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In Their Shoes – Getting Point of View Right

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I’ve been wrangling with character development this week, and I’ve found a lot of the problems I’ve had are to do with the point of view. I haven’t chosen the wrong one, but they all have their pros and cons, right?

Let’s examine that shall we?

Get out of my head!

First person does have its advantages. It allows the reader direct insight into the mind of your main character, essentially sharing the journey with them. You get to know how they think, how they feel, and hopefully the reasons behind their actions

The downside is that you have to work extra hard on developing every other character they meet. I faced this problem earlier this week. I’ve reached a point in the drafting process where my story kinda grinds to a halt. In my original draft, the scene went on endlessly, as I tried to figure out what was going on. Throughout redrafts it has become tighter. But still, it feels a little dead. 

Of course the secret to getting your character right is choosing the right shoes. I bypass this by making all mine wear wellies. Image courtesy of Stéfan.

Who the hell are these people?

The problem was my supporting cast. I’d spent so much time in my main character’s head that I’d neglected to figure out what was going on in theirs. Sure I had a rough idea, but it was only in relation to the protagonist.

So this week, I sketched out a scene between two of them, and it just worked. Their story just fell into place for me, and it totally changed the reactions they had to my protagonist, and reshaped the scene into something (hopefully) much stronger. 

Problem is, this exchange happened ‘off page’, and due to the structuring of the book (it being predominantly in first person) I have no way to get that scene in there. But really, if it works well enough, and it changes the characters’ actions, I shouldn’t need to show it, right?  More than that I realised (don’t know why this never occurred to me before) you don’t need to be afraid of changing your characters’ motivations. Previously I’d had one of my characters attack my protagonist, but really it was just to create false tension. 

Third Person

So this allows you a lot more freedom when creating your opus. For a start, it frees you from a single fixed viewpoint. However, as in life, too much freedom can be a bad thing. This is why I shy away from third person omnipotent.

So let’s revisit Westeros shall we? Because this gives us a perfect example of how third person subjective works. Each chapter is taken from a different character’s point of view. This gives not only an insight into their own thoughts and feelings, but of the greater narrative too. 

The Table Set-up

You may notice in quite a few movies that there will come a point when a group of people are sitting around a table. Most directors hate having to shoot these scenes because they require so many different angles, so much coverage, and take forever to shoot. Think about any table scene from a movie you’ve seen, and you’ll see this for yourself. Now look at the table scene from Hunt for Red October

In the commentary for the film, John McTiernan explains that in order to save time in the cramped space the scene took place in, he decided to shoot the scene from a fixed spot as if the camera were sitting at the table too. There are one or two pick ups here and there, but generally, the majority of the scene is shot from this angle. I like to think of this as the third person subjective view. It’s taken from one perspective, but you get the larger view of what is going on. 

I try to apply this when I write in third person. Sometimes it’s a little more chaotic than others. Sometimes I will switch from one character’s perspective to another in the space of a few sentences, which is of course very confusing for the reader. That’s almost like writing entirely in first person, from multiple characters’ points of view. 

*Please refer to the Glossary

The main advantage is that you’re free to explain lore, but without the character having an unrealistic internal monologue about the history or politics just to explain things to the reader. I’m sure we’ve all read at least one book (and yes, admittedly, written at least one scene) where one of the characters does this. I’ve been guilty of it myself, but it is much more interesting to weave this into the action, without the internal monologue, and without having pages of footnotes explaining everything. 

That isn’t to say that you can’t keep your own glossary, just to keep track of everything that’s going on. In fact, if working in first person, it can be very helpful to write out what’s going on with other characters. It could change the direction of the whole piece, and get you out of some tight spots down the road. 

Over to you:
Which do you prefer to write in, first or third person? And how do you overcome the challenges of each when it comes to interesting character development? As ever, leave your thoughts below.

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