I've been having some rather interesting conversations with some writers on Yahoo's Historical Novel Society's e-mail list. They're all writers or trying to write something. They discuss books they've read, quite a bit. Lately, though, they've been discussing point of view.
Point of view is, shall we say, a kind of funny thing. If you're writing fiction, there are, theoretically, lots of ways to tell a story and introduce characters. Usually, the most "pain free" way of writing a book, at least for a writer who is "learning the ropes", is, when you have a number of characters, have one or two main characters, and have one POV per scene or chapter. It is also usually easiest to write in third person.
For many readers --- and I think most writers must keep their audience or potential audience in mind --- this way of writing is also easiest to follow. This seems to be the consensus of the people in the Historical Novel Society's list. Generally, I agree with them. However, several things have come up during the course of these discussions, which, I must add, have been very useful to me. One of them is that readers may feel "disconcerted" if you switch a POV in the middle of a scene. I was a reader long before I was a writer, and I can't say I ever noticed this, if the writing was good. On the other hand, I can see why this would disconcert a reader, if they've gotten used to "perceiving" their surroundings through the eyes and emotions of the character the writer started out with. As I say, I never noticed these things. Nevertheless, I don't do it, unless I've gotten distracted or confused. And then, the second draft, I "fix" it. That's what drafts are for.
Things get more complicated when a writer goes through the process of deciding what POV to use. Different ways of telling a story may require different "voices" and tenses. For example, I have a story that I've put aside for now, while I'm writing my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals. It's also a Great Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals, but it takes place in the near future, not in the past. And the principal character is a teenage Neandertal girl, living in a former timber town in Western Washington, that has sort of "yuppified" Needless to say, you will not find this town anywhere on the map in Western Washington. Be that as it may, I decided to write it in first person. After all, the focus is a girl who starts out nearly fifteen, and goes on for a year with some horrific things happening in this fictional town, till she's nearly sixteen. Writing in first person is far more difficult than one might think, because the writer is forced to stick to that one person's viewpoint. Unless, of course, you have two narrators and the narration switches between them. I don't think I've ever seen this done, but that doesn't mean it never has been. That would probably not seem intrusive.
But opinion on that list seems to be divided on some other issues. For example, some of the writers on the list, and a number I know, including me, will not read anything written in present tense. For me, at least most of the time, it just doesn't seem necessary. But I keep coming across more and more books that are written this way. And I wonder why? This includes some historical novels, and in historicals, I really don't think this is necessary. I can see a use for it if you're writing something very contemporary, particularly if it s "gritty" or kind of "sad" or dramatic. The immediacy, the "you are there" quality conveyed that way might just work. After all, a lot of people seem to be used to this "reportage" style from watching TV news. And some of these works are aimed at "young adults".
But if you're just telling a story, what is the point of getting "arty" about it? Because this is what writing in first person, in, say, a historical novel, is doing. And I don't think it suits such a form very well. But in my recent conversations with the e-mail list, opinion is divided on this. Some of the writers really like it in some works, though, interestingly, most of them won't use present tense themselves. I certainly won't, even in a "contemporary" or "near future" book. I just don't much like the "feel" of present tense writing, and I think you have to be an awfully good writer to get away with this.
On the other hand, considering that one out of four people in the US, according to a recent survey, didn't bother to read any books at all last year, perahps one shouldn't rant and rave. At least people who are reading books in the present tense are actually reading. And at least they know what they can tolerate. I think writers should, on the whole, be grateful for this. Because I, for one, just can't imagine a life without at least some books. And there are a lot of people "out there" who can. So if someone doesn't mind a book by some author, written in the present tense, perhaps I should just cheer. Because I can always hope that they will like mine.