I'm excited to share a guest post by fellow author living in Israel/writing in English, Miryam Sivan. Today she shares her instructive experience on what is a struggle for many writers: how to choose the ideal point of view for your novel. Stay tuned for an interview with Miryam this summer.
The Many Shades of Point of View
My recently published novel, Make it Concrete, went through many revisions over the years. From breaking the plot into smaller more manageable sections of large chapters, to transforming narrated information into 'live action' scenes with movement, emotion, and dialogue, to a fascinating interesting and impacting revision that involved my protagonist and her point of view.
The novel was originally written in the third person subjective, or limited, point of view. Meaning, even though the main character was identified by her name and was referred to throughout as 'she,' the story clearly reflected her vision of the world. The 'camera' through whose lens the world was seen was hers. Third person subjective point of view is enormously common in contemporary literature since the Modernists shifted emphasis from a higher author/ity or omniscient view of humans at play to a closer more intimate grasp of how an individual navigated her way through life. Thoughts, emotions, and uncertainties (call it consciousness) were emphasized. What confuses writers sometimes (and not readers by the way, who hopefully get swept up in the story and into the mind(s) of the primary and secondary characters) is using the third person to reflect intimacy and characters' interior worlds. But it does and can. Example:
Isabel's eyes swept the landscape in what Alon, her ex, mockingly
referred to as her preemptive surveillance. He didn't understand that
it was reflexive, that she couldn't help it, even now at a community
event, in this stunning natural venue, during a relatively quiet
Clearly Isabel's take on the world. What her eyes see, what her mind thinks, it's her ex, her history, her internal pressures. And so this point of view remained as I worked through the many revisions I mentioned above, and others as well. I added and took out scenes. I changed Isabel's preoccupation with the building material concrete, shifting intense involvement with construction to her lover, keeping her free just to focus on ghostwriting Holocaust memoirs. But still something in the story and its telling felt off, and so I decided to do something radical in order to see how it might transform the text. This was an instinctive decision based on a sense of adventure and curiosity. Though the novel had already had a number of readers, this change had never come up.
What I did was embark on a comprehensive revision thst involved point of view. I went through the entire manuscript and changed every sentence, every scene, emotion and thought, from third person subjective to first person (obviously subjective). The metamorphosis was immediate and electrifying. Isabel jumped off the page and suddenly all the complicated emotions I was putting her through were readily available, tangible, which meant I could actually put words to them. It was as if a trap door had sprung open and a whole dimension of emotional content came streaming out. Unbeknownst to me, the third person voice created distance between me and Isabel while the first person allowed me to move into her consciousness more intimately and get down on the page what she was experiencing with greater immediacy and potency.
It was funny that this should happen to me – a writer writing about a ghostwriter – when my character the ghostwriter used the first person subjective to ghost her clients' books. I should have learned from her! In fact there is a section of the novel where Isabel thinks about this and the importance and difficulty of entering 'the skin' of the people she writes for, concerned as she was to write authentically and as close to their voices as possible: "Over the years Isabel constructed a space inside herself of attuned neutrality, a default empathy, from which she embarked on book after book." And as the ghostwriter constructed this space inside of herself to assume the first person voice bespeaking the horrors and savagery of the Shoah, so too did I widen the space inside of me that allowed Isabel and her voice more room.
What happened as a result was quite amazing. Isabel's lines became punchier, her emotions more raw, suddenly all pretense of emotional control was gone allowing me – her creator/witness – and subsequently readers, to 'feel' more intensely the pain, passion, and numerous complications of her life. Suddenly in the opening scene, Isabel doesn't just 'think' about her obsession and relentless fear of Nazis and history repeating itself, she experiences this fear viscerally, in her body, which then translates into action (the first quote above about visual surveillance of the park she finds herself in). Many other scenes went through a similar metamorphosis where I was able to touch Isabel's emotions and not just observe them. A series of very big wow moments arrived as I went through the technical work of changing 'she' and 'Isabel' to 'I' and with it many torrents of expression.
I was very pleased with this change but it wasn't the end of the story for the book. When my publisher read the revision, she (who had known the novel in a much earlier version) said many of the changes were excellent but she preferred the third person subjective narration. What to do! I took the entire first chapter and changed it to third person subjective and we read both versions – the first person and third person – and I came to the comforting conclusion that Isabel's story could be presented to the world in the third person (back to its original conception) but only because the first person 'exercise' had transformed the voice. Once done, the narrative did not have to remain in the first person. I changed all the pronouns back to 'she' and 'Isabel' and this did not detract one iota from the intensity of emotion and action that had been captured on the page.
I learned valuable lessons. One, to be free with the text to play and experiment. Two, to watch myself as a writer experience my character through this. Three, to seek greater emotional authenticity and focus. Four, to not be afraid to make more changes once big changes are implemented. Five, to trust a reader who deeply understands and loves the book.
Yes! Glad you shared this. I had a similar experience of switching to first person, finding it enlivened the story, and ultimately changing it back to third, enriched
I am in the process of writing my first novel and have considered third- versus first-person POV many times. Unfortunately I'm not a linear thinker, or writer. The process for me is much like assembling a jigsaw puzzle with many pieces -- a section here, a few pieces there, the edges -- trusting it will all come together in the end.
That being said, if I want to experiment with changing the POV, should I wait until the entire novel is completely finished before I go back through, or can I achieve the same results chapter by chapter or even scene by scene?
I do not think you need to wait until the entire book is done. I think you could already experiment/play with point of view with the first 50 or so pages. I think that will give you a good enough idea. This will save you quite a bit of work later on. If though, this amount of pages does not provide a strong enough answer of which way to go, continue writing and try again maybe after another 50 pages.
Good luck and enjoy the process!