Point of Who?

By John Gilstrap

Those of us who choose to write in the third person limited point of view face a critical challenge after every space break: Who’s going to own the next scene? That choice affects virtually every sentence that follows it. It affects the action, the voice, the word choice . . . everything. Point of view selections even inform the direction that the plot is going to take.

Let’s say that we’re going to write a fictional account of the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. For the uninitiated, that engagement, fought in July of 1863, is widely considered the turning point in the war—the defeat from which the Confederate Army never fully recovered. More than 160,000 troops descended on a town of 2,400 residents, and at the end of three days of fighting, over 60,000 lay dead or dying, with many thousands more left wounded on the battlefield.

In our fictional account of the story, who will our POV characters be? If we choose to tell a story set among the commanders (George Meade for the Union, Robert E. Lee for the Confederates), it seems to me that it would be too limiting to assume the role of either commander, if only because their lives and decisions are so well documented. Instead, I would probably create a fictional aide de camp whose thoughts and observations I would record. I would imagine that this choice would have us writing battle scenes from a big-picture, strategic world view.

Maybe we’d want to tell the story of the battle from the POV of a rank-and-file soldier, in which case our story would be less about momentous command decisions than it would be about the everyday soldier’s life of unending boredom punctuated by blind terror. Our character’s view of the battle would not concern itself with troop movements on the grand scale, but rather from the very limited perspective of a man under fire choking on the stench of smoke and blood. If he could see anything, it would likely be the shoulders of the soldier in front of him.

Another option might be to tell the story of a Gettysburg resident, a civilian facing the horrors of war and its aftermath. Shall we choose a young woman who fears for the safety of her children? A middle aged man who feels guilt for not being part of the battle? Maybe the town doctor who is facing an unending stream of catastrophic traumatic injuries.

Whichever choice we make, the story will report on the same event, but the perspectives taken on that event will be wildly disparate depending upon our choice of POV.

Take the historical nature of the event out of play and the same challenges continue to exist. If we’re writing a divorce drama from the POVs of both husband and wife, we need to choose which perspective delivers the most drama for the scene where the lawyer reveals the investigator’s tapes of the wife cheating on hubby. If we’re writing a story about a kidnapping, we need to decide whether the actual snatching is best revealed to the reader through the point of view of the victim or the mother who sees him being spirited away.

These are really important decisions. How do you make them? Do you have to go back and rewrite your choices like I have had to do more times than I like to think about? For you first-person writers, do you face any kind of the same choices in your writing, or does the narrow window insulate you from them?

9 thoughts on “Point of Who?

  1. I’ve never written a book in first person before. I’ve tried, but it never worked …until now. The book I’m writing is in first person only and it is working for this book. Never thought I’d do it, never thought it would work, but we’ll see. So far it is working.

  2. Nice post, John. First person is arguably more intimate, believable and revealing than third, but tougher to do. I’ve never attempted it. And because I work with a co-writer, I imagine it would be even harder. Even though our thrillers contain a number of characters that require their own POV scenes, we never jump from one to the other in the same scene without a drop/break or “hand-off” transition. And when a number of these folks are in the same scene, we sometimes choose to pull the camera back and take a more omniscient POV. With multiple characters playing equally important roles, choosing the appropriate POV for each scene is dictated to what must be revealed or concealed at that point in the story.

    Many novels I’ve read lately contain a mix of first and third person POVs. This can work well if the precedent is set early and the transitions are handled smoothly.

  3. I’ve done both third-person multiple and first person. I’m currently working on a third-person single POV and it’s a big debate whether to shift it to a multiple POV, primarily with the killer being the other POV. I think it changes the book, and not necessarily for the worse. If I bring in the killer’s POV, then the novel becomes more of a thriller than a mystery. Still, there’s a few plot twists that I want to keep a surprise, and having the killer’s POV is pretty much going to wreck those.

    I keep thinking of a lot of John Sandford’s Prey novels. One of the things he often does is keep the identity of the killer muddled early in the book, even though he’s using a third-person multiple viewpoint. Then, somewhere around the middle of the books, right around the time that Lucas Davenport figures out who the killer probably is, the POV of the killer changes a bit so the killer is being identified in the narrative. It’s always been interesting to me (Winter Prey is a terrific example of this), because the first half of the books tend to be both thriller and whodunnit, but after that it tends to be just thriller.

    Well, nobody said this was easy, did they?

  4. I’ve done both. I use first person for PI stories, as its much easier for introspection. I’ve never had to completely rewrite a limited third scene in another character’s voice, though I have started some scenes and changed before I got too far in. I also write fairly detailed outlines, so i’ve considered whose POV to use well before I actually get to writing it.

  5. Like JRM I haven’t done first person until now – and it’s working (I think) and it’s the only POV that would work int he circumstances. It’s certainly tougher but the decision was made for me when I tried to write third person and I kept slipping into first!

  6. I’ve gone back and rewritten scenes from the other point of view. If I find I keep slipping out of the character’s head when I read my first draft, that usually means I wasn’t in the right head to start with.

  7. My first book was single 3rd POV to keep folks in the dark just like the main character was. After that the other three were all multiple 3rd. I’m not sure about trying a 1st, not sure I can comfortably do that, at least not at this time. Third person seems most comfortable to me as it gives me that god-like view over the story. Few writers have kept me interested in 1st person.

    I have plans for an historical thriller set in the Mongolian empire and am debating on using single or multiple 3rd. Also considering using the POV of Genghis Khan’s Shitzu…but haven’t decided yet.

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