Confessions of a Single-POV Puritan

Note: This is the second in a series of articles on demystifying viewpoint. The originals will appear first as posts on my Spontaneous Combustion blog, then be archived here on my website as downloadable PDFs.

by Nancy Butts

I’m beginning to think that I’m obsessed with viewpoint, to the point where I’ve turned into a POV prima donna. Or what novelist and writing teacher Alicia Rasley called a “single-POV Puritan” in a 2009 blog post on the subject.

Me, a Puritan? Heaven forfend.

It didn’t used to be that way. Before I started writing fiction, I didn’t pay any attention to whether an author used omniscient or first person narration, multiple POV or the tight single perspective of one character. All that mattered to me was whether the book gripped my imagination. I didn’t care how the wizard behind the curtain created that story magic; I just wanted to be swept up in it.

But after many years on the other side of the page, as a writer, I’m definitely aware of viewpoint in everything I read, to the point where it’s difficult for me to shut off the Inner Editor in my brain long enough to simply enjoy a book. And it drives me mad when an author skips blithely from one character’s POV to another. Perhaps I’ve developed a kind of empathy deficit disorder in my later years, but how am I supposed to care about anything that happens to these characters when I don’t get the chance to spend more than a few paragraphs at a time with them?

Yes, yes—I’ve read the sage advice that it doesn’t matter which viewpoint you use, so long as you do it intentionally, as a tool to accomplish a specific effect in your novel. And although I agree with that, it doesn’t shake my almost visceral aversion to both multiple POV and omniscient narration.

Maybe part of the reason for my “puritanism” is that children’s writers like myself are forced to use viewpoint more cautiously than do writers for adults. The standard advice I give to my writing students is that whether they use first-person or limited third-person narration, they should zoom in on one young character in the book and tell the entire story through that child’s eyes and ears, her heart and mind. Why? For one thing, the younger the reader, the less experienced they are with narrative techniques. So using a more “sophisticated” POV technique such as multiple viewpoint might confuse them.

Also, developmentally-speaking, kids have a more egocentric view of the world. Since each child sees herself as the center of the solar system of her life, it’s easier for her to comprehend a book in which the young main character occupies a similar position.

 

I go beyond that. Use a tight single viewpoint, I advise my students, to help readers slip inside the skin of the protagonist, to the point where kids can no longer tell where their identity stops and that of the hero begins. This total immersion into the viewpoint of the main character is very similar to Deep POV, about which I will write later in this series. It enables kids to bond so closely to the hero or heroine that young readers experience and react to the events of the plot as if they were happening to them.

Hypocrite that I am, I violated this single POV rule in my first novel, Cheshire Moon. I wrote from the perspective of a secondary character for a few chapters, which I felt was necessary to show how the protagonist, a young deaf girl, was [unbeknownst to her] sharing the same series of dreams with a boy she had just met.

But I used limited third person and stayed mainly in the head of my young hero in my second novel, The Door in the Lake. Is it a coincidence that this book has been much more successful than the first, earning an ALA Quick Pick and a Scholastic Book Club selection? I don’t think so. I believe that my use of a single POV enabled kids to connect in a deeper, more immediate way with the protagonist, a boy who had mysteriously disappeared for two years and returned to his family with amnesia.

 

The middle grade novel on which I am working now has an even tighter focus on the eccentric young main character. It didn’t start out that way. In the first two iterations of the manuscript, I was actually brazen enough to think that I could get away with seven—count ‘em, seven—different main characters. Yikes! Fortunately, my critique group cured me of that particular delusion.

And they were right. When I allowed a young boy whom I had initially conceived of as a minor character to take center stage, the entire book came to life in a way it never had before. By focusing on his POV, and his alone, I found my way into the novel.

When children’s writers decide what viewpoint to use, we don’t just consider the needs of the story—we also stop to think how our choice of POV will affect readers. It’s that perspective—the viewpoint of readers—that I think gets lost sometimes when writers discuss POV.

I think we need to realize that viewpoint is more than just a literary tool, a way to shape a book and showcase our virtuosity; we need to recognize how it’s going to affect readers on an emotional level. It isn’t just about us, in other words, and what we need as writers; it’s about readers, too. And whenever we use the more distant forms of viewpoint, whether that be a shifting, multiple POV or omniscient narration, we increase the odds that readers won’t be able to form a deep connection with our characters—and thus with our books.

At least, that’s been my experience—not just as a writer, but as a reader. Perhaps it’s all my years in children’s literature, but I find myself increasingly impatient with novels where the author skips from the POV of one character to another.

Maybe that’s just me. I posted this question about multiple POV on my Facebook page, and got a thoughtful response from someone who said that when done well, she was eager to get inside the heads of different characters to see how each one responded to plot events. This added to her enjoyment of the story. This is an adult reader, talking about a specific adult novel, and she did note that she got confused when a writer changed POV without warning, especially within a chapter or scene.

So perhaps that’s my real problem. It’s not multiple POV itself that I dislike; it’s poorly-done multiple POV.

I just finished Reckless, by Cornelia Funke. She changes POV with each chapter, rotating between several characters, including two brothers, their respective love interests, and two of the villains. Though I appreciated the artistry of Funke’s prose, and the subtle way she explored themes in this first installment of a new fantasy trilogy, the multiple POV left me cold. It was far too easy for me to put the book down, forget about the characters and the travails they were enduring, and decide I’d rather be reading another book instead. By the closing pages, I finally did start  to care—but not about the heroes. I found myself actually feeling more sympathy for the villains instead, which I don’t think is what Funke intended.

Based on the book reviews that I see on Amazon, I’m not the only reader who feels this lack of connection with the POV techniques used today in so many novels. Readers today are more savvy about viewpoint—and about all the various scaffolding tricks we writers use to structure our tales. And they respond to this in their reviews, complaining when they feel an author has jerked them around too much with a constantly-shifting point of view.

I’m not saying that we should pander to readers. As writers, we have stories to tell, and I believe that we need to do that in whatever way seems right and best to us.

However, I think we would be wise to stop for at least a moment to consider the repercussions our literary choices have on the aesthetic experience of our once-and-future readers. There is a balance we ought to consider, a trade-off between the artistic effect of a particular viewpoint technique and the impact it has on readers. If a POV technique succeeds in either a literary or structural sense, and yet fails to capture the imagination of our readers, is it worth it?

“Only connect,” EM Forster famously wrote. In my view, that should be the measure we employ to gauge whether all this distant, peripatetic point of view is worthwhile. Remember what readers want—to get caught up in the story world we are creating—and use POV in a more controlled, purposeful way to help them do that. 

Maybe I’m not a single-POV Puritan after all. What I am is fascinated and perplexed by the eternal mystery of viewpoint.

Next time: Multiple POV gets the chance to defend itself in “Fight Club: Multiple POV Claws Back”

[© 2013 This article is subject to copyright. Please do not use or reproduce without express written permission from the author.]

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