Problematic POVs

Photo: Jason A. Samfield

I’ve been reading through the submissions for the Under The Skin antho and doing some writing myself, and pondering the issue of problematic POVS.

There are some pretty hard and fast rules about POV, but there are a lot of grey areas where the way forward is not quite clear. Literary fiction is typically (but not always) in 3rd person limited (i,e. the narrator is referring to people as he or she or by name, but elects to follow the interior thoughts of one of the characters per scene). Most genre fiction is in first or third person limited. Some, like fantasy and, in the past, sci-fi, has been written in third person omniscient (the god voice).

Head-hopping (showing what more than one person in a scene is thinking) is usually frowned upon – and for good reason. It tends to distance the reader from immersion in the story because it’s not how we experience reality. But there are some interesting fine lines.

What happens when one character can, with reasonably surety, know what the other is thinking?

Elise stood under the building’s portico watching the rain plummet down. She pondered what to do. Ethan stood beside her and pondered also.

The paragraph is in 3rd person limited. We’re in Elise’s brain and we know she’s pondering. But how can we know, in 3rd person limited whether Ethan is pondering or not? Isn’t this head-hopping?

Well, yes and no. A more stogy and correct way to write this would be.

Elise stood under the building’s portico watching the rain plummet down. She pondered what to do. Ethan stood beside her and appeared to be pondering also.

But perhaps we’ve already established that Elise and Ethan know each other well? And that, when Ethan stands like that, in silence, she knows he’s pondering? Is the ‘appeared to be’ (as in, it appeared to Elise that he was doing the same thing) really necessary. I like my language sparse and clean.

I did this in a recent story called ‘Kiss of Fire‘ and someone pointed out what they felt was, quite rightly, an incident of this minor head-hopping. I think there is a compromise to be made about rules, here. You need to ask yourself – is the other person in the scene, who is not our 3rd person limited perceiver, reacting in a manner that is either highly expected, predictable, or understandable in view of what has gone before in their relationship in the story? If this minor head-hopping doesn’t interfere with the reader’s sense of lived experience of reality, then I say you can let it stand. And, when in doubt, just get a reasonably experienced reader’s opinion.

The other rule that I rarely but occasionally break is writing in 2nd person. The bane of badly written free-read erotica and cringeworthy fan fic, 2nd person POV can be incredibly annoying. The text is referring to YOU (perceived to be we, the readers) and telling us what we’re doing and how we feel. It’s offensive. The only place where it really works is in role-playing game narrative where it is the tool by which the writer pulls the player into participation the story storyspace.(You find yourself in a darkened room. You see a dagger glinting on the stone floor. Pick it up? Leave it?)

I just finished a story in 2nd person. I wrote it in 1st person POV first, because I wanted immediacy. (I and him, Frank, etc.) But for some reason it really didn’t work. It still felt detached. Admittedly, ‘Eversharp’ is a strange little piece of flash fiction and my aim was to examine the experience of cutting from the cutter’s POV. There are far more knife-play stories where the narrator is the cuttee. And the few where the narrator is the cutter which I’ve found fail pretty miserably to offer any insight into why the experience is erotic for the person wielding the blade. Very often, the cutter presents as utterly dominant, and there is some, mistaken in my opinion, belief that revealing too much of a dominant’s mental processes makes them appear weak.

So my first effort, in 1st person (I trailed the blunt edge of the razor down the centre of his chest) seemed okay. But having to refer to the cuttee in 3rd person (he or Frank or whatever) also seemed to put the person being cut at a distance. As object instead of subject.

When I tried it again in 2nd person, I felt it worked better. There was more immediacy and intimacy. But honestly, I’m just not sure.

Sometimes you just have to try things. I’m a huge advocate for the traditional rules of fiction writing, but I also believe that once you know them, you can occasionally break them to good purpose.

  5 comments for “Problematic POVs

  1. SL
    July 11, 2013 at 10:50 pm

    Hi RG, It’s interesting you should bring this up. I was unable to make the deadline for submissions as I got caught unexpectedly writing in 1st person present tense. It threw me as it’s not a natural option for me, and I kept fighting it back and forth not understanding that it was likely the immediacy that kept pushing it back into present.

    Interesting point regarding “…revealing too much of a dominant’s mental processes makes them appear weak”. Do you have some author/story suggestions for where you feel this has been written well?

  2. Alec Smith
    July 12, 2013 at 1:19 am

    Thank you for another incisive piece!

    I’m glad I’m not the only one. I have always found second person point-of-view hard to read to myself. Frankly, it is usually irritating and gives rise to an emotion/thought of “you are not addressing me, so just please go away”, or other words to that effect đŸ˜‰

    When reading the Eversharp post, second-person worked just fine there. It just has to be the way you do it for us.


  3. July 12, 2013 at 2:08 am

    One of the ways 2nd persons seems to be workable is if the narrator and perhaps other characters are addressing a character as “you”, a “you” who has some involvement in the story, but isn’t described (except from the interactions) and doesn’t have any speaking parts and generally serves as an observer with a modicum–at most–of direct interaction in the story. RG’s Eversharp works that way.
    The one way I know does not work, is the “gentle reader” device, where the speaker steps out of the story to speak directly to the reader, and always seems to have the wrong set of interactions. Don’t you think so, gentle reader? I know you agree with me.

  4. July 21, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    I am completely with you; in general, I think the traditional rules of fiction writing are traditional for a reason. They stand as good guidelines. And I also agree that second person narratives can be incredibly annoying – even though I’m sure there’s a lot of creativity to be had within that POV; I just rarely see any.

    But I’m really glad you gave the example of a story wherein second person narrative actually worked better, because whilst there are general guidelines, I’d also agree that in the end it really depends on the story, and the writer; sometimes it just works.

    But yes – it does all feel rather like learning to sketch before you try abstract expressionism.

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