A mile in their shoes
The importance of point of view
This post is going to be two things in one; mostly, it’s going to be a post about how to convey convincing point of view in your writing, but it’s also going to be about the essential difference between narrative voice and point of view.
A lot of people confuse the two, and that is truly unfortunate, because it leads to essentially misunderstanding both, and not exploiting either to their full potential, or downright misusing both. Even worse, many instructive texts and internet articles fail to see the difference, yet there is a very important distinction When you are deciding between 1st and 3rd person, you are choosing a narrative voice, NOT a point of view. The narrative voice is the way in which you tell your story; past or present tense, 1st, 2nd or 3rd person, etc. While the chosen point of view will certainly have a lot to do with the narrative voice you will end up using, they are two very different things, and should be considered with equal care.
As I’ve said before, there is a LOT more to narrative voice than just choosing between first and third person. There are many different kinds of narrative voice in either person to choose from, and they each have their strengths and weaknesses. Since I already wrote a whole post about narrative voice, I will let you read it so I can concentrate this one on point of view.
Whether you choose first person or third person, you still need to choose the point of view of a character inside your story to focus your narration on. Third person narration is not a point of view on its own; it’s the voice you’ve chosen to express the point of view of one or many characters. There is one exception to this rule: in the case of an omniscient or objective third person narrator, the narrator can take on a voice so unique and particular that he can become a character of his own, even though he is not an actual character in the world of the story. This is the case with most of Douglas Adams’s books, such as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and his Dirk Gently books. It is also the case with most of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.
But the use of third person omniscient has been rapidly declining for the past few decades. This is because the problem of head-hopping (which is the action of jumping from point of view to point of view rapidly, in the same scene) caused by the most common misuses of the omniscient narrator is now on top of the beginner mistakes to watch out for with most professionals. More often than not, third person narrative voice is now used as limited, either throughout the whole book or by scene or chapter. In this case, you need to immerse yourself in the point of view of your chosen character or characters.
The first thing to consider, of course, is your choice of point of view character. In my post about narrative voice, I explain the difference between protagonist and main character, but not what makes the best choice of main character (or point of view character). It’s important to consider that since you will be limited to that character’s thoughts and perception, you have to pick someone who will be able to be there to witness, or at least hear about the key plot points of your story (and being there is best). You also need to pick someone who has just the right level of intelligence to figure it out as the reader should, someone who doesn’t necessarily have everything go right over his or her head, but who isn’t too smart that they will figure it all out at once, either.
However, the most important factor to consider when choosing your point of view character is emotion. Stories are about the human experience, and central to that is the experience of emotion. As David Gerrold said in his excellent book Worlds of Wonder, your main character is the person whom the story hurts the most; the one it will take to the farthest extremes of the emotional spectrum, because that is what truly tests someone’s character, and that is what promotes growth and self-discovery, which is an integral part of the human experience, and an essential component of most stories.
Once you have chosen who the best person is to experience your story, you need to put aside your own view of the world and immerse yourself in your character’s way of thinking, their particular take on the world around them. This will affect, of course, the way you write: the words you choose, the way you structure your sentences, how subtle (or not) the opinions of your point of view character come off in the narration, and, most important, the way you describe things.
When you describe something, you have to describe it through their eyes; what would they see? We don’t all notice the same things; our perception of the world is changed by our tastes, our interests, and our own private agendas. You must take not only these into consideration about your character when describing anything, but you also have to contend with their emotional state. For example, it is very rare that in a state of intense fear, someone will start noticing what someone else is wearing, or what kind of furniture there is in the room.
Similarly, it’s very rare for anyone to think about the precise emotion they are feeling. When we’re in an agitated or deeply emotional state, we don’t sit back and tell ourselves “I am angry now” or “I’m sad”; we feel the emotion as the primal, abstract thing that it is, and react to it immediately. It’s only later, when we are no longer emotional, that we can name with accuracy the way we were feeling and why. If you’re looking for a way to express emotion, I wrote an entire post about it which explains ways you can do this without naming the emotion.
Finally, about surroundings, it is highly unlikely that we stop and pay close enough attention to places we visit on a daily basis, like the place where we live or work, unless something different or unusual draws our attention; that is true for characters too. This advice concerns not only places, but people as well: it’s also very rare to notice what someone’s hair and eyes look like if we’ve known them all our lives, unless they’ve done something to change it. I have a post about description which you might want to consult as to how to make successful descriptions, but concerning point of view, I will say this: be careful of not only how you describe, but how much and when. In third person, you can get away with some description of things your character would not normally notice, but in first person, you have to choose carefully what you are describing, how you are doing it, and most importantly, why you are describing this, at this very moment in the story. In first person, you not only have your character’s point of view, but you are also using their voice, so there is a lot less leeway when it comes to description. Describing places your character has never been to is a natural thing, since they are paying attention, having never seen this place before; but when you wander into the risky territory of the familiar, be sure to think of a good reason to suddenly break into description, and keep it to the strict minimum that is needed for comprehension of the action.
This goes triple for science-fiction and fantasy; it’s natural to want to describe in depth what is unfamiliar to your reader, but you have to keep in mind that to your character, it is the familiar, and it is the most common mistake in this field to over-describe what is commonplace for your character. Think about it; to you, ATMs and cars and airplanes are an everyday thing. While it may happen to the odd person, once or twice in their lives, to wonder about how these things really work, we mostly take for granted that they are there, and do what they do, and we don’t think about them any more than we do about a chair or a window. They’re part of our everyday lives. Even though some things in your science-fiction or fantasy world may be wonderful and strange to the reader, they will not be to your character, and you must be very careful about going on and on about them.