Tuesday, April 9, 2013

In Defense of Writing from Multiple Points of View

Sometimes it boggles my mind how much change occurs in the book world. Every day there seems to be a new development in how we read, publish, and write books. The landscape has changed tremendously since 2008 when I first self-published As The World Dies. The zombie genre was just taking off and self-publishing was just beginning to become accepted. When I signed my book deal in 2010 with Tor to publish As The World Dies, I was one of the few authors to jump from self-publishing to being traditionally published. Now it's common place.

The publishing aspect isn't the only part of the publishing industry that changes, but also books themselves. When I was a kid, Young Adult meant books like Where The Red Fern Grows and Catcher in the Rye. There was also fluffy fun stuff like Sweet Valley High, scary Goosebumps and old standbys like Nancy Drew and the The Hardy Boys, but it was tweens that were eating up these books. Teenagers had already graduated to the likes of Ann Rice and Stephen King.

Now Young Adult is huge. It's not just tweens and teens reading  the genre, but adults as well. Urban Fantasy didn't even exist in its current form when I was growing up, but now it sits beside its fraternal twin, Paranormal Romance cluttering huge portions of bookstores.

With the advent of these newer, more popular genres, first person storytelling has become the dominate voice.
first person
1. The grammatical category of forms that designate a speaker or writer referring to himself or herself. Examples of forms in the first person include English pronouns such as I and we and verb forms such as Spanish hablo "I speak."
2. A discourse or literary style in which the narrator recounts his or her own experiences or impressions using such forms: a novel written in the first person.
3. A perspective in a video or computer game that shows only what a character would see.From the Free Dictionary 
Most of the books I read now are from first person points of view (POV). It's rare to find a book in this genre that is not first person. Because readers are so used to first person POV, they sometimes find it difficult to immerse themselves in third person narratives. Add in multiple POVs, and some readers balk completely.
third person
1. The grammatical category of forms that designate a person or thing other than the speaker or the one spoken to. Examples of forms in the third person include English pronouns such as she and they and verb forms such as Spanish hablan "they speak."
2. A discourse or literary style in which the narrator recounts his or her own experiences or impressions using such forms: an essay written in the third person. From the Free Dictionary 

I noted over the last few years that a few readers were flummoxed by the third person narrative of Pretty When She Dies and Pretty When She Kills. A few even shared their desire that the second book had been wholly from Amaliya's point of view.  The Pretty When She... trilogy is not really Urban Fantasy, but has often been categorized as such. Therefore, a lot of people expect a first person narrative.

Today I thought I'd discuss first person pros and cons, why I continue to write in third person and from multiple POVs in most of my novels, and why I feel third person is one of the best storytelling devices.

To First Person Or Not to First Person
First person narrative is when the writer tells the story in the voice of their primary protagonist. The reader is restricted to that one pov and all the details of the story that the reader receives is through that one set of eyes and ears.  First person pov can be a powerful tool in writing. It can draw the reader into the mind of the protagonist in a very dynamic way and elicit strong emotions because of the intimacy the reader has with the main character.

Whenever I embark on a new novel, I always connect with the main protagonist first and then meet the rest of the cast, so to speak. As the full scope of the story unfurls in my head, I can ascertain very quickly if the novel will be better suited for first person or third person.

I have only written in first person on two occasions.

Lady Glynis in The Tale of the Vampire Bride is a much more powerful character in first person. Because she is a young lady of the 19th century living in Regency era Europe, her situation is far removed from the modern day reality of most women her age. By having her give voice to her own thoughts, its easier for the reader to connect with her.

Christy and Adam in The Midnight Spell are sharing their POV on the events unfolding in their lives, so my co-author, Kody Boye, and I thought it would be best if we had them speak for themselves. It also made it much easier for us to write the novel since I wrote for Christy and Kody wrote for Adam.

Where First Person Gets Really Tricky-Trapped in One Mindset
When you're writing from just one point of view, the entire story ends up skewed to that one character's perception. Readers usually believe that the lead characters is somehow infallible in how they process information. If another character disagrees with the main character, even if that other character is right, the reader may side with the protagonist because they're locked into that mindset. The first person protagonists should not be considered reliable narrators.

A main character shouldn't be perfect. They need to evolve and change over the course of their story.

Of course, if a character is flaw ridden and the reader finds them annoying, the author can lose their audience very quickly. If you're stuck with one unlikable person throughout a book, it's very easy to set the book aside.

The internal workings of a character can be difficult to relay in first person. People normally change their minds a lot and often revise their own viewpoints. To keep all that straight without the character looking like they're mental is not always easy. I'm always amazed when people consider first person to be the "easy" way to write a novel. I always find it a lot more challenging.

Where First Person Gets Really Tricky-Trapped in One Place
A first person story traps the reader in one place--with the main protagonist  There is no way to know what is happening anywhere else within that universe. The story is completely confined to wherever the protagonist is hanging out any particular moment. Therefore, vital information to the plot has to be discovered in a way that doesn't seem contrived. This is where we might end up with long winded speeches by the baddie explaining what they've been up to the whole novel. Also, the scope of the world can be lost on the reader when confined to just one spot on the map.

