Voice and point of view

There’s another thing about voice that should be mentioned, too.

It changes.

Or at least it should change, depending upon the point of view (POV) you’re choosing for any one scene.

Well, let’s say that in my opinion it should change.

I will now confess my bias: as a writer and a reader I absolutely prefer tight third person POV narration. I find books/stories written using the omniscient narrator as the over-riding voice to be virtually unreadable. Which isn’t to say that folk choosing that style are bad writers. They’re not, for the most part. One of the most popular and enduring writers of the modern era, Tolkien, uses an omniscient narrator for Lord of the Rings. And I love that book. But I love George RR Martin better, and he uses tight POV characterization to dramatize his story. At the end of the day it comes down to personal preference and the most effective way of telling the story. If you really want to engage your readers emotionally, when you’re working in third person (he said, she said, as opposed to I said, which is first person) I think you need to use tight POV characterization, because by its very nature omniscient narration keeps the reader distanced from the action, and I’m not sure that’s wise. At least for very long stretches.

When you’re writing straight narrative, you’re using the authorial voice you’ve chosen as most appropriate for the piece in question (see below). So the bits where you’re scene setting, or showing an overview of the action, or doing a time compression of events to move the story along without dramatizing each and every event, that’s when you’re using the omniscient authorial voice, because the identity telling the story at that point has the widest view of the action and access to everything that’s going on.

But what happens when you choose to use a particular character as the POV focus for a scene, or a chapter?

Well, your voice needs to shift so that it echoes the style of that character. Because if it doesn’t, not only are you not truthfully using the character as a POV device, but all your characters will end up sounding the same … like the narrator … and that’s a problem.

A lot of new writers get confused at this point. They think that just naming the main character in any scene, labeling them as the character doing the walking and talking, is the same as using that character as the POV voice in the scene. But that’s a mistake. If I, as a neutral observer, sit in a chair and describe the actions and dialogue of someone on a stage before me I am behaving like an omniscient narrator. I can see what they’re doing, I can hear what they’re saying, but I have no access to their inner thoughts. I am an external narrator to the action.

Ah ha! you say. But if I also relate what they’re thinking, doesn’t that mean I’m using them as a POV character? Sadly, no. Not if you are still on the outside narrating those thoughts. For example:

‘Jill returned home late in the afternoon. She was tired and frustrated because after four job interviews in one day she was no closer to being employed. “Gosh,” she thought. “At this rate I’ll never find work and my money will run out and what will happen then?” She was afraid for her future.’

That is 100% omniscient narration. The actions and thoughts are faithfully recorded, but by the external observer, the omniscient narrator. The big hint is that the drama is largely being ‘told’, not ‘shown’. And there’s no flavor of personality imparted. Try this instead:

‘Jill shoved open the apartment door and limped inside. Her feet were killing her. Blisters. Collapsed arches. Pressure points like burning embers on the ball of each foot. What on earth had possessed her to buy these shoes? All right, they looked smart with the suit, and looking smart in a job interview was rule number one, but after eight hours she was just about crippled.

Eight hours, four interviews, and still no job.

She kicked off the damn shoes and hobbled into the kitchen to fling open the fridge door and gloom into its brightly lit interior. Like Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, it was bare. And while she could afford, just, to duck down the road to Woollies tonight, if she didn’t find a job soon that option would be kaput. Forget food. She wouldn’t be able to make the rent, and then what?

Fear like a melting ice cube snaked its way down her spine.’

Hopefully you can see the difference between these two examples. One provides characterization and flavour and a sense of the person in question, while the other does not. One sits inside the character’s head, behind her eyes, allowing the reader to vicariously experience the action as though they were that character. The other holds the reader at arm’s length, explaining the action without letting the reader experience it in the way the character experiences it. In the second example thought and action flow into and out of one another, seamlessly, without the tag ‘she thought’. We’re inside the experience, moving with the character.

