Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Understanding character and tight third person POV

My mate Jim, another writer, made a really interesting observation when he listened to the sample chapter of the GOING GREY audiobook. Like me, he doesn't normally buy audiobooks, but he was struck by how clear the change of character point-of-view was. He said that he'd be interested to know if audiobook listeners find it easier to understand tight third person POV than book readers; the POV changes can be very striking if the narrator can do radically different voices, as Euan Morton can.

If you read my stuff, you'll be familiar with very tight third person POV. It's third person, but so tightly confined to each character's observations, view, experience of the world, and even linguistic style that it's more like a constantly changing first person perspective, i.e. it's highly subjective and the focus is narrow, confined to only what the character knows, sees, or feels. I flag that up like a shovel to the face in every scene, via the POV character's attitudes, dialogue and thoughts. There's no "neutral" narrative between the dialogue lines. The whole scene is their thoughts and words, written in their style and language. And as the characters switch, so does the style.

Many writers do multiple third, and some do very tight third, but I do multiple very tight third with large casts of characters, as many as eight, and that means the reader has to do a bit of work hopping from head to head with each scene, seeing from behind each character's eyes. No two characters see the same situation the same way. They're like real people. We don't agree. We can witness an event and come away with radically different memories of what happened and totally different opinions on whether it was a good thing or not.

So there are no helicopter views in my books and no authorial voice. I don't have one. I only see what the characters see, and after 25 novels, I've refined that to an automatic method I don't even have to think about while I write. I just switch it on and off. If I ever need to step outside the POV characters' knowledge, then I have to use epigraphs. They're worth their weight in gold if you do tight third. They can also add a kind of punctuation to the plot.

That's my main selling point, though: creating three-dimensional characters. The story is how differently characters see the situation, and how differently that makes them react to it and to each other. Most readers understand that they're inside someone else's head, scene by scene. Some don't get it, though, and look for a common authorial POV throughout. Actually, some people don't get third person POV at all, let alone tight third or multiple POVs. Jim and I spend a fair bit of time discussing why some people don't understand that it's the characters talking and thinking, not the writer, and that not all the characters agree on reality.

I have no evidence beyond observation of unscientifically tiny samples (the proportion of readers who don't get third person POV and who also mail me) and trying to roll back from the end result, i.e. the misunderstanding. This is just my rationalisation. I think some of it might be how people have been taught, and some might be their own psychology.

Just so we're clear, this is how I write characters. The purpose of writing for me is exploration, being in someone else's mind and seeing the world their way for a little while. My character aren't people I know and they're not me or anything like me. I don't need a soapbox, because I used to be a journo, and I have quite an audience, so if I had a message to give you I've got lots of other avenues to do that anyway, not least of which is social media. So characters for me are a step into the unknown – not necessarily fun, but always educational. And then I step out of them and go back to being me, albeit altered a little by the perspective of a stranger. Once or twice, I've been altered a lot by seeing a situation from a character's perspective, and been turned around 180 degrees on an ethical issue. That's unsettling. But either way, the books write me. It really is like being exposed to real people who tell you things that don't fit your own worldview at all.

Why do some readers struggle with the concept of characters having – literally – a point of view? Well, there are people who can't imagine that others don't think the same way that they do, and I mean can't, not that they're self-centred. They really struggle to imagine how someone else would feel. I'm not sure how much of that is hard-wired and how much is down to their environment in infancy and early childhood, but some people just aren't able to think that way.

Then there's poor teaching. Sorry to mention that again, but English literature is frequently taught by people who've never written in earnest and don't understand how writers work. It's much more pragmatic and dull than they think. There's also the artificiality of having to produce an analysis that will satisfy an exam board, and it's the vexed question of "what the writer means." Only the writer knows that. It's one thing to say, "When I read this book, this was what it meant to me." It's quite another, as I've said in the previous blog, to claim you can ever know what a writer intended and indulge in teach-yourself-psychology about a complete stranger. I get mail from readers asking me who the good guys are in my books because they can't tell who's right. I reply that I have no idea – the reader has to make up his own mind about people, just as we do in real life. We all believe different people. We don't universally agree who's right and who's wrong. If we did, the history of the world would have been very different and lot less eventful. When I get that kind of mail, it looks to me like the product of bad teaching. The reader's very aware that he's seeing the viewpoints of different characters, not an author's, but he's been taught to look for a "message" and a "right answer" placed in the book by the author, and he can't find either.

That's because there aren't any. Really, there aren't. The clue is in the weight of the multiple POVs. They all have a valid point to make. It is, in a sense, what I was taught to do many years ago: balanced reporting. I recall an editor telling me they felt "seduced by sin" because they found one of my characters sympathetic even though the character's views repelled them in real life. All I was doing was portraying a person who thought that way. Nobody thinks they're a monster, and one man's monster is another's saint anyway.

The nearest I have to a message is a stated aim to tell the truth in fiction. Theme isn't message, by the way. Theme is the reference point you use to make sure your book isn't rambling all over the place. (Although, if you've got the characters clear in your head, it shouldn't.) It's your checkpoint. Sometimes you start with a theme and stick to it: sometimes it changes because the characters go in a direction you'd hadn't seen coming; and sometimes you only find the theme when you're well into the book and it emerges by itself, but it's still only the "vibe" – not a manifesto, unless you decide to make it into one.

I accept that a lot of lit fiction does set out with some kind of message, and is often the author's viewpoint through the filter of a story. There's the much-derided stereotyped novel of the English professor or starving writer embarking on self-discovery. Personally, I'd poke my eyes out with a rusty nail rather than read that, let alone have to spend months writing it. I want something different from my existence, a radical change of scenery and something that might even change my mind about the world, a bit like travel. I don't want to know how it ends when I begin, even if I need to start with a rough idea simply to decide on an initial direction before the characters take over the wheel. In some ways, I'm more like the reader than the writer; I want to be amazed. And, of course, I also write because I bloody well need to eat and keep a roof over my head. It's what I do best, and as I get older, it's possibly the only thing I'll be able to do to earn a living.

So if you read a book and you think it's full of all kinds of viewpoints, some of which strike a chord with you and some of which make you want to boo and hiss the character, then you're probably right. It's the clamour of different voices. There's no right answer or hidden message. The sound of approaching hoofbeats, as they say, is far more likely to be a horse than a zebra. (Unless you're in certain parts of Africa, of course, but I digress.) Or maybe a cigar really is a cigar. I'm sure we could work up a book of analogies on that.

Anyway, back to the original point that Jim raised to start all this discussion. If multiple third person POVs, tight or otherwise, are something you sometimes struggle to distinguish from a central authorial voice, either as a reader or as a writer, it might be useful to listen to a book in audio after reading it and see if it changes how you think. If you do try this, let me know how you get on, because Jim and I are genuinely curious about the differences in perception – whether they're ingrained or the product of the medium.