Last week I wrote a post on how to make sure your point of view is consistent and thus avoid confusing your readers with “head-hopping” (ie changing point of view too randomly within a scene).
I showed the mechanics of handling point of view in the third person, but there’s more to changing point of view than just the mechanics I outlined last week. If you really want your reader to get inside your character’s head, there’s a subtle way to go about it, and that’s by writing each character’s viewpoint as though you are that character. That is, by using words and phrases that your POV character would use, and by giving that character an individual voice. If each of your characters has an individual voice, when you change point of view it will be obvious. The reader won’t be checking back, asking herself, “Eh? Who’s speaking now?”
Think of any books you’ve read where the main character has a really distinctive voice. Compare the openings of these two novels, for example, which I have rewritten in the third person:
- There was no possibility of taking a walk that day…She was glad of it. She never liked long walks, especiallly on chilly afternoons; dreadful to her was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of her physical inferiority to Eliza, John and Georgiana Reed.
- It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. He was wearing his powder blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. He was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and he didn’t care who knew it. He was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. He was calling on four million dollars.
The first is Jane Eyre, and the second is Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. Each character has a clear – and totally different – voice. The words Jane Eyre uses show a character who is introspective, who feels trampled on and defeated: dreadful, saddened, chidings, humbled.
Philip Marlowe’s words show no introspection. His vocabulary is sparse and straight. He’s just setting the scene like it is, with a little ironic in your face He didn’t care who knew it. He’s sure he’s everything a private detective should be, and he’s obviously a much more self-confident character than Jane Eyre.
So, how do you achieve a change of voice in your own writing? Here’s a passage from a contemporary romance novel where the point of view switches between the hero and the heroine, and the language used changes with it. This is from Wedded in a Whirlwind, by Liz Fielding, who is a writer I admire, and who achieves the switch here admirably.
(Just to set the scene: there’s been an earthquake, and the heroine has fallen into a black cave, on top of the hero. As you do.)
‘You’re drunk!’ she exclaimed.
Not likely. Headache notwithstanding, he was, unhappily, thinking far too clearly for it to be aclohol-related, but he didn’t argue. If Dame Disapproval thought he was a drunk she might leave him alone.
‘Not nearly drunk enough,’ he replied, casting around him with a broad sweep of his hand until he connected with what he was thinking clearly enough to recognise as a woman’s breast. It was on the small side but it was firm, encased in lace, and it fitted his palm perfectly.
Alone and in the dark, Manda had thought things couldn’t get any worse until cold fingers fastened around her arm. That had been the realisation of every childhood nightmare, every creepy movie she had watched behind closed fingers and for a blind second her bogeyman-in-the-dark terror had gone right off the scale.
Then he’d spoken…and the knowledge that by some miracle she was not alone, that there was another person in that awful darkness , someone to share the nightmare, to dispel the dark, had been so overwhelming she had almost blubbed with sheer relief.
Thankfully she had managed to restrain herself, since the overwhelming relief appeared to have been a touch premature.
The above passage shows a masterly change in point of view. There’s no difficulty at all in recognising the hero’s voice. He’s sarcastic (Dame Disapproval), sardonic (It was on the small side) and gives a masculine broad sweep of the hand.
As soon as the author switches to the heroine’s POV, we are inside her head. She’s alone and in the dark, ie frightened. She talks of the terror she feels, which isn’t shared by the hero, and talks of ‘blubbing’, which is a self-deprecating and most unmasculine choice of word. The final sentence shows she is courageous and has a nice touch in irony.
Ensuring your characters’ voices are unique is vital if you are going to be alternating points of view. THe best way to do so is to think yourself inside your character’s head, and literally look out on the world from his/her point of view. I find most good authors seem to be naturally empathetic people. If you don’t think this describes you, you can still make it work with practise and with imagination.
It also helps to read how other writers have done the same thing successfully. Here are a few novels which are written in alternating points of view (that is, each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character), in case you want to check them out.
Lord of Scondrels, by Loretta Chase
Noughts and Crosses, by Malorie Blackman
The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins
One Day, by David Nicholl
The Time Traveller’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
You might find reading these books more useful than my attempt at explaining!
Have you read any novels where you thought the author dealt well with alternating points of view? Or any novels where you thought it was badly done? Can you suggest any other novels you’ve enjoyed which are written from alternating points of view? If so, please let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear from you!