What’s Your Point of View?

jpcoverphotoWhen I wrote my debut novel, Into the Free, I never gave much thought to point-of-view; but as the words began to hit the page, they naturally fell into first-person narration.

First-person narration tells the story from the point-of-view of one character in a novel (usually the protagonist), and makes use of the words “I” and “me.” Critics point out that this style limits the perspective because it doesn’t allow readers to access other characters in the story. While this is a viable opinion, I argue that first-person allows the reader to gain even greater perspective by viewing the universe from the lens of that one character on a much more intimate level than anything an omniscient third-person narrator can provide. (We’ll leave second-person for another day.)

Yes, the view of other characters will be skewed by that one character’s interpretation of their actions, appearance, etc., but readers are granted full-access into the brain of that one narrating voice, even more so when that narrator is a trust-worthy character who isn’t deceiving us as we read. Essentially, we, as readers, are allowed to become that character. This enables us to enter that character’s world, interacting with the other characters, experiencing the events, and engaging at every sensory level throughout the story.

When an author delivers a story in first-person, we close the book feeling as if we have lived to tell the tale. This intrusive point-of-view makes the entire reading experience personal for us, moving it from the level of observation to participation. And because, by nature, the first-person perspective limits every scene to those in which the narrator is actively present (or his/her memory of such), we aren’t forced to pull back and watch something happening across space or time. We have no choice but to dive right into every single event of the story. We feel it, taste it, smell it, and react to it cognitively, emotionally, and instinctually.

As a reader, I have always enjoyed reading first-person narrations. Some of my favorite books were written using this point-of-view, and as a result, the narrators have become some of my favorite characters. Consider Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, or Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, who tells us the tragic love story between Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom from his perspective.

Your turn: What point-of-view do you prefer to read? What do you prefer to write? Share some of your favorite examples, and introduce us to those characters who continue to stay with you long after you’ve closed the book.

Writing prompt: If you’re stuck in a scene, try writing it from another character’s point-of-view. What can you learn from seeing the event from a different perspective?


Top 5 Self-Editing Tips: Character

This month, let’s concentrate on an aspect of self-editing that writers spend little or no time examining as they go through each successive draft of their novel: character. The people who populate a novel should seem real to the author, and yet, readers often notice that characters are stereotypes—cardboard cutouts.

To explain the importance of knowing your characters well, let me use an example from the relationship between the famous editor Maxwell Perkins and the well-known author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby.

After reading the manuscript for The Great Gatsby, Perkins wrote a note to Fitzgerald about one of his characters, which read:

 “Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery, i.e., more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken.”

Last month we talked about how every scene should have intention, but so should every character. Characters need motive. They must seem credible in all they do, as though they truly exist—as if they live down the street.

Fitzgerald, no slacker when it came to building characters, reexamined Gatsby through the eyes of his famous editor and wrote a note back to Perkins:

“I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in & you felt it. If I’d known & kept it from you you’d have been too impressed with my knowledge to protest. This is a complicated idea but I’m sure you’ll understand. But I know now—and as a penalty for not having known first, in other words to make sure, I’m going to tell more.”

To fulfill Gatsby’s intention, Fitzgerald needed to make him an enigmatic figure, but to accomplish his purpose, the author also needed to know Gatsby’s history to make him real.

A reader doesn’t need to know who Gatsby’s grandmother was, but Fitzgerald as the author should know if and how she shaped his character. Do you know your character’s history, or did you begin your novel with a vague sense of what kind of character needed to occupy a certain place in your plot?

My suggestion is to keep a notebook on every character, making notes throughout your writing on character development. As you self-edit, you can then look back at your record of their motives, history, and tone of voice to make their dialogue and actions consistent, intentional, and credible.

To make your characters come alive, remember they are more than the sum of their physical traits. Characters possess social, psychological, and spiritual uniqueness as well.


What method do you use to develop your characters?