Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Too Subtle


Writing a thriller with dual protagonists (in my case, Tobie and Jax) presents several difficulties, many of which fall under the general heading of “point of view.”

For those of you unfamiliar with the writers’ expression “point of view” or POV, it simply refers to whose head we’re in. In other words, are we as readers experiencing the action from Tobie’s perspective or from Jax’s perspective? If we’re in Tobie’s perspective, we see what she sees, hear what she hears, and know what she’s thinking and feeling. She can only guess what’s going on in Jax’s head.

Writing is all about choices. And one of the reasons POV is troublesome when you have two equal heroes is because the writer has to decide, Okay, whose POV am I going to write this scene from? In some cases the choice is obvious. At other times, less so. And how do you remind readers whose POV they’re in—particularly in a fast-paced book without a lot of introspection?

I always have some sort of clue at the beginning of each scene to let readers know whose POV we're in. But because of the nature of the books, those clues are often very subtle. So I also decided from the very first book that Tobie would think of herself as “Tobie” while Jax thinks of her as “October.”

Ironically, I never told my coauthor, Steve, I was doing this—I just assumed he’d noticed. I mean, he’s read each of these books over and over again, right? Well, I came right out yesterday and asked him if he’d realized that Jax always thinks of Tobie as “October” so that it’s one way to tell who is the POV character in any given scene. He stared at me blankly and said, “Really? I never noticed.”

So now I’m thinking, if Steve hasn’t noticed, I doubt anyone else has, either. Although I’d like to think maybe readers notice subconsciously.

No? Oh, well; at least it serves to remind ME whose head I’m supposed to be in.


Charles Gramlich said...

That's interesting. I sort of doubt I would have noticed either, but you should ask some of your female readers. They might have a different perspective. I've made some mistakes in POV and have 'one' mixed POV chapter in the book I'm working on. I've tried and tried to take out the mix, which I don't like, but I so far haven't figured out how to tell the scene without the mix and get in all the needed info

Misti said...

I just finished The Soloman Effect last night (it was great!) and I did notice that Jax always calls her October. That's as far as my thought process went though. :)
I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.

cs harris said...

Charles, it's funny you'd think that a female reader would be more likely to notice. Is this a professional hypothesis? And as for mixed POV, I don't like it in general, but I'm also a firm believer in the mantra that the demands of the story trump form.

Misti, ha! You did notice! And I'm glad to hear you're enjoying the series.

Steve Malley said...

The literary equivalent of not noticing you changed your hair... bad Steve. :)

I'm guessing you also do enough other things with language choice, kinds of details observed, etc. to make the head-jumps clear.

cs harris said...

Steve, you nailed it! And yes, I think there are generally other clues, but in scenes where it's mainly straight-forward dialogue, it can be hard.

orannia said...

Very interesting. I'm part way through reading Sarah Monette's Doctrine of Labyrinths series (fantasy) and the first person POV switches between characters. There is always a character name heading before each switch, but it's very easy to tell which character's POV you're reading from...and it's all down to language..not just what words they use but the construction of sentences.

I can't imagine how hard it is to write from different POV in the same book!

cs harris said...

Orannia, I've always found alternating first person POV very disconcerting, so if Sarah Monette pulls it off, that's impressive.