“What I told you was true…from a certain point of view…. You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” Obi-Wan Kenobi, The Empire Strikes Back
Truer words never spoken. Point of view plays an important part in any story, not only in how it’s told, but how it’s presented. It can be restricting or liberating, or sometimes both at the same time.
For an example on what point of view can do, I’ll go with something popular. I just saw the preview for the movie Catching Fire, based on the second book of the Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins, and it looks awesome. I loved the books and the first movie. I can’t wait to see it. But it wasn’t always thus.
I remember when the books were coming out. I saw a copy of one or the other of them in everyone’s hand, on everyone’s e-reader. It was in my face at the bookstore, whole end-caps devoted to the books. I must have picked up The Hunger Games a million times to see whether or not to buy it, and I put it down every single time and walked away. For one reason. Point of view.
The story is told in the present tense and from Katniss Everdeen’s point of view. And as I read, my logical brain rebelled and refused to keep reading. In my head, my brain was saying ‘get real. If you’re walking through the forest with your bow drawn, which takes two hands, mind you, how are you holding pencil and paper and writing this down right now?’
It took until the third book was out and they were making the movie and I had a bunch of great reviews from friends before I finally broke down and bought it and forced myself to read through to chapter two. Of course by then, the story was too good to put down, and I read the other two books as well.
This says something about Suzanne Collins. In seventeen pages, she crafted such an addictive story that I was willing to put aside my analyst brain and keep reading to see what happened next. It also says something that, even though I said “Huh?” a lot, I kept going with the story. To clarify, my “huh’s” weren’t spelling or grammar errors, or anything along those lines. They were because occasionally Katniss is very cold-blooded in dealing with and using Peeta, who I liked a lot, and because you’re in her head, you see those thoughts as Katniss thinks them. There is no filter, no editing so that you only see what comes out in her speech.
So why did she do that? Risk having her main character not liked? Having never asked Suzanne Collins, I can’t say for certain, but when you think about it, using present tense makes sense. For the majority of readers (who aren’t analysts), writing something as if it’s happening right now makes it more immediate, drags you along at super speed without being able to take a breath.
This is an action story, a war story. She brings you into that world by showing you how you have to think to survive in a time and place like post-war District 12. Katniss can’t afford to be nice. She is the sole provider for her family, a mother to her sister in place of their real mother, who’s too traumatized by past events to be of much help. That point of view, being in Katniss’ thoughts, shows better than anything the author could have done how ruthless you have to be to keep your family alive in that world.
Now contrast the book with the movie. In the movie, you’re not in Katniss’ head. You see things happen to her from the outside. If you read the book and know her thoughts, you know she is taking care of Peeta when he’s hurt for purely selfish reasons. It has nothing to do with her liking him. But in the movie, outside her thoughts, the scene is much more sympathetic. In the movie, you also see some of what the president’s plots and plans are, so you get a bigger picture of the world at large.
So which is better? Suzanne Collins could have written the book in past tense, or in third person to bring in some background on the world. In contrast, it would have been extremely hard to film the movie in Katniss’ head. I suppose they could have done it Blair Witch style with shaky video cameras as if you were seeing out of her eyes, but that probably would have ruined it. Each version of the story is valid in its own right. Each point of view serves its purpose in its medium. The trick is to choose the point of view that’s best for your story.
As for me, I tell a lot of my stories in first person, and in the past tense. That’s the voice that I’m most comfortable with. Later books in the series I’m working on will be in first person as letters going back and forth between the characters. But in the first book, the characters haven’t met yet. You can’t really write a letter to someone if you don’t know they exist. So Stolen Songbird will be in third person from three different points of view (each of the three main characters). To do that, I had to really work make sure that the three characters thought and spoke differently so that they didn’t blend into one voice.
Writing from each character’s point of view can be tricky. I can only write what they see, and what they know. I can’t have Harry peering through a keyhole trying to see if it’s safe to sneak outside, and then in the next paragraph (or heaven forbid the same one) have the thug standing against the wall where she can’t see him, thinking about how easy it’s going to be to grab her. Harry doesn’t know he’s there, so he has no place in that narrative. If that thug needs to be in the narrative, I have to write him in as Harry finds out about him.
As I’m bombing along in the story, I write what I see in my head, which is somewhat like a movie. I see the guy outside the door. I see what he’s thinking, and I know what he’s going to do. So when I’m in the zone and I’m pounding out the scene, I sometimes accidentally let that stuff slip in where it shouldn’t be. But when I go back and edit, I do my best to look at every action and determine whether it’s something my point of view character would know or not. If she wouldn’t, I edit those bits out.
Of course this is also true of first person. If I’m writing as a character, I certainly haven’t the foggiest idea what someone else is thinking (unless I’m a mind reader, and even then, I would have to be careful how to present someone else’s thoughts so that the reader would know they weren’t my own). Therefore, I shouldn’t talk about their thoughts in my own voice. I have to use observation to guess what the other person is thinking and feeling from their actions, their body language, and their expressions.
I’m human. I constantly misread what other people are thinking. Reading people not one of my strengths, and I’ve found this fault very useful for plot twists. Have your character read someone the wrong way. Have your character trust someone when she shouldn’t, or not trust someone when she should. Think someone’s upset when they aren’t or not figure out they’re mad until it’s too late. See what happens. I’ve come up with a lot of great twists that way.
In the end, it all comes down to through whose eyes the story is being told and how immediate you want that story to be. Do you want your readers with you right now, or are you telling them a story at the fireside after everything is done? Do you want them in your head, or outside looking in? Because no matter what story you tell, it will only ring true from certain point of view.