I’m super excited to be back with another podcast. In this one, I chat about why I write in deep third point of view and how I choose characters for each scene. I hope you enjoy it!
Links mentioned in this one:
A Study of Ash & Smoke purchase links: https://yolandiehorak.com/books/a-study-of-ash-smoke
A Trial of Sparks & Kindling purchase links: https://yolandiehorak.com/books/a-trial-of-sparks-kindling
Blog posts about deep point of view:
If you’d prefer to read this post:
Hello, and welcome to Book Talk with Yolandie.
This is the place where we’ll chat about my books, discuss my writing process, and many other bookish topics.
Hello again, everyone.
Today I want to talk about point of view, simply because I get asked about it so often. Why I write in third point of view, what makes deep third pov special, and how I choose the viewpoint character for every scene.
Let’s answer some questions, shall we?
I write in third point of view, and specifically a deep third. Or, I mean, I try really hard. But I think it’s best to start this discussion with a quick explanation of what deep and shallow points of view are.
For me, the goal is to immerse a reader into the story as thoroughly as possible. For this, I need to remove my voice, and help the reader experience the story as if they were actually in it, not just reading it. I need to feel like I’m in the story while I write it, too. The more immersed I can get during the writing process, the more likely my readers will have a similar experience.
So, deep points of view use language and style choices to make that possible. We try to use as few as possible filter words, avoid passive sentence constructs (except when they’re intentionally needed to enrich the story), and choose descriptions that pull the reader’s senses into the reading process. I’ve written a post or two about deep point of view, and I’ll link to that in the description, but I’ll just summarise here, too.
Filter words are those words we use to tell readers what the character is thinking, seeing, smelling, etc. These are like, ‘Lance saw the purple Mantle,’ or ‘he heard the Mantle’s drone,’ or ‘he smelled,’ ‘he wondered,’ and ‘he felt,’ among others. If the author has to tell you what the characters are experiencing, that means the author’s voice is loud enough to pull readers out of the story.
If I remove those filter words and sharpen the descriptions instead, I paint a more solid picture of the world, and the reader might just step into it. What I mean is, instead of telling you he saw and heard the Mantle, I could just show you.
I’ll read this passage from A Study of Ash & Smoke as an example.
‘The closer they moved to the churning energy field, the wetter the road became. Mud sloshed under bare feet with every step and splattered onto Lance’s calves in sticky droplets. Hopefully, it was just mud and not shit, but who was he kidding?
The Mantle’s buzzing was a permanent fixture in a slummer’s ear, but the sound became louder as they neared the enormous force field, until the drone was impossible to ignore.
Energy, the physician had said. Three layers of deadly energy. Shades of purple twirled and blended underneath the ever-moving surface, which looked smooth to the touch. This close to the base, Lance’s hairs stood on end with the static.’
Writers of deep points of view want the reader to step inside the story. We want you to be there, to feel the sun, to smell the rain, and to hear the wind through the trees.
And of course this is a tool that can be used in first and third point of view, and probably second, though the only books I’ve ever read in second point of view were those choose your own adventure stuff I loved as a kid.
I’d also just like to mention that some authors intentionally use shallow points of view. If an omniscient narrator is involved, for example, you might want that ‘this is a bard telling a tale’ kind of vibe. Also, omniscient stories generally follow slightly different rules, since the reader is kind of a fly on the wall, too. They have insight into what all the characters are thinking, feeling, and hiding, and I guess it would be a bit overwhelming to experience that in deep point of view.
But I have to be honest, it’s been years since I read a book in an omniscient viewpoint (that wasn’t Lord of the Rings). It feels to me like writing in this style has gone out of fashion, and more people are focussing on the first and third points of view than anything else. At least in the speculative world. If you reckon I’m wrong though, let me know in the comments and give me your recommendations.
On to why I write in third pov. This is totally a personal thing, but I prefer to read books written in third. This doesn’t mean I never read or enjoy books written in a different point of view, there are some of those books that are really fabulous. I just don’t find myself submerging as deeply into those stories.