Where First Person Gets Really Tricky-Multiple Points of View
In both The Tale of the Vampire Bride and The Vengeance of the Vampire Bride, I quickly realized that though the story was best told from Glynis's point of view, I needed to share the viewpoints of a few other characters as well. I was stumped as to how to do this until I considered Bram Stoker's Dracula. It's written in first person, but has multiple viewpoints expressed through diary entries, letters, and recordings by the characters. I employed this same writing device in my story. There was absolutely no way I could do it otherwise. There were vital bits of the story that just had to be told from another character's point of view for the reader to get the whole picture.

Sometimes this device works. Sometimes it doesn't. It's difficult to execute different POV in first person. Each voice has to sound different. Also, its dangerous to employ because it can change the way your readers view your character when they finally get a peek inside their head.

I read one series where the first book was from one POV. In the second, it alternated between the main character and her lost love. Well, I had adored her lost love in the first book, but hearing his POV made me dislike him. In the first book he seemed so smart, stable and a little mysterious. In the second, when we finally got to see his inner workings, he came across as weak, whiny, and dumb.

Why Third Person Rocks - I Can Give The Reader the Big Picture
One of the reasons why I love writing in third person is that I'm not trapped in the mind of one character. I can move from one character to the next, building up the story with their individual viewpoints.

Let me explain further.

In Pretty When She Kills there is a lot of information fed into the story by the supporting cast of characters. All the puzzle pieces are moving into position to set up the third and final book. There is no way that I could have written the novel in first person. I would have lost the dynamic and terrifying prologue immediately and a good chunk of the rest of the novel as well. Though the first book was primarily from Amaliya's point of view, and then Cian's, the world expanded dramatically in the second book because it had to. Though Amaliya has about twice the amount of scenes as everyone else from her point of view, some readers were upset that there weren't more. Yet, to construct the story the way it needed to be, I couldn't do that. It would have been unrealistic. Being in third person and implementing multiple POV allowed me to create the story I wanted to tell.

Why Third Person Rocks - World Building
In the Last Bastion of the Living  I was able to provide a much richer world-building experience for the reader due to Maria and Dwayne seeing it from two different vantage points. The readers ended up with a more detailed description than if I had just kept everything in Maria's POV.

Also, I always feel a bit weird when the protagonist in first person gives extreme details about the world around them in a way that seems out of character. When I read from a child's POV and they're going on about the curlicue designs on the pressed tin ceiling of a 20th century house, it comes across as odd.

Third person allows me, the writer, to give you a better description of what is going on and the world than my character could.

Why Third Person Rocks - Richer Characterization
If I had written As The World Dies just from Katie's POV or Jenni's POV, the readers would have never gotten to know some of the other characters as well as they did. By alternating POV, I was able to build a much more dynamic community around the two women and draw the reader deeper into the story. The reader didn't have to guess what the other characters were thinking, but actually got to take a peek.

The Pitfalls of Third Person
I obviously love writing in third person, but it can be done very badly. I have learned a lot over the course of the last few years while studying the editing notes on my novels. I have definitely cleaned up some bad habits.

Third person can go horribly wrong when a writer head hops from character to character in one scene. Or from sentence to sentence. A scene should be locked to one character's perception. To head hop in one scene is confusing to say the least.

Third person doesn't mean that ALL the characters in the book should get a scene. Only information pertinent to the story should be revealed through the different viewpoints. I've seen some books where every character got a scene, even if it had nothing to do with the story. Boooring.

Multiple POVs should enhance your story and give your primary characters fuller definition. It's always fun to see how a main character may be absolutely wrong in their assumptions about another character or a situation. It's like watching a movie where you know their is a monster in the other room, but the character has no idea and you're screaming at them not to open the door. In third person, I get to build up suspense by revealing the monster in the other room. In first person, you may get the surprise of the monster jumping out, but none of the build up.

Third person fails when it keeps readers from seeing the internal workings of a character because the writer is too busy describing everything but what the character is thinking or feeling. It's all about the action, or world-building, and nothing about the character.

Final Thoughts on First Person Versus Third Person
Not so long ago, third person multi-person POV novels were the norm. The majority of books used this style. Some of those books were great, others were not. Now the majority of books seem to be first person and again, some are great, some are not. Though I personally prefer third person as a writer, I enjoy a well-written first person narrative. Yet, lately, I have seen where first person has gone horribly wrong.

I admit that when I see comments from readers wishing that I didn't use third person or multi-POV I worry that I'm letting them down, but I also have to tell the story to the best of my ability. For some books first person works, for others it wouldn't work at all.


  1. I've always preferred third person point of view and especially multiple points of view. Of course first person can be great but mostly I find it tiresome and limiting. Very few movies or television shows only tell a story from a single point of view and I like it the same way in fiction.

    1. I think my main issue with it as a writer is how limiting it can be. You hit that nail on the head.

      Thanks for dropping by. :)


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