|Good stuff from book doctor, Jason Black.
(Off-stage voice: Hey, isn’t he the competition?)
So what? If he can help a writer, I’m good with that. Read on!
How Your Novel’s Point of View Affects Your Characters
by Jason Black
Perhaps nothing is as fundamental to the reader’s experience of your novel’s characters as the novel’s point of view (POV). The exact same story will feel entirely different if written once in third-person POV and again in first-person.
The array of POV choices at the modern novelist’s disposal is somewhat dizzying, and each leaves its mark on a book and on that book’s characters. Making the right choice means understanding how each POV presents your plot and characters, and how each one shapes the connection between your readers and your characters.
This is the classic external-narrator POV, in which an abstract and omniscient narrator tells the reader everything that’s happening. In this POV, the writer can literally show the reader anything at any time.
Third-person omniscient is a great choice when you have a complex plot with several main characters and minor characters who follow multiple story lines until things meet up at the end. It is ideal if your goal is to allow the reader to watch everything unfold even though the characters aren’t aware of all that’s going on.
However, third-person omniscient is emotionally very cold because it is the most distant from your characters. Third-person omniscient often flits about from here to there, jumping into and out of different characters heads, giving the reader a much more difficult job in forming any close emotional ties with the characters.
Third-person omniscient is often the best choice for books where the plot is the central attraction. If you’re writing a so-called “Plot monster” novel that doesn’t have much in the way of character arcs, this could well be the way to go.
The only difference between this POV and third-person omniscient is that you funnel the entire story through one character’s viewpoint. You can show what the POV character sees, hears, thinks, believes, and feels. But you may only show those things. Nothing else. Showing anything the POV character doesn’t directly experience is dis-allowed.
This disciplined viewpoint gives the POV character and the reader exactly the same information. It closes the emotional distance between them, and is very effective at letting the reader share the character’s experience of the story. It is an excellent choice for linear plots with a single main character who experiences all the important plot events.
Third-person limited offers a nice balance between a plot-driven story and a character-driven story. It is often a good choice when the outer events of your plot are closely tied to the protagonist’s inner growth.
This is when a character is the narrator of his or her own story, relayed in present tense as it unfolds or in past tense from after the events have transpired. Because of the reliance on a single main character, first-person stories usually require the same type of linear plots as third-person limited POV.
First-person POV presents the smallest emotional distance between the reader and the main character. Thus, first-person is a great choice when the story is more about the inner character arc than it is about the outer plot. It is also the hardest POV to write well because it demands a very strong, compelling voice.
The presentation of information is very different between first-person and third-person limited. In a first-person story the reader’s perception is that the narrator—a character—is telling them the story. Implicitly, that narrator chooses what to tell the reader, what to omit, and what spin to put on events. Readers know the character may not be telling them the whole truth. In third-person limited, the reader perceives the writer more directly as the one providing the narration, and the writer isn’t supposed to lie to the reader. That’s cheating.
Finally, there are a few unusual POV choices and variations on the above choices that bear mentioning:
First-person plural: This is when the narrator is a group of people and the story is told from a “we” point of view. A good example is the classic Cheaper by the Dozen, by Frank Gilbreth, which is about a family’s father but is told from the collective point of view of the children. Very few novels have a premise which permits this, but for those that do it can give the reader a sense of inclusion in the group, as though the reader were included in the collective “we” relating the story.
Second-person: This is when an author puts the reader directly into the story by using “you” as the main character: “You walk into the cafeteria, wrinkling your nose at the smell of mystery meat and canned peas.” Second-person stories are rare for good reason: this can easily feel more like a gimmick than a good writing choice. However, if done well this POV nearly eliminates the emotional distance between the reader and the main character.
Multiple POVs: This is when you apply the techniques of the above POVs to multiple characters in the same book. The danger here is in giving the reader “POV whiplash,” by switching among POV characters haphazardly. Generally, don’t switch POV characters unless you’re at a scene or chapter break.
