A significant proportion of the manuscripts that come through BPA contain fundamental issues with POV. It’s a huge part of writing a novel, but one we don’t like to think about too much because it’s not as exciting as other aspects of the craft. In an invaluable BPA online tutorial, Alice Jolly, creative writing tutor and author of Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile and Dead Babies and Seaside Towns shared her insights on all things voice and perspective.
She said that viewpoint is about two questions which are actually the same question:
Whose eyes are we seeing the book through?
Who has got the camera on their head?
We considered the fact that viewpoint should mirror our own experience of life – we can’t see other people’s thoughts or look through their eyes. Therefore, a perspective character shouldn’t do these things.
Alice advised us not to change viewpoint in a story or novel unless we know why we’re doing it and said that when we do know why, we should consider other ways of handling it. Perspective characters can observe, overhear and learn things secondhand. ‘If you’re going to change viewpoints,’ she said, ‘don’t jerk the camera.’ By this, she means that you shouldn’t change perspectives within a section, and if you are writing a head-hopping narrative, there’s a gliding kind of way to do it.
Alice shared some examples of novels which break the POV rules. Usually, writing a novel in a perspective other than your main character’s is a bad idea, but you can do it if you have a good reason to. The Great Gatsby is a perfect example. The mystery that surrounds main character Jay Gatsby is only there because the novel is written from Nick’s perspective, not his.
Some novels break the mould when it comes to tense. The Virgin Suicides is written in a first person plural perspective:
“In the end we had the pieces of the puzzle, but no matter how we put them together, gaps remained, oddly shaped emptinesses mapped by what surrounded them, like countries we couldn’t name.” ―
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is written in second person singular:
“It seems an obvious thing to say, but you should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins.” ―
It’s more normal to have sections in these perspectives than whole novels, but it can be done!
Before talking us through the pros and cons of the more common POVs, Alice said that if you’re having the inkling to change the perspective of your novel, you should follow it.
Pros: Straightforward; direct; strong potential for voice. It’s easy to use your own life experience.
Cons: The risk is that if the reader doesn’t get on well with the voice, they won’t want to read it. It’s harder to write an unlikeable main character and have people still want to read it. Often the story will be missing a main character because it’s based too heavily on life experience and the writer hasn’t made the ’self’ character work. Rhythmic disadvantage – ‘I do this, I do that.’ You can’t pull back to show a car crash or another kind of event that the narrator is too close to effectively describe.
Types of narrator:
Reminiscent narrator – a person looks back at their life and tells the reader about it.
Unreliable narrator – deliberate liars and self-deceivers. (Readers love the sense that they know something the narrator doesn’t or disagrees with them.)
Diary form – ‘Dear Diary, Today I …’ e.g. Affinity by Sarah Waters.
Voice led – the protagonist narrates their experiences, often as they happen.
Unnatural/extreme narrators – e.g. Timbuktu by Paul Auster, which is written from the perspective of a dog.
Hindered narrators – from the POV of a person with dementia, for example. A hindered narrator might forget part of the story. This kind of unreliable narrator is increasingly popular in fiction.
Pros: Easier to move from one character to another. Means you can show things your main character doesn’t see or experience. Opens up an opportunity to analyse your character. You can give information and analysis in a different way (though this kind of authorial comment is becoming less fashionable). Your voice as a writer comes through, rather than the character’s voice.
Cons: You don’t hear the character’s voice so much. Some say there can be less intimacy.
Types of 3rd Person POV:
Limited omniscient – one character’s perspective.
Omniscient – the narrator sees and knows everything. e.g. Dickens. There is flexibility to move from one character to the next, but the omniscient POV requires skilful transitions. It’s worth noting that this POV isn’t fashionable at the moment.
Alternating third persons – moves between perspectives section by section. You need to think about the length of sections. Readers can get frustrated if they’re just getting into a perspective and it changes, so go chapter by chapter or part by part, not page by page.
Objective viewpoint – you don’t know what’s in any character’s head. e.g. Hemingway. Like in a film, the reader has to interpret the action and what the characters are doing to guess their motivations. (Alice said this is a strong style but a hard one to pull off.)
Head-hopping – bounces from one character’s head to another in the same scene. It can make your work appear amateur, so think carefully before using a head-hopping narration, especially in the opening of a novel.
As she closed, Alice reminded us that no-one rushes to tell you how great the perspective of a novel is. We read for story and character. You don’t need to be flashy with perspective. Don’t go in for gimmicks.
‘If it’s working, keep going.’
Novelist and playwright Alice Jolly’s 2015 memoir Dead Babies and Seaside Towns won the Pen Ackerley Prize and one of her short stories won the 2014 VS Pritchett Memorial Prize, awarded by The Royal Society of Literature. She has also published two novels with Simon & Schuster and four of her plays have been produced by the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham.
Her novel Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile was published by Unbound in June 2018. It was a Walter Scott Prize recommended novel for 2109, was on the Longlist for the Ondaatje Prize awarded by the Royal Society of Literature and was runner up for the 2019 Rathbones’ Folio Prize. Between the Regions of Kindness was published in April 2019. She is working on a new novel about Dr Asperger which has been funded by the Arts Council and the Authors’ Fund at the Society of Authors.
Alice teaches creative writing on the Masters in Creative Writing course at Oxford University. She has also taught courses at Arvon.