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.
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.
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.
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.