If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you already know that I write fiction. I've been doing so, off and on, for over 35 years. Recently, I found myself engaged in helping two friends, both aspiring fiction authors, with some elements in their writing. We got onto the topic of narrative voice, and the question of exactly who should be telling the story. The following is a short primer I put together on the subject, using examples from a piece of Stargate SG-1 fan fiction I've written, with which both of the friends in question are familiar.
(Disclosure: I write fan fiction because it's something I can actually publish on the web and gain reader feedback from, which allows me to experiment with various elements of technique. What I learn via this feedback then goes into my brainspace and is used to continually improve my writing of original fiction. It should be noted that I use examples from my own work here only because they are readily available online and I know exactly what my intentions were when I wrote each chapter, NOT because I think that my work is particularly good or awesome or exemplary in any but the most rudimentary sense of that last adjective.)
When I was first learning to write fiction, back in the days when we charred sticks in the fire and used the carbonized tips to scrawl our tales on the walls of caves now lost to distant memory, I wrote in omniscient third person. It’s a fairly common method of narration and storytelling that nearly all of us have encountered at one time or another, most likely during courses in literature when we were in secondary school. The bulk of 19th-century literature was written in this manner. However, omniscient third can be disorienting for the modern reader, and recent decades especially have seen a rise in the use of other third-person narrative modes such as tight (also known as ‘limited’) third-person and tight (or limited) third-person multiple-point-of-view.
In All That We Leave Behind, I write in tight third-person multi, utilizing a number of different characters as the narrators of my story. We experience the story through different people’s eyes and perceptions (also known as their ‘point of view’, often abbreviated ‘POV’) as it unfolds. My protagonist, Colonel Frank Cromwell, is the POV character I use the most, and we experience much of the story through his perceptions. However, there are chapters and scenes in the story for which he is not present, including a number of scenes that take place on Earth while he is off-world. Since there is no way for Frank to be aware of what is happening in a place where he is not present to observe events, I must of necessity use other characters who are present as my POV characters in those scenes.
In a similar manner, there are some events for which Frank is present, but which I have chosen to let the reader view through the perceptions of other characters. I do this both to give the reader a glimpse into the minds and personalities of these other characters and how they perceive the events of the story, and to illustrate how these other characters perceive Frank himself.
Using multiple characters as narrators in telling a story while remaining firmly in the POV character’s head throughout the entirety of a given scene or chapter is an effective way to tell a story from multiple angles while minimizing confusion for the reader. Science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer, who also teaches creative writing at the university level in Canada, has written a great lesson on this which I highly recommend reading.
When writing in 3rd-person multiple POV, it is important to remain inside a single character’s head throughout the entire scene, and if possible, the entire chapter. This is to avoid confusing your reader with dizzying hops from head to head. Of course sometimes it isn’t possible for an entire chapter to be told from a single viewpoint, as in instances where you have a brief scene that isn’t long enough to qualify as a chapter in its own right but also doesn’t tie in with any other nearby (in the temporal sense) scenes involving the same characters. When that happens, it makes sense to append such scenes to other chapters in such a way as to create continuity in your plot. In so doing, however, care must be taken to make the transition from one person’s POV to another as painless and as clear as possible for the reader, and once you have transitioned into another character’s head, it is essential to remain there either until the end of the chapter, or at least until the end of the scene, at which point it is permissible to transition into someone else’s POV if the chapter calls for it.
Chapter breaks are the most common and natural places to switch POV, but when you make the switch within a chapter instead, the switch should either coincide with a scene break or — if a full-on scene break is not possible — with the exit of the initial POV character from the scene which then continues on with the remaining characters and must be told from the POV of one of those remaining characters. Note that if a character is going to leave a scene before that scene ends, it is usually NOT a good idea to make him or her the initial POV character, unless you have some compelling reason to do so — say, for example, that you really do need to convey his or her direct impressions of what occurs up until the exit. I rarely have a POV character leave a scene, but I’ve done it on occasion. Also note that if you have your initial POV character exit a scene which then continues on in someone else’s POV, you MUST treat this the same way you treat a full scene break, by inserting an indicator that this change is occurring.
When you switch POV within a single chapter, whether or not you are fully switching scenes at the same time, it is imperative that you include some indication to the reader that the change is about to occur. Usually, leaving some white space — say, a blank line, followed by a centered row of three asterisks, followed by another blank line — will do the trick nicely, and is my preferred method.
Here is an example from ATWLB of a chapter in three scenes, with each scene being experienced through the POV of a different character. They take place in three distinct locations: the planet known to its inhabitants as Tir 'nAwyr and to the SGC as P2A-870, the SGC itself, and Jack O’Neill’s house. Note how I have separated each scene and POV switch using space and asterisks. We experience the first scene through Frank’s perceptions, the second through Samantha Carter’s, and the third through Jack’s. Yet at no time is it unclear to the reader whose head he or she is inhabiting. The first scene opens with Frank’s name, and what follows indicates to the reader that these are Frank’s direct perceptions and experiences. Italicized material indicates his internal self-talk, the mental vocalization of a sampling of his thoughts.
For the second scene, we switch to Carter’s perceptions, again naming her in the first sentence and indicating clearly that these are her perceptions. A portion of her own self-talk is presented in italics as well; although it is not strictly necessary to go as far as to do this in every instance, it can be useful for firmly defining the fact that we are in one particular character’s head when multiple characters inhabit a scene. Another cue is the fact that the reader is presented with Carter’s own observations of the other characters, and that she is shown speculating on a number of things.
The third scene opens by naming Jack, and we experience his thoughts and emotions in this scene, including self-talk. In fact, the scene closes on an instance of his internal thoughts.
With practice, it isn’t difficult to learn how to write in limited 3rd person. The main thing to keep in mind is that you must ONLY write what your POV character of-the-moment is able to perceive, know, think or feel. Unless this character is a telepath or empath, he or she won’t know what other characters are thinking or feeling, although you can use perceptual cues to indicate that, such as having the POV character note that another character’s carried a note of amusement, or that the other character grimaced as if in pain, looked confused, or spoke in an angry tone.
Likewise, your POV character won’t be aware of things occurring beyond the area that he can see or hear, unless he is clairvoyant! This is actually the reason why this particular technique is called “limited” or “tight” 3rd-person — the POV is focused tightly on the character currently serving as narrator, and he or she is limited to telling us only what he or she observes or experiences and sharing with us his or her own thoughts and feelings.
With these restrictions in mind, however, you can write extremely detailed and personal scenes, and even expository passages if need be, simply by making the information you impart to the reader be information that the POV character knows and happens to be thinking about at the time. Here is an example of exposition presented as Frank’s reflections on all that he has learned thus far in his time on Tir Awyr. The reader comes away from this passage with a detailed body of knowledge regarding the environment in which Frank is living and an overview of the experiences he has had up until the present time, all filtered through Frank’s own direct thought processes.
By now it should be apparent that limited 3rd-person multiple-POV allows for a rich and detailed interaction between the reader and the characters in your story, encouraging the reader to identify with the protagonists and to at least understand anyone else in whose head he or she has spent some time. It also allows for you, the author, to explore your characters deeply and to tell the story on many levels. And all it takes is a little bit of practice!