This continues on from my Feb 16-17 blog posts about creating believable characters and the influences affecting character.
A first person POV presents the entire story from one character’s perspective. As such, everything that happens in the story is filtered through one person and is, as such, interpreted and skewed by that character according to their world-view and who they are – their thoughts and emotions.
To do this right you really need to know your character well – what he notices, what his values are, his personality, what his commentary would be about the events taking place.If you were then to describe or interpret the same room or situation using a different character, then this new character would be expected to notice different things and interpret the situation differently to the first – if you, as long as you as a writer know each of them well enough.
How your first person POV character talks about another character says much about the POV person and the one being talked about. For example, an insecure, catty POV character may refer to a pretty cheer-leader type character as a ‘bitch’ and even skew the story to highlight moments of described prissiness or bitchiness by the other girl when this may not actually be the case (i.e. an unreliable narrator). The novel, “Hating Alison Ashley” uses this exact scenario, eventually revealing, as the POV character’s own disposition towards the ‘pretty’ Alison become favourable, that the girl being judged (Alison) is not at all what the POV character originally lead us, the reader, to believe.
With sufficient skill, it is possible to create deliciously unreliable first person narrators with great gulfs between their thoughts and how they perceive themselves versus what they actually say and do and present of themselves to the world around them.
You can have several first person POV characters in a novel and have your story follow different people at different times, but each has to sound unique. They cannot sound like each other. Everything must change – the things you describe/what they notice, the way they are described, the language used, what makes them weep or become enraged, the tone of voice, the life experience brought to the interpretation (e.g. a child character will interpret a scene differently to an adult).
For example, a woman might regard a comment by a co-worker as sexist, when a man in the same office might not.
Don’t describe things the character would not know. You can’t describe a woman as having “a mellifluous voice” if the character wouldn’t actually know what the word meant. You can’t describe an animal as “doglike” if your world is an alien world with no experience of dogs. Nor can your POV character comment on what is happening to a character across the country, if the character has no way of knowing this.
As a personal observation, I find that stories told from first person POV do not seem to translate into movies all that well or easily, probably because so much of the conflict and drama is in the protagonist’s own head and only given meaning and tension by the protagonist’s interpretation of events taking place. Those that have worked for me – “The Hunger Games”, “Tomorrow When the War Began” – seem to have done so because the setting and scenario the protagonist is in contains a lot of action and conflict that is irrespective and standalone from the drama and conflict created purely by the protagonist’s own mind.
Not many writers, particularly beginners, use second person POV and so I won’t dwell on it here. This POV relies on the author referring to ‘you’ and addressing his comments and story directly to the reader. It’s an intimate style, but difficult to pull off.
Third person can be a ‘close’ point of view, where the story at any one time follows a particular character very closely, filtering each scene through that character’s thoughts, eyes and life-experience. It is similar to first person in that, were the same scene to be depicted following a different character, the scene and events would be essentially the same, but different elements, scenery and so on would be emphasized and commented upon in keeping with that particular character’s personality.
Third person is really good for big, epic stories where major protagonists are in all manner of places and environments and the writer needs to be able to switch locations to tell the reader what’s going on in each of them. “Game of Thrones” uses this POV – going from characters on The Wall and beyond all the way through Winterfell to King’s Landing and the lands and islands beyond the seas. It is a multiple, limited third person POV and each different character’s story is written according to the personality of that character and his life-experience and aims and so on.
Third person can also be an ‘omniscient’ POV where all characters are equal in a scene, no-one is weighted over anyone else and everything is described more-or-less impersonally. A strong ‘authorial’ voice is often present in these, which can overwhelm the story. Omniscient third person POV is not often done.
Often the only time omniscience happens in third person POV stories is at the start of scenes when describing where the character is, but once the scene has been set, the ‘camera’ hones in pretty quickly to the character being followed.
Practice exercise: Try rewriting a scene you are unsure of from the POV of all major characters present. Use different words according to how each sees the world. The aim is to not have characters sound like each other.
Same with dialogue. If dialogue is good enough, there should be no need to end all speaking parts with who actually said it.
On a final note, the POV character is not always the protagonist. The protagonist is the character the story is about and the one who drives the action, but the story is not always from his POV and nor is the POV character always the driver of the action. Sometimes the protagonist is merely viewed at a distance (often through a first person prism) by a POV narrator.
A good example of this is “The Great Gatsby.” The driver of the action and drama is Jay Gatsby and everything he goes through (deceptions and misrepresentations of himself notwithstanding) in an ultimately tragic attempt to win back the hand of an old flame, Daisy Buchanan, who got married, had a child and moved forward with life while Gatsby was in the process of turning himself into the kind of man he believed worthy of her. The story is, however, told from the POV of the nice, but rather insipid, Nick Carraway. It is not told from Gatsby’s POV (not even in third person) and this is deliberate for, by telling the story from Nick’s view, the character of Gatsby is set up from the outset as a soaring creature of wealth and generosity and success and mystery (Carraway doesn’t know who he is when he meets him) only to ultimately shatter this illusion and produce a massive emotional punch near the end when the reality of the man’s origins and obsession is revealed and everything turns horribly wrong.