Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Point of view: triangulating pronouns, names and description

I just finished writing a scene in close third person limited point of view where I switched from one person's point of view to another's halfway through. I insert a chapter break at that point, but it occurs during a single ongoing event. At a certain point it struck me that this might be an interesting little microcosm to consider for point of view questions. Same room, same four people present for a continuous sequence of events, but at the point where you make the switch, the two different points of view have to feel completely different in spite of their third person pronouns, or there will have been no point in switching points of view at all!

The characters are as follows:

Grobal Garr, 56 years old, powerful member of the Grobal nobility and Speaker of the Cabinet.
Imbati Sorn, 58 years old, Garr's manservant (political assistant, valet and bodyguard).
Grobal Tagret, seventeen years old, Garr's son.
Imbati Aloran, eighteen years old, member of the servant caste interviewing for a position with the family.

The two points of view are the two boys, Tagret and Aloran. How do we distinguish their points of view?

First, by the way they indicate the other people in the room. Sometimes you know by gut feel how they'll do it, but it can't hurt to plan this out if you're feeling unsure. Keep in mind that how people are referred to, including titles, names, etc. depends on their social position, their relative rank, their special identity relative to one another, and the surrounding context. Here's what my characters call the others in the room:

Tagret => Garr
  • "Father" when speaking or when thinking.
  • "Garr" only if he's really mad.
Tagret => Sorn
  • "Sorn" when speaking
  • "Sorn" or "Imbati Sorn" when thinking of him as an individual
  • "Father's Sorn" when thinking of him relative to his father.
Tagret => Aloran
  • "Imbati Aloran" for first reference (the first time he refers to him in a stretch of discourse).
  • "Aloran" for references thereafter, OR
  • "the Imbati boy."
Tagret's references to his father and his father's servant reflect intimate knowledge. His references to Aloran suggest formality but also higher status. He's free to refer to him as Aloran even though they don't know each other well; he can also refer to his caste affiliation (his caste name).

In Aloran's point of view, things are very different.

Aloran => Garr
  • "sir" when speaking.
  • "Grobal Garr" when thinking, for first reference or thereafter, OR
  • "the Master."
  • in reference following a focus on Tagret: "his father."
Aloran => Sorn
  • "sir" when speaking privately with no Grobal caste members present.
  • in Garr and Tagret's presence, he doesn't speak or refer to Sorn at all.
  • "Garr's Sorn" when thinking, for first reference.
  • "Sorn" for references thereafter, OR
  • "the senior servant."
Aloran => Tagret
  • "young sir" when speaking.
  • "Grobal Tagret," when thinking, for first reference or thereafter, OR
  • "the young Master" OR
  • "the Grobal boy."
  • in reference following a focus on Garr, "his son."
Aloran's use of terms reflects both his lower status and his status as an outsider. He is not socially authorized to utter the names of any of the individuals in the room, and he must think of them formally. He is permitted to think of them by full name, or by caste rank (Grobal), by their relationship to each other, or by their status relative to the Household he is attempting to enter (Master/Young Master).

It's interesting to note that neither boy thinks of Garr as the Speaker of the Cabinet. This rank is not relevant to Tagret (obviously) but neither is it relevant to Aloran, who is not trained in politics and is not expected to engage with Garr in his capacity as Speaker but as a member of his Household.

You may notice that I talk about "first reference" here. This is a topic I've wanted to engage with for a while, but I find it tricky to discuss in a meaningful way. I'll do it briefly now. In discourse, and by that I mean stretches of narrative larger than a sentence, we don't use the same terms to refer to people or things every time we mention them. Typically it works something like this:

For objects:
first notice - a table
subsequent reference - it, OR
if some text has gone by and we need to be reminded - the table

For people:
first notice - a person
subsequent reference if gender is known - he/she, OR the person
if we know the person's name, first reference - full name appropriate to status and context
subsequent reference - he/she, OR shortened version of the name appropriate to context, or description of identity relative to social position

You can see that the introduction of the object or person generally includes the most information, and thereafter we relax a bit because we can refer readers back to that information by using pronouns or shortened references. I've seen cases, particularly in beginning writing, where people are not following this pattern, and it tends to be jarring.

Okay, back to differentiating two points of view. There are some other little things you can do to enhance this. When I am in Tagret's point of view, I try to use his name as little as possible (people don't typically think of themselves in third person). Since all three characters are male, however, I do need to use his name quite a bit to differentiate him. When I use it, I try to keep it in subject position rather than object position, so that we get the sense of the character being someone who does things, and to keep it out of anything resembling internalization. Here's an example:

Speechless with disgust, Tagret allowed Father to escort him to the Master bedroom, where Imbati Sorn opened the door to let them in. It didn't matter any more what this was about - the faster he got in, the faster he could get out and go back to Mother.
In his parents' room, daylights shone in the windows, and cast delicate shadows through the sheer curtains of the bed. The chairs from the lounge corner had been pulled out into the room. Between them, with his face expressionless, stood Imbati Aloran.

Then, of course, you also can differentiate by showing the two characters with different mental states and attitudes. Tagret is angry; Aloran is scared and trying to make a good impression. As you can see in the above description of the room, Tagret is in his home territory and knows every object there (note how he uses "the" for everything). He notices only particular conditions of light and furniture placement that might be different from other times he's seen the room. Aloran is not on home territory; he knows little about Garr and less about the lady he's supposed to be interviewing to work for, so he approaches what he sees entirely differently. Here's an example from immediately after the transition:

Aloran fought the urge to tense his arms and shoulders. Distance yourself, the lesson said. [...] The calm mind is observant and prepared.
He forced himself to review what he'd learned from the room. A wide bed with a filmy canopy indicated the Master and Mistress did sleep together, and the brocade curtains on the wall behind it hinted of manservants' doors. The watches atop the rich wooden dresser suggested it was the Master's, while a table of smoked glass set in a delicate gold-plated frame demonstrated the Lady's tastes.
His mind struggled, though, trying to drag his attention back to Grobal Tagret. If only he could be alone with Grobal Garr as before!

Point of view is not just about those pronouns we're always talking about. It's about tuning names as well, and also about putting the character's judgment into the way you treat everything else that is happening. Physical descriptions reflect social position and mental states just as much as internalization or action. In close point of view (whether it be first person or third), the judgment of the character affects everything that person notices or describes. Even actions are not just actions, but that character's interpretation of the action and what it suggests about the other character's motives.

It's something to pay attention to as you switch from one point of view to another.


  1. I want to say something intelligent and well-thought out, etc., but all I can come up with is, "I love this. I love to sit at your virtual feet on your blog and learn. Thank you."

  2. Aw, Megs, you're making me blush. :) It's my pleasure.

  3. This is a very useful reminder.

    I'm busy with a fantasy featuring five main characters. POV belongs predominantly with two characters, but everyone gets a turn.

    They are all completely different and they all think differently. It can be challenging to write like that though, since my style differs a lot.

    I'm glad I found this blog.


  4. Welcome, Misha! Glad I could be of help.

  5. Thank you so much for this post, Juliette! I was pointed here by Janice, and as I'm attempting to write a 2-PoV novels for the first time, this post is incredibly helpful. :)

  6. Welcome, Emy! I'm glad it helped you. You can always ask me questions too, if need be.

  7. Brilliant, actually. Juliette, you do an absolutely awesome job of breaking things down and clarifying them. For me, the takehome item here is,

    the judgment of the character affects everything that person notices or describes

    Yes. And that, as much as anything else, makes the difference between ordinary and great writing. You're a great teacher as well as a great writer.