Monday, August 01, 2011

Where Do You Want Me? Choosing Narrative Distance in Multiple Third Person

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A reader asked…
If you are writing in third person with multiply points of view, should you use a deep point of view or a more distant one? And how could you make all the voices sound different?
I recently did a post on making your voices sound different, so today I’ll focus on the POV question. For voices, try this post on developing voice for POV characters, and this post on developing voice for non-POV characters.
Now, as to the first question…

It’s totally up to you.

How deep or distant you go (narrative distance) depends on your personal taste and what you’re trying to accomplish with the story.

My own rule of thumb: The more personal the problem, the deeper you go, because personal problems seem to connect better when the reader gets inside the POV’s head and really understands them.

Some tales are epic in scope, and it’s more about the event than the people in it. Thrillers are a good example here. While you can get a deep POV in a thriller, it’s not uncommon to see a farther narrative distance. The nature of the genre shifts the focus from a person in crisis to a crisis occurring.

Other tales are very personal. Romance is all about two people falling in love, and readers want to know the people involved and feel that strong personal connection. It’s the emotion that helps carry the story.

Choosing How Deep to Go

If you’re unsure how deep to go with your third person POV(s), ask yourself:

What narrative distance do you prefer?

If you hate a tight third, you won’t write it well. Your style and preference matters a lot more than what you “should” do for the book. If you love one style and write best in that style, use that.

What narrative distance is common to the genre?

Most genres have a common style or tone to them that readers are used to. While you can certainly try something different, there’s nothing wrong with using something proven to work for that genre.

What style do you like to read?

I prefer reading a tight POV to a distant one myself, so that’s what I write. Think about your favorite books and what POV style they use. People do tend to write what they like to read.

How much growth do the POVs go through?

The more personal a journey, the more the POV usually grows as a character. A tighter POV is important to understand and accept that growth. If the POVs grow very little or none at all, getting inside their heads isn’t as important. (a word of caution here: if there’s no growth at all for anyone, that could indicate you have a premise novel and there is no solid story with a protagonist to drive it. That’s a whole different problem)

What does the story gain by being tighter? More distant?

If you’re going for a strong emotional hook, a tighter POV might work better. A more intellectual hook, a more distant one might be a better choice. Or you might sit in the middle, allowing enough “in your head time” to maintain some emotional level, while being distant enough to see the bigger picture. It’s a sliding scale and you can adjust where you want to be. It doesn’t have to be tight or far. Just be consistent in what you choose, whatever the distance. You don’t want to be tight for some chapters and far for others. Though you could be tight for one POV and distant for another for the entire novel.

There are no set-in-stone rules here. It’s more about what you like to write and what best serves the story you want to tell.

Which do you prefer? A tight or distant third? Why?

More articles on POV and narrative distance:
How Far is Too Far? Far Narrative Distance vs Telling

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I prefer a tighter POV, it brings me closer to the character and I like being 'inside their heads'.

    Really great post and website, thanks for sharing such informative writing tips. ;-)

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  3. I prefer a fairly tight POV. I like to empathise with characters, whether I'm reading or writing. I find that a lot easier if the author brings me into their head and lets me see what kind of a person they are.

  4. I definitely like the tighter POV that feels like you're in the character's head like in first person. Thanks for sharing your tips.

  5. You know me - I like very tight third person, with voices as different as I can make them. I really enjoyed your post.

  6. I just read a great SF with a very distant POV and lots of them -- it was cool to get a very broad view of events. I also enjoy tight I guess I'm game for whatever works for the story.

  7. I prefer deep and tight. (OK, that doesn't sound good, does it?)

    I normally write 2 POV characters, with an occasional venture into a 3rd.

    I don't like it when a author pops into a new character for a brief scene and then we never see that character's POV again. There has to be a better way to get that information across. Always seems like a cop out to me.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  8. I'm a tight POV gal myself, though I do notice when an author is able to grab me with a more distance POV. I'm always impressed by the skill.

    If it works, it works, is a cliche, but it's true :)

  9. There is one moment in my first novel where I break the tight POV, but so far my editor hasn't asked me to change it.

    If I have to, I'll just re-write the scene so my protagonist can definitely see what's happening.

  10. I'm with Terry Odell, deep and tight sounds good, actually.

    When you finish reading you remember the character because you actually know them.

    I believe you should make your writing memorable.