Finally, when choosing your novel’s POV, consider the above guidelines and ask yourself these questions:
1. Does the structure of your story force you into a particular choice?
2. What’s more important: your plot, or your characters? Or are they about the same?
3. How close do you want the reader to feel towards your characters?
Give some careful thought to these guidelines, and take your time in answering those three questions. After all, choosing the right point of view is important, even critical, to the success of your novel.
Jason Black is a book doctor who actively blogs about character development. He recently appeared at the 2009 PNWA Summer Writers Conference and was the featured speaker at the March 2010 PNWA members meeting. To learn more about Jason or read his blog, visit his website at www.PlotToPunctuation.com.
“Anything cliché such as ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ will turn me off. I hate when a narrator or author addresses the reader (e.g., ‘Gentle reader’).”
– Jennie Dunham, Dunham Literary
“Sometimes a reasonably good writer will create an interesting character and describe him in a compelling way, but then he’ll turn out to be some unimportant bit player. Other annoying, unoriginal things I see too often: some young person going home to a small town for a funeral, someone getting a phone call about a death, a description of a psycho lurking in the shadows, or a terrorist planting a bomb.”
– Ellen Pepus, Signature Literary Agency (formerly Ellen Pepus Literary)
“I’m really turned off by a protagonist named Isabelle who goes by ‘Izzy.’ No. Really. I am.”
– Stephany Evans, FinePrint Literary Management
“I dislike opening scenes that you think are real (I rep adult genre fiction), then the protagonist wakes up. It makes me feel cheated. And so many writers use this hackneyed device. I dislike lengthy paragraphs of world building and scene setting up front. I usually crave action close to the beginning of the book (and so do readers).”
– Laurie McLean, Larsen/Pomada Literary Agents
“I do in fact hate it when someone wakes up from a dream in Chapter 1, and I dislike an overly long prologue. The worst thing that you can do is let that crucial chapter be boring – that’s the chapter that has to grab my interest!”
– Michelle Brower, Folio Literary Management (formerly Wendy Sherman Associates)
“I don’t like an opening line that’s ‘My name is…,’ introducing the narrator to the reader so blatantly. I might be prompted to groan before reading on a bit further to see if the narration gets any less stale. There are far better ways in Chapter 1 to establish an instant connection between narrator and reader. I’m also usually not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page 1 rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.”
– Michelle Andelman, Lynn C. Franklin Associates (formerly Andrea Brown Literary Agency)
“I hate seeing a ‘run-down list:’ Names, hair color, eye color, height, even weight sometimes. Other things that bother me is over-describing the scenery or area where the story starts. Usually a manuscript can lose the first 3-5 chapters and start there. Besides the run-down list preaching to me about a subject, I don’t like having a character immediately tell me how much he/she hates the world for whatever reason. In other words, tell me your issues on politics, the environment, etc. through your character. That is a real turn off to me.”
– Miriam Hees (editor), Blooming Tree Press
“Perhaps my biggest pet peeve with an opening chapter is when an author features too much exposition – when they go beyond what is necessary for simply ‘setting the scene.’ I want to feel as if I’m in the hands of a master storyteller, and starting a story with long, flowery, overly-descriptive sentences (kind of like this one) makes the writer seem amateurish and the story contrived. Of course, an equally jarring beginning can be nearly as off-putting, and I hesitate to read on if I’m feeling disoriented by the fifth page. I enjoy when writers can find a good balance between exposition and mystery. Too much accounting always ruins the mystery of a novel, and the unknown is what propels us to read further. It is what keeps me up at night saying ‘just one more chapter, then I’ll go to sleep.’ If everything is explained away in the first chapter; I’m probably putting the book down and going to sleep.”
