Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Points of view

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.
Anne G


Don said...

Hi again Anne:

I am now on my second novel and am drawn naturally to write in first person. It does have a more immdediate-scene effect. It is not good form to change POV within a scene and I have to say I avoid this, again quite naturally.
You can get over some of the difficulties of first person by switching to third person POV for all other charachters. Use only the first for a single protagonist character. I use a new chapter to signal the change, same as almost everyone else does.
Many writers are afraid of switching from first to third (even in fresh chapters) and feal safer with third person all the way. You are on the right track, take a chance, be adventeruos and get it down.
Hope this is encouraging. Oh, and Neanderthals would not have had much time for the Mummy and Daddy thing, for reasons I pointed out in my previous comment.
Neanderthal children were far more precocious than us, having massively muscular skeletons at age eight. so I beleive they would also have been sexually precocious as well, they probably bred at about that age. Remember their life spans were about half ours. And this is a species characteristic not through happenstance in their environment.
Hmm, are they looking a bit different to us now? Odf course you can ignore all this, and I would certainly ingnor some of it (like the hair) for the sake of reader empathy and the good of the story. "Don't let the truth stand in the way of a good story."

Cheers, Don

Anne Gilbert said...


Well, one of my novels that is waiting until I finish the "medieval" stuff, is written entirely in the first person. This is because it's from the POV of a fifteen year old girl. And yeah, she's a fifteen year old Neandertal girl. It felt more like the way a teenager would experience their life, to write in the first person. But it's a hard POV, because writers often want to switch to other POV's. I deliberately veered away from this, because I don't think it fits the story.

You claim that Neandertal children were "far more precocious" than "modern" ones. I know about the study from which these conclusions have been drawn, and like everything else surrounding Neandertals, it has been challenged. IIRC, it concerned growth rings in teeth. The assumption was that(and I can't remember all the details), the number of rings, or their spacing, or some such thing, corresponded to yearly growth rates or rates of eruption. The only trouble with that is, other studies have suggested they don't, since some "modern" humans have similar teeth growth patterns. It does suggest a certain amount of "distinctiveness", though, for that group of people, e.g. Neandertals. But whether this "distinctiveness" amounts to a "species" difference or not, is a question people are still arguing over. And you'll just have to accept that they are.
Anne G