Writing: Point of View Matters

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. I mean, I always am reading, but I think I’ve been diving into more new-to-me authors lately which means I’m running across more writing approaches or styles than normal.

And I’ve realized as part of that exploration that the point of view the author chooses to use can make or break a story.

I’m reading a novel right now that’s written in first person, something I personally have no problem with. My cozies are written in first person. But as a writer reading this book I am annoyed at the author for making that choice.

Because they chose to write in first person but they included at least six different points of view. ALL of them in first person. NONE of them identified in any way at the start of each section. And they change point of view within chapters. So you have on first-person point of view starting the chapter and then another picking up at the section break halfway through. It feels like I’m constantly playing catch up in each new section, trying to figure out who is talking now.

The story itself is fine. But I know because of the point of view choice this author made that my mom won’t be able to read it. She’d never be able to make those switches successfully.

And what annoys me so much is that the author could have simply used a deep third person point of view and accomplished the exact same thing but had it work better for the reader.

This is not some new author. This is a trade-published author with I think 11 books out. (All in first person, though, so maybe that’s the issue. But by now you think they would have read enough to know that deep third can be very close to interchangeable with first person.) And they have an editor who should’ve seen this, too.

So that’s one. And probably the one that prompted this post. But another I’ve been thinking about lately is that I just don’t like to be in the point of view of nasty human beings. It’s like immersing myself in slime. I don’t mind reading stories that have nasty human beings in them (as long as they get their comeuppance at the end), but along the way I really really don’t want to sit in their head for any length of time.

I read all the JD Robb books this last year and there was one (of the fifty?) that I really did not like for this reason. She’d included the killer’s point of view in a certain number of chapters and I just didn’t want to read them. I didn’t want to see some self-centered asshole murderer justifying their actions.

As a writer reading something like that I then step back and ask, “Did that help the story? Did the story gain anything by having an insight into this character’s thoughts?”

And my personal answer there was no. That was the only book of that series that I really didn’t like, but it wasn’t the only one that included the POV of the killer. But I don’t think any of the books I read in that series that had the POV of the killer benefited from having it. And I think in some cases it actually took away some of the suspense because we already knew things about the killer that the detective hadn’t yet discovered so false paths we might’ve gone down as readers were taken away.

Now, those books are so good that I’ll keep reading them anyway. I think she is a master of her craft and does so many things so well that she’s well worth studying.

But another author that I’d recently started reading I’ve stopped reading for also including the bad guy’s point of view in the story. In that case it was a lazy user-type who starved his kids and beat his wife. He gets killed in the end but about half of the book felt like it was in his head and I just did not want to be there. Especially since it was a world that should have killed him much earlier on.

I’m sure there are other POV changes I could think of given enough time, but those were the two that were top of mind for me just now. But I guess in a sense they both boil down to the same issue: don’t do something with your writing that pulls the reader out of the story. And if that seems to be happening, then check you POV choices.

 

Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 M.L. has also been a published author under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres.

3 thoughts on “Writing: Point of View Matters”

  1. The killer’s viewpoint (and “nasty” viewpoints in general) is a tricky call: I fully agree that they aren’t pleasant, they can be insightful; so someone who reads (at least in part) for a wider range of human experience, could actively enjoy knowing why the killer believes they do it and contemplating whether those beliefs are self-delusion, justification, excuse, &c.

    Dramatic irony (the reader knowing what a character doesn’t) is also divisive: it can create tension by the reader knowing that the protagonist is making a mistake; however, as you mention, it can also deflate the sense of guessing what might happen that powers thrillers/mysteries.

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    1. So maybe that “nasty” viewpoint comment should be amended to “if you’re going to write about a horrible human being at least make them interesting”. (The example I was thinking of when I wrote the post was not unique or interesting in any way. That POV was just used to show us what bad things he was doing but not to give any sort of psychological insight.)

      And agreed that if you let the reader know that a character is walking into a trap that can heighten tension in a story. I forget where I heard this, but some writing instructor described the difference between putting a bomb under the table at the beginning and letting readers know it’s there and just having it suddenly go off after a normal, boring conversation when no one knows it’s there. One can be highly effective and dramatic, the other is just confusing to a reader.

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      1. Interesting is I think the key.

        It’s why I both see why The Great Gatsby is taught to US students and don’t consider The Great Gatsby great: I’ve read several of F Scott Fitzgerald’s works over the years and each of them was a technically skilled evocation of the lives of characters about whom I didn’t care.

        I think “interesting” has become a harder target than it used to be too: for example, because Dostoyevsky’s audience considered each book a thing of great worth, he could get away with—potentially even needed to include—an excursus into postal processes in rural Russia; whereas now, much of the audience for psychological thrillers would set it aside and start one of myriad other books if one left the main character’s struggle to discuss email practices or such.

        The totally unexpected is a hard sell (although, because the primitive human mind has a bit wired for pessimism, sudden bad experiences might seem slightly more plausible to many readers). Didn’t hear the instructor (so this might have been what they meant) but I’d say you have to foreshadow a world in which bombs under tables are a risk to the characters rather than necessarily let the readers know it’s there: certainly the dramatic irony of the reader knowing and the characters not builds tension, but—done right—an explosion the reader didn’t expect can be a powerful moment.

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