Finding Your Point of View

What is the daisy-capped girl in the pigtails thinking? Mumm….frosting. How about the little brunette in the pixie cut? Is that a bee over there?

While the occasion of my five-year-old birthday party has long slipped from memory, I share this old polaroid to demonstrate the virtues of multiple points of view. It’s very clear that each one of the celebrants has her own thoughts. A novelist seeking to bring the story to life has several options.

Skip the cake. I want to open presents. (First person).

You are hot, hungry, and tired, but you are determined to enjoy yourself. (Second person).

The mothers hovered round their little darlings, wanting to freeze that moment in time. The birthday girl was the happiest she had ever remembered but in two short hours she would be put in the corner for bickering with her brother. (Third person omniscient.)

When I finally settled on writing a novel, I knew I’d have to tackle the tricky question of point of view. It is central to a novel because it drives the characters, the plot, and the story. At first I was anxious. Maybe I’d do something easy, like first person. Most modern novels (Straight Man by Richard Russo) use first person. First person may seem easy, but it’s not.  Think Huckleberry Finn. Second person was above my comfort level. Third person omniscient, still used today, was very popular in the last century, with epic novels such as Anna Karenina or Portrait of a Lady.

Because Naked and Hungry is a mystery, I eventually chose a variation of third person omniscient, one with multiple points of view. This allowed me to share bits and pieces not known to H.T., the main character.  It allows the reader the luxury of being in on a secret, which is always fun. I also appreciated the ability to change gears. Moving from carefree H.T. to hypocritical Myrtle kept me from getting bored. Moreover, introducing a fresh point of view is surprisingly useful in controlling the tempo of a novel. Just finished a fast-paced scene wrought with danger? Your reader will thank you by following with a more light-hearted episode.

Unlike the traditional third person omniscient, I avoid sweeping generalizations and drifting in and out of my characters’ heads. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against this point of view. The truth is that I’m a little intimidated. Who can compete with the narrator’s breezy yet lyrical description of Gatsby’s famous parties? In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. Enough said.

Were the girls at my summer party thinking of champagne or stars? Probably not, but my friends and I were certain to have dreams of our own. A kitten? A slip-n-slide? It could have been as simple as a party favor. When experimenting with point of view, why not pull out an old photo for inspiration? You’re certain to get much more than a point of view. You might just get a story.

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