January 24, 2011

Do you know who you are? Taking a point of view

Okay, I’m going to go out on a limb with this one. It’s about point of view, but then again, it’s really not. It’s about a particular author who wrote about point of view and why I like what she had to say.
In reading the work of a wide variety of authors, I find that point of view is a very common problem. You’re reading along merrily, seeing the scene through the eyes of Mary, when suddenly you’re inside Joe’s head, finding out how he feels. Then, just as quickly, you’re back to Mary, with whom you stay for the rest of the chapter. It’s enough to give a reader whiplash. Usually, when you’re reading this, you don’t immediately think “point of view.” You think, “Wait a minute, something’s wrong.” And when you go back and re-read, sure enough, point of view is the problem.
If your author isn’t one who has studied writing formally, he or she may not know what point of view means, in which case you may have to explain it. But that’s easier said than done. A lot of books about writing can make point of view sound very complicated. But Carolyn See, in Making a Literary Life,  doesn’t. Here’s her explanation, starting with first person:
“I looked at George. He was glad to see me. Your editor will tell you—and probably make you mad by doing so—that it has to be, I looked at George. He seemed glad to see me. Why? Because you (or that first person, that ‘I’) can’t know what George is thinking.
“Third person: Phil looked at George. George looked back.
“Okay, here’s limited omniscient: Phil looked over at George. His old poker buddy seemed glad to see him. Phil couldn’t have cared less.
“The point of view is third person (because we’re using he or she), but it only goes into Phil’s mind. That’s the ‘limited’ part.
“Here’s ‘omniscient,’ where the author knows everything about everybody….
“Phil looked at George.
“George had aged considerably, Phil thought. I wonder if he knows I’ve been bonking his wife.
“George returned Phil’s gaze with a level stare. If only you knew the favor you’ve done me, he mused. Now I can run off with Octavio. We can go to Finland together and take a lot of saunas.”
She continues with an example of stream of consciousness which I won’t quote. But I think, in a few deft examples, See has managed to explain point of view very well, while also communicating her own humorous and often ribald voice.
From here See goes off on a tangent that I love. She tells about having accompanied her younger brother while he pitched a movie script at USC film school. There were a number of aspiring filmmakers there, all of them men. She recounts their storylines, all of which involve a female character who willingly sacrifices her life so that the (male) protagonist can go on with his career.
See’s comment: “They wish! …Those screenwriters knew next to nothing about young women. That didn’t stop them from writing about them, though. That’s one of the problems with the omniscient point of view.”
Her conclusion, regarding choosing a point of view: “If your imagination takes you somewhere and you know the ground, go for it. Otherwise, don’t go barging in where you don’t belong.”
So, from explaining what the different points of view are, See leaps to the question of whether the author understands a particular character well enough to take that character’s point of view. She doesn’t unequivocally say, “Don’t take the point of view of an opposite gender character,” and we all know writers who have done that successfully. But I do think it’s a difficult thing to pull off. I have often found myself annoyed at the female characters in books written by men, and multiply that experience a thousand times when it comes to movies. (Perhaps men feel the same about male characters created by women.)
In an odd way, See’s comments provide another way to address an author’s “isms”—sexism, racism, ageism, etc. Instead of telling your author he’s a sexist jerk, you can say sweetly, “Maybe it would be a good idea for you to follow a 25-year-old woman around for a while (with her permission, of course) and gets some insights into how women of that age think. That would strengthen this character you’ve created.”
In any case, See’s book is entertaining reading for anyone interested in the “literary life.”


  1. Another book with an excellent section on POV is Janet Burroway's IMAGINATIVE WRITING. In addition to discussing the need to keep POVs clear so that the "contract" with the reader isn't broken, Burroway mentions that while the cliche-ridden impoverishment of the English language in America is a sad affair, it's also a boon to authors. As she writes:

    "Paradoxically, this impoverishment allows the writer myriad ways to characterize. Though it may be difficult to write convincingly from the perspective of the all-knowing author-ity, a rich awareness of voice and voices, their particular idioms and diction, can give you a range of perspectives from which to write. You can make legitimate and revealing use of jargon, cliche, malapropisms (misused words), overstatement,and so forth, in the mouth of a character."

    Interesting advice for writers trying to create strong POVs for characters who are limited in terms of what they can express.


  2. I think POV is super interesting. The better a writer is, the more disguised the shifts in POV, but an editor still has to watch out for them. And it's always interesting to watch how writers deal with the issues.

    I also want to chime in on one question you raised: Do men have complaints about male characters written by women writers? I think most readers of this blog are women -- but I'd sure like to hear from a few people on this question.

    And I guess I'm asking about POV characters specifically, I just realized. Most writers have to write characters of different genders (and sexualities) across the cast. Though frankly, sometimes it's the stereotypes in minor character and walk-ons, which may not have been thought through as fully, that irritate me most.

  3. Nancy, I'm enjoying the "wisdom nuggets" you've been sharing with us this month! A big thank-you for not only recommending good books, but giving us specific examples of how they can help us editors ith issues that come up in the manuscripts we work on. he issues you discuss are some of the biggies that I find so challenging: structure, POV, voice, and grammar. I'm off to the bookstore now...