One of the first adult series I ever read was Mary Stweart’s Merlin trilogy. I was in my teens at the time, and though I adored those books, I just couldn’t put myself in the shoes of the middle-aged, male narrator. And though I’ve been a teenaged girl, I’ve never related to the first person heroines of young adult fiction. I can’t explain why, all I know is that I can imagine myself as a part of the story when it’s told in third pov, but I’ve never been able to do so in other kinds of books.
If I had to guess, I’d say it might be because I can imagine myself as someone else in the story. I’m the NPC hanging around on the edge of the scene. Maybe the maid carrying fresh linen into the duchess’s rooms, or the noble lady spying on everyone to one up them at the next ball. I can be anyone, you know? Just observing the story as it unfolds from a distance, and experiencing the effects of the war or whatever is happening in the story as an involved party.
But I can’t be the actual protagonist, especially not if they’re telling me the story with their own voice.
This still doesn’t explain why I can be a part of third pov worlds and not first pov ones. Maybe there’s a deep psychological reason we could explore in future podcasts? Or maybe it’s just my brain off on its own thing, refusing to make sense. As usual. Also, do let me know how you experience these things! I’d love to know if it’s just me, or if there are more of us out there.
But okay, my preference for writing in third pov isn’t limited to my love of reading it. I’ve written the odd short story in first pov, and even attempted to write a novel that way. But though the writing came easily enough–something thanks to years and years of blogging, I believe–the storytelling turned out to be more complicated than I’d thought.
You see, I love having multiple viewpoint characters. Being able to tell you the story as Cara, Lance, Varda, and all the others is one of the most exciting parts of writing. I love figuring out how one of these characters would come at a problem, or why they react in the ways that they do. I love working out their backstories and motivations, and seeing them come alive on a page as fully fledged people, not just fragments of my imagination. And this is even more fun when they don’t think or believe the same things I do. It’s interesting and challenging, and just generally sparks joy.
We’re used to having large casts in speculative fiction, just as we’re used to having many of those cast members tell us their sides of the story. Common practice gives us about 5 or 6 narrators per book, but I’ve read stories told in third pov with more than ten narrators in a single tale. And I mean, it might not be ideal to have so many storytellers at once, but those stories exist and we tend to accept them for what they are.
In books told from first pov, though, we generally see only one narrator, and if there are two or three, they tend to feature in a chapter-based sequence. Narrator one, two, and three, then one, two, and three, and so on. Again, there are writers who break out of the mould here. I’ve read the odd book with even more first person narrators, but I rarely enjoy them. To me, it feels like sitting in a conversation where people keep interrupting each other. Later, I’m lost, and I don’t know who to listen to. This is even worse when I deeply dislike one of the viewpoints.
Which, again, is strange, because I often dislike third person narrators too, but reading from multiple third viewpoints doesn’t cause so much noise in my head. I told you, it makes no sense.
Anyway. I find writing from only one or two viewpoints stifling. It’s one of those things that causes endless stress and struggle, because I don’t always know how to have the story progress without having a character on the ground showing us how stuff has gone down. Large parts of the story would have to happen off screen, which means I’m stuck finding ways to inform the reader of what has gone down without info dumping on them or straight up telling them. And I mean, showing the reader instead of telling them is one of the main reasons why I write in a deep point of view. Redundant as hell.
And I’ve tried to learn. I’ll keep on learning about first person pov, and hopefully one day manage to write a full length novel in this style. Even if it’s just for me, to practise. But I find deep third storytelling more rewarding. It comes to me more easily.
For example. I’ve written myself into corners before. The scene will be really great, or if it’s not great, it’ll do what it’s supposed to. Show the setting, transfer information to the reader, show character growth, progress the story, whatever. But this scene just doesn’t fit with the rest of the story.
