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?