Myths about Point of View

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If you haven’t yet read the post Who’s Afraid of Point of View, you might consider reading that first, so that you are familiar with the names of the different literary Points of View. The myths, and some of the answers, won’t make much sense if you don’t know the names of the very limited number of literary Points of View.

Don’t worry: I’ll wait for you to get back…

Critics (and some writers) love to make up rules about writing in general and about Point of View in particular, perhaps because it is a challenging area to master and even the best authors sometimes make mistakes in Point of View. But many of these “rules” have attained an almost mythic status; they are passed out at writers’ conferences as if the rules were carved in stone and handed down at Mt. Sinai.

Inexperienced writers are often told that if they don’t follow the mythical rules about Point of View, they’ll never get published, the equivalent of telling an aspiring author that he will be spending the rest of his life in hell. But I’ve learned that most of these rules are just myths and that you can always find reputable, well-written books that successfully break the traditional conventions concerning Point of View.

Let’s examine some of these myths:

Myth # I:

Commercial fiction
(also called formula or genre fiction,
such as mysteries, romances, science fiction, fantasy, etc.)
is always written in Unlimited Point of View.

This is simply not true. An exploration of the classic books of commercial fiction reveals as many books written in First Person as in Unlimited Point of View.

Myth #2:

Literary fiction is always written
in First Person Point of View.

I’m not sure how this myth got started, unless the person who said it meant to say that contemporary literary fiction is always written in First Person Point of View, but even that’s not true. Although there is a great deal of contemporary literary fiction written in First Person, there is also a great deal written in Unlimited, Inner Limited, and Outer Limited Points of View.

Myth #3:

You can’t write from a man’s perspective
if you’re a woman  (or vice versa),
even if you’re using First Person Point of View.

There is a long history of male authors who are unable to create realistic female characters, Shakespeare and Hemingway among them, as well as an equally long list of female authors whose male characters are not considered realistic, no matter what Point of View their books are written in.

Nevertheless, there are many fine examples of male authors writing in First Person as a female character, such as Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, and of female authors writing in First Person as a male character, as I did in my first novel, The Kommandant’s Mistress, and as Joyce Carol Oates does in Zombie.

The author’s gender does not matter as much as the author’s willingness to enter into the thoughts, feelings, desires, and motivations of his character, along the author’s ability to separate himself from the character he is creating.

Myth #4:

You can’t switch Point of View in a novel.
You must pick one Point of View and
stay with it throughout the book.

There is a difference between switching (or changing) Point of View and lapsing from your chosen Point of View. Lapsing means you’ve erroneously slipped out of the Point of View you’ve chosen, and that’s simply a writing mistake.

But never switching Point of View?

Ridiculous. Of course you can.

How often?

That depends on the work itself and on your skill as a writer.

Myth #5:

Each time you describe a different character,
you are changing Point of View.

This is not true unless you also go from First Person to Unlimited (or vice versa) or from any Point of View to another. Simply changing the focus of your writing does not change your Point of View.

Myth #6:

First Person Point of View
is easier to write than the others.

At first glance, this might seem to be true. But if you’re really faithful to the character’s perspective, as opposed to your own, writing in First Person, because it is always a limited Point of View, can be extremely difficult and demanding. The challenges of First Person increase exponentially if you’re using unreliable narrators. In fact, I would venture to say that First Person is one of the more challenging Points of View because of its limitations.

Myth #7:

It’s easy to write in
Outer Limited Point of View
because you’re pretending
you’re a “fly on the wall” or a “camera,”
so you just write down everything you see.

Outer Limited is, without a doubt, the most difficult Point of View in which to write. Even if you pretend you’re a “camera” or a “fly on the wall,” as Ernest Hemingway described this Point of View, it’s much more demanding than it seems. As a camera or a fly on the wall, you must remain absolutely objective, non-judgmental, and non-human. Your emotions as the author must not be revealed in this Point of View. Whether or not you like or approve of your characters and their actions must not be revealed. After all, you are a camera or a fly.

As a human writer, however, every single word you choose is subjective and can reveal your emotions and judgment on the scenes you are writing. That’s what causes the problems and the difficulties in this Point of View. Outer Limited is the most difficult Point of View to use successfully, and it’s the one authors most often lapse in.

Myth #8:

Even if you’re writing fiction, you can
only write about aspects of your own life
from your own perspective.
Otherwise, you’re “trespassing”
into other people’s lives and experiences.

If this were true, then most of the world’s fiction — literary and commercial — would be eliminated. How many bald, midget, alternate-world doctors (Insomnia) do you think Stephen King has met? How many serial killers has Patricia Cornwell (Post Mortem) encountered in her bedroom? And if you only write your own life, then you’re writing memoir or autobiography, not fiction.

Fiction writers have a moral obligation to tell good stories and to write from perspectives other than their own. How would fiction writers ever master First Person Point of View if they only wrote about themselves? If they only wrote about their own lives from their own perspective, wouldn’t they be writing the same book over and over? And if they were only writing from their own personal and limited perspective, then they’d certainly have a difficult time mastering any of the other Points of View.

Myth #9:

There are really no limitations to
First Person Point of View;
you can shift to something called
“objective narration”
and then into Unlimited Point of View
as long as you do it in stages.

Of course, there are no limitations to any Point of View if you don’t care if you’re doing it authentically. The limitations to First Person Point of View are the same limitations any human being has: each of us only knows what’s in his own head and heart; everything else is viewed externally.

If you’re authentically writing in First Person Point of View, then you cannot shift to Unlimited — no matter how subtly or in how many stages you do it — without a visual “warning” or indication of some kind to your readers. And the term “objective narration” came from a writer at a conference where I was a visiting author: I had no idea what it meant when he said it, and I still don’t.

If you want to tell every thing about every character, you should use Unlimited Point of View. If you want to write in First Person, then you need to accept the fact that there are real limitations. Otherwise, you need to write in Multiple Points of View, keeping each Point of View separate so as not to confuse your readers.

Myth #10:

Famous writers like James Joyce (in Ulysses)
often change Point of View,
sometimes in the middle of a sentence.
If they can do it, so can other writers.

It’s true that James Joyce shifts Point of View in Ulysses often and in the middle of sentences, besides. It’s also true that it’s confusing, annoying, frustrating for readers, and that not many people besides Joyce scholars read Ulysses. So if you want to take a chance on having an extremely limited (and probably confused) audience, then shift Point of View as often as you want with no purpose whatsoever.

However, if there’s a logical and artistic reason for shifting Point of View, and you don’t want to lose your readers, you can read about successfully using multiple Points of View in the same piece of fiction.

And now that we’ve debunked the most common myths of Point of View, you can confidently return to your latest fiction project.

Happy writing, my Lovelies.

———————–

Mastering Fiction and Point of View: Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise Your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded, 15thAnniversary Edition © 2001, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman. (Shorter excerpt formerly included in Mastering Point of View: Using POV to Create Conflict, Depth, & Suspense. Story Press: 2001.)

May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written consent of the author or the publisher. Educators and Conference leaders may use materials with attribution to author and copyright information. Please do not support piracy of intellectual property.

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Filed under Creative Writing, How to Write, How to Write a Book, Point of View, Writing, Writing & Revising

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