Hello fellow writers. A few days ago, I saw an article on io9 featuring quotes on writing from George R.R. Martin. For those of you who don’t know, Martin is, most famously, the author of the Song of Ice and Fire series, a epic fantasy political drama that has recently become extremely famous thanks to the HBO show named for the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones. Readers know Martin for his lavish descriptions of food and for his characters shocking mortality. Whatever your feelings may be about the series (I highly enjoy the first couple of books, but my interest has been waning lately), Martin is certainly a well-respected and successful author. I recommend reading the whole article, which isn’t so much an article as it is a selection of quotes scavenged from all over. But what I want to focus on today is Martin’s thoughts on point of view.
I’m a strong believer in telling stories through a limited but very tight third person point of view. I have used other techniques during my career, like the first person or the omniscient view point, but I actually hate the omniscient viewpoint. None of us have an omniscient viewpoint; we are alone in the universe. We hear what we can hear… we are very limited. If a plane crashes behind you I would see it but you wouldn’t. That’s the way we perceive the world and I want to put my readers in the head of my characters. ~ Martin, Adria’s News, 2012
I too have used several different points of view in my writing throughout the years, and have developed several opinions on them. So let’s just take a look through the different POVs available to you as a writer and list the major strength and weakness of each. I’ll start today with the two types of first person point of view you can use.
First Person, Present Tense
This one is all the rage right now, mainly thanks to young adult novels like The Hunger Games. It’s something that young writers often reach for, as it’s easier to create immediacy and intimacy with a first-person narrative than a third-person one, and the present tense nature creates great suspense. This can be useful when you’re writing some kind of horrific dystopian novel, as you can keep the survival of the narrating character up in the air. That advantage disappears, however, once you start writing the sequels and your story becomes an established series. At the very least, readers who begin the series after the sequels have been published will assume that the narrative character must survive, since there are sequels, and the rest of your readers will begin to doubt your willingness to terminate the narrative character who you have built your entire series around (I realize these may be false assumptions, but they will be common ones none the less). Another issue with writing in present tense is that it’s easy to be sloppy with your prose because you can mostly get away with it.
Major Strength: Easy to create intimacy and suspense
Major Weakness: Faddish, particularly in young adult dystopias
First Person, Past Tense
This is the more common of the first person options, although it isn’t as much in vogue right now as Present Tense. It’s a well accepted in most circles, and includes everything from genre fiction (urban fantasy is written almost exclusively in first person, past tense) to literary classics like Dracula (yes, I’m putting the category of epistolary novel under this heading). While some might find a first person urban fantasy novel to be cliché in the same way that a first person present tense dystopia is, I disagree. Because it’s more established, it’s a genre feature, not a cliché. For example, having a cowboy in a western isn’t cliché, it’s part of what makes it a western. Writing in past tense also makes less allowance for sloppy prose (oh, believe me, you can still do it. It’s just less excusable), and gives you a more stable platform for description of scenery and such.
One thing you do lose, however, is the uncertainty of the narrator’s survival. After all, how could they be telling these stories if they died at the end? This sometimes leaves you begging the question of who the heck the narrator is speaking to. Often this is glazed over, but if your narrator breaks the fourth wall, it will become an issue. Also, does the narrator know the end of the story from the beginning? Sometimes they do (for example, Inquisitor Eisenhorn from Dan Abbnett’s Warhammer 40k books is constantly making commentary like “and he died 130 years later,” and “I later learned that he was an asshat.”). Sometimes they don’t (for example, the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs).
One way around these problems is using a story frame. Robin Hobb uses this in her Farseer trilogy with the conceit of the main character writing an account of his younger days. Patrick Rothfuss takes it one step further by beginning his Kingkiller Chronicles with a third-person narrative and then having a character within that frame tell the majority of the story. This allows the first person portion of the narrative to break the fourth wall, while still keeping the entire work contained within the “fifth wall” of the frame. Whatever option you choose to resolve these issues, be consistent about it. No particular answer is inherently wrong (including choosing to ignore the issue entirely), but trying to use two conflicting answer simultaneously is.
Major Strength: The intimacy and immediacy of first person without the sloppiness of present tense
Major Weakness: Begs the question of narrator knowledge
One thing with first-person perspective is that it’s much more difficult to use shifting narrators. In fact, I advise against it. When you spend time shifting around from character to character, you completely sacrifice that extra intimacy that first-person perspective has gained you. I’ll be talking about multiple narrators much more when I talk about third-person narrative on Monday. See you all then!