless of POV that tension needs to remain high throughout. An angst-ridden scene won't feel very tense, but if a ticking bomb is involved (metaphorically speaking, of course) or if that angst somehow increases the stakes for the characters, then it can work very well. It's all about the craft, regardless of which point of view is used.

My 2 cents... :)

Genene Valleau said...

LOL, Bethany! What a delightful post!

I don't struggle with POV. I go straight for deep third person. None of the other choices are really a "choice" for me.

If I need to get deeper into a character's POV or discover their hidden secrets, I may go worm my way into their head and let them dump their thoughts into my computer in first person. However, before it goes in the story, the POV gets translated into third person. (Sheesh! Is that paragraph something only a writer would understand?)

Have fun "dickering" with your POV. Like others, I have every confidence you will choose the perfect POV for your book and series!

Genene Valleau said...

By the way, Eli, I like the changes you made to the blog. (Hopefully, they haven't been there for a long time and I'm just noticing. :)

The calendar will be helpful once I figure out what day it is.

And did I miss the announcement of your new cover for MARKED? Looks like another winner!