Friday, February 3, 2017

Point of View by Susan Oleksiw

One of the first things a writer has to settle when beginning a story is the point of view, but figuring this out is not always easy. The choices may seem limitless but each story calls for one specific point of view, and finding that can be difficult. I think of this process as figuring out who tells the story. Whose story is this? I test different POVs among those available—close or distant third person, multiple POVs, including both first and third, and first person. Charles Dickens is the most obvious example for using the omniscient POV. At present most mysteries follow one main character, the protagonist/sleuth, with occasional scenes from other characters.

In the Mellingham series I follow Chief of Police Joe Silva with some scenes given from the perspective of other characters, limited to about five. In the first three books I enjoyed writing from several different points of view, exploring different characters and the way they saw the murder and its consequences.

In the seventh book, Come About for Murder, I follow only Joe and one other character. Part of the impetus behind this book was to explore Joe’s deepening role as a stepparent. I wanted the reader to know more about him as a man as well as his manner of solving crimes. In this story Joe teaches his stepson, Philip, how to sail, which turns out to be extremely important to the boy’s survival.

In the Anita Ray series I began with a close first person. In Under the Eye of Kali, I rejected the idea of writing Anita in first person largely because I wanted the freedom to explore views that Anita might not have reason to consider. In the first two books, we follow only Anita Ray’s exploits. By the third and fourth books I knew I wanted to explore related aspects of the mystery, so I introduced a secondary protagonist and gave her a limited number of scenes, about five. In When Krishna Calls, the second protagonist serves to heighten the tension while Anita tries to rescue her.

 Even though I make a specific choice for each book, I enjoy reading a variety of POVs in other novels, and I especially enjoy watching how other writers handle the issue. Anyone who has taken a writing class will recall at least one discussion on the importance of sticking to the chosen point of view. The writer is expected to pick a POV and stick to it, with no deviation or lapses allowed. But not everyone agrees with his, nor has it always been the rule.

One of the writers who challenge this rule is Flannery O’Connor. In several of her stories she drifts into the story in search, it always seems to me, for the character whose story it is. In “Good Country People,” the narrative begins in a kitchen with one character, moves to the perspective of a mother and then drifts into the mind of the woman who turns out to be the main character. Hulga, who has a PhD and a wooden leg, has recently returned home, somewhat bitter and alienated from the world she must now live in. We stay in her perspective for the rest of the story.

In A Fine Summer’s Day, Charles Todd opens with four scenes each from the perspective of a different character, before switching to the POV of the protagonist, Inspector Ian Rutledge. In G. M. Malliet’s The Haunted Season, the author has six shifts in POV in a single scene, in a fourteen-page chapter. Another writer might separate several of these into separate scenes, but the reader has no trouble following the narrative; the change in POV is clear.

None of these writers comes close to Tolstoy’s achievement in Anna Karenina, in which he changes the POV five times in one short scene, ending up with the POV of the dog.

To find the books in the Mellingham series and the Anita Ray series, go here.


Alice Duncan said...

POV is an interesting subject, and you covered it admirably. I solved the problem by writing in the first person for one of my series. Hard to go wrong there. However, it took me a looooong time to understand what people meant when they talked about POV. Finally got it, though :-)

Jacqueline Seewald said...

In THE THIRD EYE: A PINE BARRENS MYSTERY which my older son Andrew and I collaborated on, the main point of view is that of a fourteen-year-old boy whose story is told in the first person. His chapters alternate with his mother whose chapters are written in the third person point of view. The plot lines interconnects and I think holds interesting surprises for the reader because of the differing perspectives. I'd love more reviews of this novel, just to get more reader input. Point of view has become increasingly more important in mystery and thriller fiction.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Alice, I've never been able to manage first person because I always seem to slip out of the character and start speculating on her (or him), so I've settled for a close third. I think you handle first person very well and I've enjoyed being in your characters' heads.

I've wondered a lot recently about how strict POV came to be such a requirement. As you can see from my examples, some writers don't care at all and wander from head to head as the spirit (or story) moves them. And they do it well. Thanks for commenting.

Jacquie, I remember reading and enjoying your mystery, and noticing the shift in POV. I think you handled it very well and I think it contributed to the suspense in the story. Thanks for adding that.

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