Worldbuilding: points of view for writers – by request

A few days ago a reader of this blog asked me whether I’d ever posted on point-of-view in novel writing. I hadn’t, but promised I would.

The question, specifically, was whether it’s possible to change from first to third person in a novel. – switching the point of view from which the story was being told. It’s very much worldbuilding for a novelist, because point-of-view is closely integral to the shape and balance of the story. A framework for expressing the world the writer is creating. And my answer is ‘maybe’. Some authors mix-and-match between these styles. That occasionally works quite well. Occasionally it comes across as gimmicky. But usually the author picks one and sticks with it. There are three sorts:

1. Omnipotent third person. The author dances between narrators, telling the story from many different viewpoints, all in the third person. This gives the author a much wider story than otherwise possible, with all kinds of literary devices available on the back of it. For example, building a drama for the reader by showing danger or tension for the protagonists that the protagonists themselves aren’t yet aware of. A lot of thrillers are written that way. So was The Lord Of The Rings. This approach worls on all sorts of scales, and particularly lends itself to ‘epic’.

2. Third person exclusive. The author tells the story of just one character. Usually only what this person sees, knows and does is recounted. The Hobbit was (mostly) written that way. This can be a great way of building drama and of giving depth to a particular character. It also lets you paint other characters as seen by your main character – in effect, lending itself to ‘showing’, not ‘telling’.

Sometimes, this viewpoint is less good when conveying the inner thoughts of a main character. The very nature of saying ‘he’ or ‘she’, ‘they did’, or whatever, is always going to be more abstracted and less intiimate, than first person. The voice of the author, not the character, prevails.

This approach is key to good non-fiction biographies – being able to convey your understanding of someone else’s character. A few years back, I used ‘third person exclusive’ to tackle my biography of Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg (Freyberg’s War, Penguin 2004). I wanted to avoid the pitfall that most studies of his command plunged into – the 20:20 perfect hindsight of armchair military enthusiasts. The way I did it was by tackling the story from his personal point of view – what did he see and know during battle? What were the other issues he had to tackle? I was able to narrate that in the third person, biography-style. But I consciously restricted the POV. Because it was also history I was also able to contrast what then emerged about his perspectives with what happened – but that’s another matter.

3. First person. The author tells the story from the viewpoint of a single character, as if the character themselves were telling it. It has the same strengths as the ‘third person exclusive’ approach- but the ‘I’ and ‘me’ aspect of first person can help create an even more intimate experience of character.

It is also, I think, easier to explore different writing styles with a first person POV, because the character may well have a turn of phrase in their internal monologue, or the way they observe the world, that just doesn’t work from the more impartial perspective of the third-person. George McDonald Fraser was a master of this – his 1970 novel ‘Flashman’ and its sequels were told as if a memoir, so finely styled that Fraser had one early critic convinced it was a real Victorian-age diary.

What this adds up to is that each of these POV approaches moulds structure and the style of the novel. That makes switching course half way tricky, because the intended viewpoint flows so intimately into the structure, content and style.

For that reason, ideally, decisions on POV need to be taken at the beginning of the planning process.  It’s going to be integral with the way that the author envisages the story and characters.

That said, there’s no question that really good ideas often float in half way. They demand attention – at least to the point of deciding to ignore them. But equally, I think it would not require too much work to switch from third-person exclusive to first person. Much depends on whether deadlines are pressing.

Have you had any experiences writing in various point-of-view styles? I’d love to hear from you. And if you have any other questions about writing – do ask. I may not be able to help directly, but I’m happy to have a go.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


9 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: points of view for writers – by request

  1. Interesting to think about this.
    I had to write my novel in Third person omnipresent, as it covers three groups of people in different parts of the world, and I felt it would just be too confusing to do it any other way. I’ve recently read some great stuff written in first person, and I agree that it does allow the character to have a much stronger voice, so I’m keen to try that out sometime soon.
    Thanks!

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  2. Thank you! This was very interesting. I’m using the first person POV in one of my novels, and the third person in a novella, and am learning a lot.

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  3. And an important variant on 3, or even a 4th: the *unreliable* first person narrator – very useful in fiction, often observable in autobiogs in non fiction! The best fictional example of this in my opinion is Iain Pears’ An instance of the fingerpost, which is a brilliant tour de force of unreliable first person.

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  4. I find most autobiograhies are – well, not exactly untrue, but certainly spun to suit the author. Except Graham Chapman’s “A Liar’s Autobiography”, which was entirely true (apart from the bits that weren’t).

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  5. Thanks for the post, Matt!
    I hadn’t really thought about what POV to use in my first novel – I was just writing, writing, writing. Now that I look at it, I’m wondering if 1st person would work better… but the rewrite will be a huge headache.

    And I’m not sure that I’m completely in the guy’s head… or if I’m a good enough writer to pull it off. He can be a despicable character, and one of my readers said that I’d managed to make him quite likable in 3rd person.

    Decisions, decisions. I’ll probably continue to rewrite, and figure out later what works for the book.

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  6. Hi, glad the posting was handy – and good luck. It’s a difficult decision. But if you have the time, don’t be afraid of re-writing. Sometimes the “Mk II” re-write can point up a whole raft of improvements. It’s all good.

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