Saturday, October 18, 2008

Guest Blogger: D. M. McReynolds & Point of View Shifts

Thank you, Alex, for asking me to guest blog; I appreciate the opportunity. I must say that I've enjoyed reading your posts -- I think your blog is quite good--solid. I like the entries on nature as well as the good resourceful stuff on fiction/fantasy writing and opportunities. When I ran into the entry on point of view (POV), I thought "Aha!" This is an area I've thought a great deal about, and I would like to expand on the points you made. Note, however, that although some things are a matter of taste, there are some rules of thumb that make for successful or unsuccessful point of view shifts. Here are my two cents worth on the topic.

What Makes POV Shifts Successful:

1. It enhances the subjectivity of the story. By that, I mean that the reader has fun seeing the story from different character's perspectives. I read a series where in the third book there was a focus on one of the villainous character's point of view and it completely changed my understanding of the social reality in that world. The villain was actually a hero in many ways for the thing people chastised him for. He was known as the "King Slayer" because, even though he was in the king's guard, he killed the king. So, even people who despised the king had no respect for him because he had dishonored his vow. It's not until the third book that we get inside that character's head and begin to understand that history.

2. It's clear. The worst thing a point of view shift can do is confuse the reader and make his/her wonder whose head he/she is in. This can be called "head hopping" and from my point of view is much different than a POV shift. A "head hopping" writer doesn't clue the reader in well as to when they are making a POV shift and really over does it.

3. Predictability makes for successful POV shifts. Take George R.R. Martin's award winning book A Game of Thrones. Each chapter starts with a title that is the POV character's name. Without checking, I'd say he has an average of five POV characters. It's predictable because after reading for a bit you figure out that the story will continue in each character's head, but you know that you will get back to each character.

4. POV expands the story. This is especially important--literally. I think that if a fantasy is limited to one character's point of view it risks limiting the reader's understanding of the world. The scope of the story is limited to their values, experiences, assumptions, and physical location. This is a major, major problem. In Martin's book we can see the Wall, which is the frozen border manned by sworn brothers who are to protect the civilized people from the wildlings and all sorts of mythic creatures and worse; then you can go to Winterfell (which is a kind of honorable stronghold based on a forest religion). The world just keeps opening up through the different characters' point of views. You travel on to King's Landing, which is a corrupt Port City full of intrigue, revenge, prostitution, gamblers, and rogues. Then there is this whole other part of the world that you could only have access to through a young female character that is sold off to be the wife of a horse Lord. The story is so powerful because this character keeps growing in strength and she is related to the former dragon king. The point is that there is so much going on in this world that it could never be developed with a focus on just one character. That's such a simple thing to say, but if you ever read A Game of Thrones you will know exactly what I mean. And the story just keeps growing and growing with each book.

5. Along with predictability there needs to be a clear switching cue, which should have some limitations. Some people like one point of view per chapter, others like more. I've chosen to limit each of my chapters to no more than two character's point of view. I think that one benefit of having a point of view shift between two characters in one chapter is that it can more fully demonstrate their relationship and get the reader thinking about how different the scene(s) look from the different character's perspective.

So, to recap. Confusing the reader by 'head hopping' is unacceptable. Opening up the world in an epic way that increases the reader's understanding of the world is good, and perhaps needed for a truly epic story. Limitations like one or two point of view characters per chapter could be a good guideline. What I did when I was writing was try to write the next chapter from whoever's point of view would best tell the story, but I also tried to limit the number of point of view characters to the ones I thought were most interesting, powerful, and insightful.

Thank you, again, for the chance to guest blog, Alex! And, to all of her readers, please feel free to visit me at my own website.

D. M. McReynolds


Prasopchok said...

Make your notebook fast

Make your notebook fast.

Anthony said...

Thanks Mr. McReynolds, that was a concise and helpful post.

RG Sanders said...

This was a nice read. I really like to get the perspective of someone else when it comes to things currently in-mind.

I've been thinking of POVs for a week or two, and some of the ideas and pointers here have definitely given me something to think about.

JPrather said...

Thank you, sir, for your guest post. I use POV swapping in my novel and this post confirmed much of what I was doing as well as has helped me more clearly understand the role of this technique. It's given me alot to think on. :)