This seems to be a popular topic on my blog, but more interestingly, among many of my students. It’s not so much the difference between first-person and third-person that has them stymied, but the accidental slip from one point of view to another. Here’s a “for instance” to make the point:
Elenore reached out to pet wounded elk. It was lying on its side, a large gash in its hind leg. It kicked and thrashed, exerting all its effort to try to stand and run from the strange human.
“Don’t touch it,” Ruby said. She raised her hands in warning to her friend. “If you touch it, it will smell like a human and then the other elk won’t help it.”
“That’s baby birds, and that’s ridiculous. The other elk won’t help it anyway.” Elenore tried to calm the frightened animal, but it continued to thrash in an effort to escape.
Okay – what’s going on in this little scene? Obviously two friends have stumbled upon an injured animal. What I mean is, what’s happening with the writing. Some might refer to this as omniscient point of view – the point of view that moves from character to character. Well, if it’s being done deliberately, then that might be the case. More often, however, it’s a slip in point of view (POV for short). Clearly the stronger POV character is Elenore, but right there in the middle is a slip to the elk’s point of view. There are a few writers who can capture the POV of an animal – Hemingway does it briefly in his short story “The Short, Happy Life of Francis McComber” and Dean Koontz does it brilliantly in Dragon Tears. In fact, Koontz does a convincing job of telling portions of that story from the view of a stray dog – you’d almost swear the dog was at the keyboard when those scenes were written.
Unfortunately, many new writers shift points of view unintentionally and the result is more confusing than it is insightful. New writers are encouraged to take either first-person or third-person POV and stick with it because omniscient POV requires a firm hand and an awareness of the purpose. This is especially true for those who write for children and teens. Young readers are struggling just to make sense of the written word. To make this easier, writers for these emergent readers choose one POV so that the child isn’t struggling to keep track of which character is telling the story at any given moment.
Older readers (middle grade) like one POV because it allows them to connect more strongly with that character rather than having their attention torn between two or more. While it is possible to engage a reader of this age with omniscient point of view, it takes a darn good writer to accomplish it. Examples would be Gregory Maguire’s numeric series set in Hamlet, Vermont (which I’ve mentioned before in this blog),
or E. L. Konigsburg’s A View from Saturday which is told from multiple points of view rather than omniscient.
If a writer chooses to use either multiple view points, or to use omniscient POV, he or she must make the decision consciously and understand the pros and cons. Even writers for the adult market are prone to messing this up. I love Anne Lamott, but as I’ve mentioned before, her book Crooked Little Hearts shifts point of view so often in the first page that it gave me a headache.
Omniscient POV is great for stories where multiple characters play a key role in the story. Being able to shift from person to person can add dimension to a story, but if the writer is sloppy, it can simply turn muddy in the reader’s head. Using multiple points of view can also work well for these types of stories, but only if it is imperative to the story that each character be heard from. Often a writer falls in love with certain characters and is reluctant to relegate them to a secondary role – even if that’s where they belong.
The choice to switch POV from one character to another should be made – as with any other element of a story – with the best interest of that story in mind. Anything less is a disservice to the reader and weakens the story overall. Not to mention, POV shifts which are made without conscious thought starts to feel just a wee bit schizophrenic, and who wants that?