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From a Certain Point of View

Tuesday, November 7, 2017 - 10:22

Readers and writers both have strong opinions about point of view, even when that strong opinion is, “Any point of view can work if you’re skilled enough.” I’ve heard authors proclaim that they’ll only use one specific type of point of view because that’s the only one that works for them. Fair enough. One can’t argue with what works.

I’ve found two ways in which point of view can be the key to telling the story I want to tell. One is in limiting what the reader is allowed to know, and thus positioning them with respect to specific characters in the story. One of the reasons I’ve stuck to a very tight third person POV in the Alpennia stories (at least so far—don’t count on it staying that way!) is to manipulate what the reader knows about the events of the story and the motivations of the other characters. An omniscient point of view can either remove suspense or leave the reader annoyed about selective omissions of information.

But a second reason I’ve found to choose a particular point of view is to break myself out of specific storytelling modes. This is particularly the case when I’m working with traditional tale forms, such as the Merchinogi stories. The immense weight of the original literary style of medieval romances can be hard to fight if you use the same tools as the original tellers. Medieval romances can be wonderful for their flights of description and their use of repetition and cadence, but they’re really bad at showing interiority. King Arthur may have done great deeds, but we don’t get a lot of insight into what he thought about those accomplishments, or why he made the choices he did. When I first started writing “Hoywverch,” I used the third person to match the original Mabinogi, but found the result more flat and simplistic than I cared for. Shifting to the heroine’s voice helped me break free of that flatness.

Retold fairy tales are another genre where the stylistic weight of the original material can feel overwhelming. In my first draft of “The Language of Roses”—my Beauty and the Beast retelling--I followed what has become my default mode: tight third person rotating between key viewpoint characters, with events allocated carefully to keep the reader in suspense regarding important plot points. And it felt like it was working fairly well until I decided to bring in the fairy who laid the crucial curse as a viewpoint character. She had an important role to play in setting up certain elements of the backstory that no one else had put together yet. But I found the scenes I’d given to her somewhat lackluster. She was thin. A cardboard prop. And the crucial world-building information she supplied felt wrong as something a character would ruminate over on her own.

And then, on this morning’s drive, the first line of her first scene came to me in a different voice. An accusing, critical, second person voice. And things clicked. It’s an omniscient voice: someone who knows everything that has happened in the past and who hints at knowing how the story will come out when none of the characters themselves do. (I have a suspicion just who that voice is, and that may shape some of the rewriting.) This isn’t a second person POV where the reader is being addressed, which is the version that people who dislike second POV tend to rail against—the “choose your own adventure” type that tries to force the reader into being a participant. It’s a voice that allows the fairy to remain a cipher while providing the reader with a very personal glimpse of her.

Ah, Peronelle! You are patient now. Patient enough to stand outside the gates of Betencourt for days to see what might befall. You were not so patient when you were…but no, you were not young. It has been very long since you were young, hasn’t it? The fée are young only once and old for a very long time. But one may be foolish and impatient at any age. Do you remember when you were young, Peronelle? Do you remember your parents and the glittering tower where you dwelt with them? Do you remember the guests and the balls and the hunting parties when they would ride out to slip between the worlds and tease those in mortal lands? Do you remember learning to walk the worlds for yourself and how to draw glamour after you to hide the truth from mortal eyes?

And having made that choice, I now needed to know what to do with all my other points of view. That second person wasn’t going to work for all of them. I wanted differentiation. But at the same time, having one character’s scenes in second and the other three POV characters all in third felt unbalanced. Well, it isn’t really three—more like two and a single chapter from the remaining character. What if (I thought)…what if I gave one of them a first person approach? What if my Beauty (who isn't named Beauty) tells her own story? That would work well for her: the confused innocent who is still sorting out her place in the world and how she feels about it. Yes, that feels right. While the third primary viewpoint character (who is definitely not the Beast) is more knowledgable, more controlled, more deliberately distanced. Third person works for her.

Now my immediate reaction to this idea was, “You know, this is one of the features of N.K. Jemisin’s award-winning novel The Fifth Season—a feature that is a key element of the plot—and maybe it’s going to look a little bit like you’re being a copycat?” Well, heck. If you’re going to be a copycat, copy a great writer. You can make any approach to point of view work if you do it well, and if you don’t do it well, it doesn’t matter that someone else did make it work. But I’ll acknowledge that the idea of mixing first, second, and third person in the same story isn’t some fantastic new invention I came up with.

Maybe I’ll make it work, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll finish up the whole story and decide I need to unravel it and do something different. But when I heard that voice snarking at Peronelle, something clicked into place. And any author can tell you that when you feel that click, you should pay attention.

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