– Peter Miller, Peter Miller Literary
“1. Squinting into the sunlight with a hangover in a crime novel. Good grief — been done a million times. 2. A sci-fi novel that spends the first two pages describing the strange landscape. 3. A trite statement (“Get with the program” or “Houston, we have a problem” or “You go girl” or “Earth to Michael” or “Are we all on the same page?”), said by a weenie sales guy, usually in the opening paragraph. 4. A rape scene in a Christian novel, especially in the first chapter. 5. ‘Years later, Monica would look back and laugh…’ 6. “The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”
– Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary
A lot of my students struggle with writing the perfect query letter. Here’s one that worked, with the agent’s comments on why.
This series is called “Successful Queries” and I’m posting actual query letters that succeeded in getting writers signed with agents. In addition to posting the actual query letter, we will also get to hear thoughts from the agent as to why the letter worked.
The 25th installment in this series is with agent Jeff Kleinman (Folio Literary) and his author, Garth Stein, for his book, The Art of Racing in the Rain.
From: Garth Stein
To: Jeff Kleinman
Re: Query: “The Art of Racing in the Rain”
Dear Mr. Kleinman:
Saturday night I was participating in a fundraiser for the King County Library System out here in the Pacific Northwest, and I met your client, Layne Maheu. He spoke very highly of you and suggested that I contact you…
I am a Seattle writer with two published novels. I have recently completed my third novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, and I find myself in a difficult situation: my new book is narrated by a dog, and my current agent told me that he cannot (or will not) sell it for that very reason. Thus, I am seeking new representation.
The Art of Racing in the Rain is the story of Denny Swift, a race car driver who faces profound obstacles in his life, and ultimately overcomes them by applying the same techniques that have made him successful on the track. His story is narrated by his “philosopher dog,” Enzo, who, having a nearly human soul (and an obsession with opposable thumbs), believes he will return as a man in his next lifetime.
My last novel, How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets, won a 2006 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award, and since the award ceremony a year ago, I have given many readings, workshops, and lectures promoting the book When time has permitted, I’ve read the first chapter from The Art of Racing in the Rain. Audience members have been universally enthusiastic and vocal in their response, and the first question asked is always: “When can I buy the book about the dog?” Also very positive.
I’m inserting, below, a short synopsis of The Art of Racing in the Rain, and my biography. Please let me know if the novel interests you; I would be happy to send you the manuscript.
Commentary from Jeff
Let’s start from the beginning. First of all, putting both the words “Query” and the title of the book on the subject line of an e-mail makes it clear why you’re writing—and it often keeps your e-mail from falling into the spam folder.
One of the best ways of starting out correspondence is figuring out your connection to the agent. It’s always best to have a referral, but if you don’t know a lot of writers, try to determine if the agent represents any authors you like. Similarly, find first novels you really love, and look in the acknowledgments section—it’s where most authors thank their agent.
The author has some kind of track record. Who’s the publisher, though? Were these both self-published novels, or were there reputable publishers involved? (I’ll read on, and hope I find out.) Then it hits—a-ha—so he had an agent. This seems promising, but also know this kind of approach can backfire, because we agents tend to be like sheep—what one doesn’t like, the rest of us are wary of, too (or, conversely, what one likes, we all like). But in this case getting in the “two published novels” early is definitely helpful. Also, there’s something in the “Thus” that, to me, spoke of the author’s determination not to give up just because one agent didn’t like it.
The third paragraph is the key pitch paragraph and Garth gives a great description of the book—he sums it up, gives us a feel for what we’re going to get. It’s short and gets the job done. This is the most important part of your letter.
Obviously it’s nice to see the author’s winning awards. Also good—the author’s not afraid of promoting the book himself. By now I’m salivating, wanting to see this. The end is simple and easy—it doesn’t speak of desperation, or doubt, or anything other than polite willingness to help. And all the punctuation was in the right spot. That’s it. He’s done. Mission accomplished.
Here’s a site with a pretty good database of agents, listed by catagory. Also some good tips on writing query letters. Let me know if you found it useful. http://www.agentquery.com/default.aspx