And the really big trick is this: if there were two characters in this scene, and the writer chose to use that other character as the POV character, the entire tone of the scene would change. It would reflect the personality and attitudes of that character, not Jill. There would be different word choices, different observations, different concerns expressed. Or if Jill was another kind of person entirely, she wouldn’t use a word like ‘kaput’ and she wouldn’t equate fear with a melting ice cube.

You know the old adage: let five people witness a car accident and get five witness statements and you’ll think you’re looking at five different accidents. That’s because each witness ‘sees’ the world differently. One who is a car nut will be able to describe each vehicle down to the tyre tread but not know who was driving what. One who has a bias against women drivers will allow that prejudice to filter his impressions of who did what. One who dreams of being a detective will try to emulate the latest episode of CSI. One who’s just lost her father to cancer will have hardly noticed anything. And one will have a go at insurance companies for trying to avoid their obligations. Each person will use different words to describe the same events, will place different emphasis on different actions. Each person’s statement is an example of POV narration. And it’s those differences you need to look for when you’re writing your own stories with your own characters.

Which isn’t to say you can’t ever develop character by using the omniscient narrator. You can, and many writers do. But it is my contention that you develop the characters less completely and far less intimately. If we accept the premise that characters are what they say, what they do, what they think — and what others say, do and think about them — then clearly the omniscient narrator can provide much of that information. The difference is, the reader is still being held outside the experience and told things. But the further inside the character’s experiences we put the reader, the more completely can they be understood. The more visceral is the understanding of that person.

It’s the difference between being told about a character, and being asked to stand up and act them through a sequence of events. You may know things about them by the end of the story, but if you’ve pretended to be them and acted out those events, you’ll have a much more intimate understanding of what they’ve been through.

If you’ve got a scene with more than one person in it, and you’re using the tight POV technique, you need to choose who will be the POV character for that scene. Your choice will depend on the information you want the reader to have, and whether the events of the scene are really important to that character. Having chosen your POV character, you need to then make sure you’re so familiar with them that you can accurately and consistently write in their ‘voice’, so the reader is in no doubt as to who the POV character is. Character A might swear like a navvy. Character B would rather die than swear. So if Character B is the POV character, they might accurately record that Character A said ‘shit’, but they wouldn’t say it themselves, or probably even think it. Or perhaps they might think it all the time but never say it out loud and in fact condemn people who do … in which case you’ve just complicated their characterization, haven’t you?

This is what I meant when I said in the beginning that the authorial voice should change if you’re using tight POV narration in a scene or chapter. The writer, in essence, becomes that character and records everything in their style. When the POV changes, the style and voice changes too, because the overall influence, the personality through which the scene is being filtered, has changed.

Which brings us to the commonly condemned sin of ‘head hopping’.

It’s a rule of thumb that writers shouldn’t jump out of one POV and into another in the middle of a scene or a chapter. Some writers have been known to switch POV mid-paragraph or even — save us all — mid-sentence. While I absolutely agree that mid-paragraph and mid-sentence POV shifting is to be discouraged, I do believe you can switch POV in a scene or a chapter, if you absolutely need to and if you make it perfectly clear to the reader what’s happening. In a chapter, you just insert a scene break and start off with a new place and/or time with a different lead character. It’s a bit trickier with a POV change mid-scene, and if you can get away with not doing that it’s probably best. But if you must, just give us a short scene break then continue the scene in the new POV.

The most important thing is that you don’t confuse the reader. If everything’s clear, you’re fine. That’s why changing POV in a chapter is fine, and I think it’s rather old-fashioned to protest its use, provided clarity is maintained.

Finally, what some people condemn as ‘head hopping’ is often the use of omniscient narration, where the narrator has access to each and every character equally and dips into and out of each character’s thoughts, recording them in turn. This is a legitimate narrative technique … but it doesn’t appeal to every reader. However if that’s the way you as the writer need to display that scene, then go for it. Just remember, though, you do have other options. And that every time you choose the omniscient narrator you’re holding your reader at arm’s length from the action

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