When I just started writing, this meant rewriting the entire novel. Yeah, this is why A Study of Ash & Smoke took like 5 years and 7 drafts to complete. These days, if the scene is good (or could be good) I instinctively rewrite it from a different character’s pov. Nine out of ten times, this solves the problem. It saves me weeks’ worth of work, and often comes with some gems in terms of story continuation. And it makes sense right? Because the character now showing us the scene thinks in a different way from the one we were using as the focal point before, which means fresh perspective and bright solutions to those problems that might pop up.
When it comes to how I choose characters for specific chapters, it’s a bit more complex. Most of the time, my choice comes down to instinct.
For Ash & Smoke, I had 5 viewpoint characters, but I added one for A Trial of Sparks & Kindling, which means there will be 6 going forward. Each character has to feature often enough for the reader to bond with them, but I can also only give the character screen time if they have something to offer in terms of plot progression. So, I work on the basis of having one viewpoint character per chapter, and I try to have each narration cast member feature at least once every ten chapters. The more important their stories become, the more often they’ll feature, while the others will move off stage for a moment.
It’s a juggling game sometimes, because I also have to consider foreshadowing and the initial setup for later events. If a cast member is stuck in one place for a third of the story, like, let’s say someone is in the dungeon beneath the castle, chances are not that much is going to change for them. Except maybe if you’re writing a prison break kind of story. The characters who can move freely will likely progress the story much more than the one who is incarcerated, which means the air quotes ‘camera’ will follow them. But the moment the jailbreak does happen, the camera will return to that character.
So, I try to include a setup chapter for each character, and I pop these early in each novel. This chapter basically exists to remind us how we last saw the character in question, show us their current circumstances, and gives me the opportunity to foreshadow what needs to be foreshadowed. If I can work in an event that will spark character growth, progress the plot, or establish relationships, and so on, great. But if not, the recap and foreshadowing should mean a short chapter that still has worth in the greater scheme of things.
I also use this rule to introduce new cast members. If someone new will narrate parts of the story, it’s extremely important to me to show them to the reader before chapter ten. I don’t know why this is my cutoff, it just is. Ten is a magic number. The viewpoint cast must be established early in the story.
So, this also means you’ll see each of the viewpoints in my novels by chapter ten. That doesn’t mean every new character will be introduced early on in the story, it just means you’ll know who will tell you their stories by then. If a character only serves a purpose in chapter 30, you’ll only see them then. I will try to mention them before then, though, but only if it won’t take away from the story in general.
For example, I mention a few characters in Sparks & Kindling. A lot of them seem to be just names thrown about in conversation, others are established in a bit more detail, but almost all of those characters are formally introduced in Book 3. In fact, some of the cast members featured in Book 3 are already mentioned in passing in Ash & Smoke.
I find that big casts can become seriously confusing, but it’s easier to keep track of characters if I’ve at least read their name somewhere before. I really hope this helps readers of my books, too.
Also, I generally try to have the first name mentioned in any chapter also be the name of the narrator of that chapter. This isn’t always the case in Ash & Smoke, and I know of one chapter where I intentionally didn’t follow this unspoken rule in Sparks & Kindling, but for the most part, you can bank on it. If it says ‘Cara’ at the top of the page, even in dialogue, she’s most likely your narrator.
This silly little rule also makes it really easy for me to scan the document and make sure each cast member is getting enough screen time. Simple, but effective.
And I think that’s about it. I can’t think of anything else to add to this topic, but if you can, comment below and we’ll chat!
Also, I’ll drop some links to my books in the description. If you’re into gritty gaslamp fantasy with strong medical and political flavours, these are the books for you.
Finally, if you like the podcast, consider checking out my Patreon page. For as low as $2 Canadian per month, you’ll receive a bunch of exclusive content, including a bonus podcast episode each month. In August, we chatted about the research resources I use for writing medical and combat scenes. It was a fun one to record. I’ll leave a link to that below.
That’s it from me. Until next time.
Thank you for listening to Book Talk with Yolandie! If you’d like to connect, I’m on Facebook and Instagram, and you can also find me on my website, www.yolandiehorak.com.
The music is River Meditation by Jason Shaw.