Zestful Blog Post #133
Recently I got three inquiries in a row from aspiring writers wanting advice on point of view in fiction, specifically shifting POV from one character to another, and even more specifically, mixing first-person POV with other styles—third person limited and omniscient: can we do it? should we do it? how do we do it? (Thank you to D, J, and E for giving me the idea for this post.)
The novels of my first series (Lillian Byrd crime) are all in first person, which has its joys. The reader gets to know the main character intimately—if you’ve done your job well—and the limitations of the form can help shape your plot. One character can’t know everything, which automatically introduces an element of suspense. I chose first person for my first books because I was told by some magazine article (probably & ironically in Writer’s Digest magazine) that all first novelists should use it, because at least then you can’t screw up POV.
Alternatively, writing gurus often tell new authors to stick with one style of POV: pick either first, third-limited, or omniscient, and stay there. Yet messing around with POV is interesting, and it can be just the thing for your story. Yet it’s fraught.
In many novels old and new, an omniscient narrator tells the story, shifting frequently from one character’s viewpoint to the next. If done well, we get not only a literal unfolding of the story, but also the characters’ inner worldview—their thoughts and judgments as to what’s going on. But the narrator becomes a bit of a character as well, which can be helpful or annoying, depending on the skill of the author.
For The Actress (Rita Farmer mysteries) I wanted more flexibility than simple first person, because my story was more ambitious, wider ranging, with more characters. Yet I liked the intimacy of first person. So I looked around to see if any novels mixed first with third limited and/or omniscient and found a few that worked (don’t ask me; I forget), so I figured I could do it too.
Yet I hated reading novels where the POV sticks with one character for almost the whole book, but shifts quickly and inexplicably to another character’s POV as a way out of plot jams, which is cheap. Suddenly—gosh!—we learn what the bad guy’s thinking, just at the exact moment we need an explanation of what the hell his motivation is. Then we’re back to the hero for the duration. In such cases, shifting POV is a way to avoid telling the story with discipline and fluidity. And it’s pure plain jangling to readers. It’s especially bad when readers constantly have to re-orient themselves to rapidly shifting limited POVs. Note I say limited: This is worse than just choosing omniscient, which imposes its own demands of reason and plausibility.
So I structured The Actress to begin from the perspective of Rita, my protagonist, and to shift POV only at major breaks. Sometimes it’s a chapter break, other times it’s a mid-chapter shift from one scene and set of characters to another. I carried the same pattern into the other two Rita books. By On Location I was pretty comfortable with it.
Currently I’m writing a final draft of a novel told in a mix of third limited and omniscient; no first person. It happens in Los Angeles, it involves a retired schoolteacher, her illiterate (and undocumented) cleaning woman, and a gang of corporate saboteurs. It digs into why people help one another, why they betray one another, and how far into the abyss they will go for money—and sometimes love. The title is Crimes in a Second Language.
Bottom line answer to the questions on mixing POVs: Yes, we can do it. We should do it IF the story demands, or at least prompts it. Keep your artistic integrity handy and never shift POV to get yourself out of a tight place you’ve gotten yourself into. When mixing first with third limited / omniscient, do it sparingly.
Moreover, don’t be cowed by the process. Relax, jump in, and give it a try.
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