Voice and Point of View by Carolyn Mathews

Jul 29th, 2017 | By | Category: Articles

Squaring CirclesSo you’re sitting at your desk planning your novel. You know roughly what happens at the beginning and end and you’ll cross the bridge spanning the middle when the time comes. You know the sex, age and occupation of your main character and the challenges he or she will have to face. At certain intervals in the story there will have to be CONFLICT, the timing of which will no doubt have been prescribed by whichever book doctor you’re currently consulting. And then there’s the question of narration. Whose voice is telling the story?

My voice, I hear you say, because this is the way I write. True, but I’m thinking more of the voices of the narrator and the characters themselves.

When I embarked on my first novel I felt most comfortable writing in the first person: the main character, Pandora, is the narrator and everything filters through her eyes, ears and consciousness – in other words, her point of view (POV). This POV influences the protagonist’s reactions to other characters and situations, so should be consistent with his or her age, history and circumstances.

Maintaining consistency is easy if you know your protagonist inside out. On the other hand, there is a temptation with the first person POV to include too many inner thoughts, which could irritate readers, particularly if the character overindulges in negative emotions like self-pity.

Just like in real life, the protagonist-narrator can never know what’s going on in the minds of others, or, for that matter, in the pub down the road, unless someone tells them or they’re physically present. How much easier it would have been to have got inside the heads of Pandora’s co-characters, rather than having to guess their reactions from the way they gulped, narrowed their eyes, chewed their knuckles, etc. But if I had entered their craniums, an eagle-eyed editor would have picked it up at the manuscript stage and promptly blue-pencilled it out.

To quote Jane Austen, “it’s a truth universally acknowledged”, that the inner workings of the minds of other characters can’t be inspected at the drop of a hat unless we choose to have an omniscient narrator – a God-like figure ‘speaking’ in the third person – who knows everything about everybody! This would solve all our POV problems, except that the omniscient narrator is no longer in fashion. Modern day readers would rather have the intimacy and immediacy of the protagonist telling the story as it happens, than an anonymous, clever-dick narrator feeding them pieces of information as he or she sees fit.

With this in mind, I had to be careful that my protagonist never stated that she knew more than she could have known. Here’s an example, taken from my second novel, Squaring Circles, of how she came to the conclusion that another character felt he had revealed too much.

“‘So if you didn’t tell her about Charles being in hospital, who did?’

‘Search me. Maybe that witch Dido saw it in her crystal ball.’

‘It has to be Theo who told her,’ I said, ‘but why would he?’

‘That young man’s got himself mixed up with the wrong crowd, just like Rosemary. It’s money, money, money with them. Everything else goes by the board.’

He stopped. I could see from his flushed face that he thought he’d told me too much.”

When I finished the first book, Transforming Pandora, I realised that first person narration could be restrictive, so I looked into the alternatives. One option I considered was third person/single POV, which still allows the main character’s thoughts to be revealed, but by a narrator rather than herself. So the final line, above, would have read as follows.

“He stopped. She could see from his flushed face that he thought he’d told her too much.”

What the change in POV does, is to distance the protagonist from the action and put him or her on a similar footing to the other characters. The reader still has more insight into the protagonist’s state of mind and motivations but not so intensely as before.

It can also be argued that descriptive writing sounds better in the third person. Here’s an example from the first chapter of Squaring Circles.

“I strode towards them, hampered by my high heels, which had begun to sink a good half inch into the earth. By the time I’d hobbled over to them, still clutching Jay’s coat, the pair had reached the shelter and were locked in an embrace.”

Here it is written in the third person/single POV. Do you prefer this style?

“She strode towards them, hampered by her high heels, which had begun to sink a good half inch into the earth. By the time she’d hobbled over to them, still clutching Jay’s coat, the pair had reached the shelter and were locked in an embrace.”

There could be an added dimension to this as well. If Pandora happened to hear some birdsong on her way across the paddock, a third person narrator could probably get away with identifying the bird, its markings and what it had for breakfast, with no reader questioning it. The third person narrator is allowed to be something of an expert, but make your main character a walking encyclopaedia, and your readers might well go on strike.

As you can see, I decided to continue with first person narration in the second book for the sake of consistency. But if I were starting over I’d probably go for third person/single POV. To me, it seems a more natural way of storytelling and adds another voice to the main character’s, giving an extra ‘layer’ to the book.

It’s fun to experiment. In Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights there are two main narrators, Lockwood and Nelly – neither of them totally reliable, with Nelly repeating a wealth of gossip and hearsay. Bronte cleverly made sure that, at any stage in the book, the reader is always aware of more than whichever character is giving their version of events. Emily certainly knew what she was doing.

Switching the POV without any warning can cause misunderstanding. Therefore, if a writer wants to introduce a different POV, the best way is to give the character a separate chapter, with a chapter heading indicating who is narrating. Then the reader is always clear about whose voice or thoughts they’re hearing. This is not to say that this rule can’t be broken, but skill and artistry are required to do it well.

I chose this topic because it’s a very common slip when someone first starts to write seriously, but quite easy to correct once it’s pointed out. We just have to ask ourselves questions like:

Who is telling the story?

How do they know this thing?

Is the narrator the same all the way through this chapter and, if not, have I made the change clear?

Finally, paying attention to voice also applies to how characters sound and what they say. We can’t hope to make them all sound different, but it helps to ask the following question.

Can I tell the difference between characters without using: ‘he said/she said/their name said/their job said’?

Have you decided which POV you’re going to choose for your next book or short story? It could depend on the genre you choose. The omniscient narrator suits epic adventures stretching across the centuries; the first person narrator creates an intimacy with the main character; the third person narrator is found in every genre and is the most often used these days.

If you’re interested in multiple points of view, see Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach where new chapters, and even paragraphs within chapters, are preceded by the character’s name. Look again at books you’ve enjoyed and see how those authors have handled it.

Isn’t writing fascinating?

Carolyn Mathews, a former English teacher is working on the third in the Pandora trilogy. Her interest in contemporary spirituality informs her fiction.

Author website: http://carolynmathews.co.uk

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This article was first published in The Writer’s Wheel, Issue 3

 

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