A Change in Point-of-View

Music: Judie Tzuke–Blackfurs

Big news: I’ve finished Captain Corelli’s Mandolin!

I’ve learnt so much about Cephalonia, the fiasco of World War Two, and the passage of post-war civilisation. Gated, backward, quirky island culture was portrayed to a T (I should know). The humour was exactly my jam—from the first scene, during which Dr Iannis extracts a fossilised pea from his deaf patient’s ear. The characters were ridiculed without being trivialised, and the prose provoked thought without choking me on philosophy. I loved the recurring gags, such as the doctor’s system of peeing on his herbs in strict rotation.

Louis de Bernières is a master of bathos.

The eponymous character didn’t appear until over a third of the way through—an interesting decision, considering that the blurb gave me the impression of a love triangle. Yet I think it’s a strength of this book, and of many great works of literature. Note that Jane Austen limits even her ficklest characters to one love interest at a time (open to argument). Fact is, Pelagia is one of the greatest women I’ve ever read—she’s strong, honest, clever and unrelenting, admits temptation, admits regret, admits her morality is mostly circumstantial. Oh, yes, de Bernières pays great attention to the circumstantial! He’s not above beginning a chapter with ‘Dr Iannis was in a terrible mood for no reason other than the fact that it was a very hot day’ (or WTTE). It really is true to life.

Dayum, though. It gets dark. So much for a bittersweet, much-belated note of hope at the end: you only have to Google Cephalonia’s history to find out what the climax is plummeting towards.

Really what I want to discuss, though, is narrative perspective.

I often hear writers talking about which POV to use—first person, third, even second, tense. It can be hard to choose. I understand.

So, De Bernières was writing a massive ass hist fic. His solution to the which-perspective problem? ALL OF THEM. Chapter one is close third person on an unqualified, free-thinking Greek doctor. Chapter two is the first person monologue of Benito Mussolini!

There are chapters of letters showing the passage of time, chapters formatted like a dramatic duologue showing the progression of a relationship; it goes on. In the first half of the contents, seven chapters are entitled ‘L’Homosesuale’. It later becomes clear that these chapters are the sections of an Italian soldier’s ‘confession’ of his role in the war. This makes them easy to group and read in order later on, and see how his path crosses with the islanders.

I loved the thought and craft that went into it all—effortlessly, de Bernières sped up his pacing with a constantly surprising POV, incorporating aspects that broadened the story to far more than a mere romance or a tragic war crime. When you’re reading the POV of a goatherd mistaking bombs for fireworks, and an English parachuter for an angel, you know you’re in deft hands!

Now I talk about POV and me (because I’m self-centred like that). Ever since I started writing, it’s been in third person. I call it my ‘natural voice’; that’s where I feel comfortable. For that reason, I may have entertained a snobbish attitude at some point in my past, and for that I now apologise. I’m only just learning what a tool it can be to employ the right perspective. No POV is more valid, more correct or more effective than any other. It’s simply than different systems work for different books, and must be chosen accordingly.

I can’t believe how long it took me to recognise that! My WIP is in first person. It just is. One of my MCs has no physical presence (hard to explain, but it boils down to the word ‘ghost’). As a third person realistic contemporary writer, I’m soooo out my comfort zone it’s not even funny. But I got this. His first person POV feels so right.

Anyway, enough of me.

Check out this post by JA Goodsell, another #PitchWars hopeful, in which she discusses the merits of both first and third person and why it’s so important to think about your choice. 

Speaking of Pitch Wars, I’m so grateful to Brenda Drake and the team for putting together this enormous contest. ❤

I was lucky enough to snag some CPs via #FicFest a few months ago, with whose help I prepared my book for the contest. In submission week I met the Teen Squad (the other underage entrants (oops, that sounded as if PW has an age limit…)), and I’ve read two of their books so far. So. Much. Talent. I just want to squee about how wonderful and supportive this group is, how great it is to spar with GIFs, suss out our male characters’ underwear preferences, blaspheme against dentist appointments. These are real teens with teen worries and teen joys and a seriously good handle of real teen dialogue.

Rant over. It’s cool. I hope I’ll stay in touch with everyone I’ve swapped MSs with over the past three months, because what with my critique group and the #teensquad, I’ve finally found my people.

But hey, always room for more. Do comment your thoughts on de Bernières and/or narrative POV!

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A Note on ‘Head-Hopping’

(Just to clarify, I don’t pretend to follow all my own rules! I’m still learning to do that…)

‘Head-hopping’ is the name many writers give to the act of switching between different characters. I like to think of it visually as moving the fictional camera from behind one character’s eyes to behind another’s. This crops up a lot in collaborations, which isn’t so bad, because they’re good practice, but rarely go much further, and in third person omniscient, which I find a lot in the traditional classics. In many cases the character’s thoughts are included in the perspective (a POV can be in first or third person–or second, indeed).

Now, head-hopping is something I wouldn’t advise for a real MS, because as a reader, I get irritated when I know the exact thoughts of every character, and as a writer it takes a good deal of deliberation to create a unique style of thought process for each character. Exactly what you don’t want is readers finding the characters perceive events either too similarly or in cliché. They just blend together, and readers begin to wonder subconsciously whether the writer is really as narrow-minded as he or she seems.

So it’s personal to me, and very wise and wonderful authors can make it work, but I wouldn’t go in for head-hopping. Stick to one or two characters and go into depth; the minor characters can look after themselves, and the reader will probably appreciate it if you allow them to contrive their own elucidations of SCs, too.

And even if readers don’t do that, mystery builds tension. Keep them in ignorance of the inner workings of your characters’ minds! (This runs perilously over into the ‘show not tell’ debate, I am aware. But it all links together, you will see.)

MCs, I’ve noticed, are rarely the favourites, but the SCs come in for much more vigorous devotion. Possibly this is due to the fact that readers can interpret the SCs for themselves, and there may be one particular character they imagine they can relate to, simply because of their interpretation. I always find it interesting which characters different readers naturally drift towards—it can be very illuminating, and often unexpected(!).

Head-hopping is the equivalent of spoon-feeding: don’t do this, if you’re aiming for an intelligent audience.

Yes; it’s a trap many of the more ambitious writers fall into. We have so much to tell our readers, and we know all we have to tell is dreadfully interesting. But we forget that we also profess to appeal to an audience of intellectual young people who will appreciate our writing for the masterwork it is: and therefore our audience is just as intelligent as we are, and can draw generally pretty accurate conclusions from just a little that we write.

‘Less is more’…‘quality not quantity’… I used to despise these sayings. I wanted to write at length. I wanted to write everything in my mind and more besides, going off on a tangent at every turn. But writing must be concise if it is to deeply entertain one’s readers.

It’s not just ‘create, create, create! Ah, it’s wonderful, and so am I; I must now show all the world how wonderful I am’. Writing is a deeply rational process, especially when it comes to planning and editing. Bypassing either of these essential stages (unless you’re a creative genius, which, I can assure you, however much you insist ‘but I’m different to everyone else’, you’re not) is the death to your masterpiece.

Anyway, I am truly going off on a tangent, now, contrary to my own advice! In short, if you’re going to go in for head-hopping, think it over seriously.