Experiments in Point of View

Okay, so I know I’ve been very bad and skipped another week of posting, but I’ve been swamped with rewriting everything (again) after getting some awesome feedback from my advisor (and a few other people). I haven’t even had a chance to work on my lecture yet and my next packet is due a week from today so there has been a lot of panicking. But I didn’t really think I could get away with skipping two weeks in a row, so here I am!

I’m trying an experiment this time around in my rewrites. I’m writing everything in third person instead of first. Why? Because I was curious to see if it might help me get a better grasp of my characters, especially my protagonist. I know that sounds a little strange. It seems like the usual advice is to use first person as a way to get more deeply inside the head of one’s protagonist, but the difficulty there, I think, is that it can be hard to capture a character’s voice when you’re not really sure who that character is. And one thing I like about third person is that it lets me see that character from the outside as well as the inside. Lately I’ve been feeling so locked inside my protagonist’s head that I’m stumbling my way through the story like a blind person. I don’t know if that makes any sense. Anyway, I thought, why not? Let’s try it in third and see what happens and honestly the result has really startled me.

I’d forgotten how much I love third person. I won’t even go into how much I love omniscient because I’m trying to steer clear of that POV for this story. I haven’t yet figured out how to write an omniscient voice that really works and I don’t want to make this harder than it already is. But third person in general is a POV that I feel comfortable in. It’s familiar and welcoming, like an old friend. I grew up reading mostly varying degrees of third person because I read so much middle grade fantasy as a kid and it’s been odd to see how much first person has infiltrated the current YA market. Not that there’s anything wrong with first person, but, my god, it is everywhere. It is inescapable! And sometimes I really do want to escape from it, especially when all those first person teen voices start to blend into one voice.

Of course, I’m not entirely sure what I have now works. I’m not sure the story’s actually better in third than it was in first. But it feels so much more like a story! I don’t know how to explain that. It feels like a real world with people and places I as the narrator can describe, instead of constantly being tangled up in the inner workings of my protagonist’s mind, especially when I’m not even sure half the time of who my protagonist really is. Maybe third person is a way for me to tell myself the story so that I can then translate it for other people 🙂

The irony of all this is that the story didn’t start in first person originally. This whole novel started as a messy short story/sketch of a novel that was written in a pretty distant third person. I wrote it a few years ago and realized it really had to be a novel, that it was way too complicated for a short story. And when I decided to make that transition in my second semester at VCFA (I can’t believe I’ve been working on this for a year!) I thought it would be a good opportunity to practice first person. After all, I never wrote in first person and I came to VCFA to learn and try new things, and so many YA books were written in first, and my protagonist was a writer so I thought I could make the voice lyrical and poetic without sounding forced, and anyway I was having such a difficult time writing third in the novel I worked on first semester. So I tried it and it was fun and I do think I learned a lot. I think the third person I’m writing now is so much more solid than what I was writing first semester. I’m much more able to get into my protagonist’s mind with all that first person under my belt, but maybe this story just wasn’t meant to stay in that POV.

It reminds me of something Tim Wynne-Jones said to me when I was working on my critical thesis last semester. I was writing about intrusive narrators and I kept talking about narrators as if the authors had chosen them out of a box. Like, hey, I’m writing a silly MG novel about a governess. I’ll just pick a voice that reflects the theme I’m writing about and be done with it. But Tim pointed out that a narrator is the voice of a story and that implies something heard by the author. Many of us when we start writing hear that voice and write accordingly. It isn’t necessarily a cerebral, intellectual thing. It’s instinctual. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read an interview with an author writing in first person who says they clearly heard the character’s voice in their head begging them to write their story. I never had that with this project. The voice I heard when I was first writing that short story was the traditional once upon a time, fairy tale voice. I’ve only heard the voice of a story in first person a few times. So maybe there’s something to that. Maybe I ought to just stick with my gut instincts. Now I just have to wait and see what my advisor thinks 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Experiments in Point of View

  1. I’m rewriting my entire novel in close third, past tense after initially doing first person, present tense. It’s fascinating, because the voice has changed from the teenager protagonist to…something else, a kind of trickster who is neither teen nor adult. Orson Scott Card likes 3rd person because it’s so much more flexible; you can zoom in close or back out with a more nuanced view. (from his book, Characters & Viewpoint) I do think we’re going to see a swing back away from first person soon.

  2. Isn’t it amazing how just changing one thing like the point of view/tense of a story can change things so drastically? I love third person, past tense and I hope we do see more of that soon 🙂

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