Picking a Point of View

I read a lot of writing articles and magazines, which means I hear a lot of the same advice over and over—and also lots of blatantly conflicting advice. Articles about POV (point of view) and voice usually say the same 3 things:

  1. Voice has to be consistent throughout.
  2. The same plot could be completely different depending on the POV character, so choose carefully.
  3. First person (narrating using “I” and “My”—like this blog) is more difficult to pull off successfully than Third person (narrating using “she” and “he”) and therefore is not recommended for beginners.

I agree with this advice, and usually I don’t have too much trouble pinpointing my POV characters and deciding how to narrate. I usually write in 3rd person, but I have finished one book in 1st—of the 2 my roommate has read, it is her favorite, and she is a picky reader.

For my new book, though, so far I am at a loss. My POV character is a teenage girl, Lindsay. My original idea was to tell her mom’s story, but after a revelation I realized it had to be Lindsay’s story. As I’ve developed it further I’ve considered other characters’ versions of the story, but Lindsay’s will definitely be the best.

I know I will be more comfortable writing in 3rd person, but I’m not sure if that will be the best perspective in this case. For one thing, almost every young adult book, which is what this will be, is in 1st person. Teenagers probably like to feel like they are the character but are living a completely different life. First person, though, especially with a teen character, can easily sound whiny and complaining, and not many 1st person narrators are likable or endearing.

I want readers to really connect with Lindsay and to care about her quest, so I think when I start writing the story I will use 1st person. I like to challenge myself, and I want to see if I can pull off Lindsay the way she deserves.

What do you think? Do you prefer reading books in 1st or 3rd person—and if you can, give examples of your favorites!

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Am I Likable? (Part 2 of 2)

Last time I made some conclusions about what make a young adult character likeable, and which kinds of characters (boys) are easier to make likable than others (girls). I thought I’d give some examples of books I’ve read that have brought me to these conclusions. As I read more, my opinion is liable to change, and if I remember I’ll keep this post updated accordingly.

Amendment (7/10/2010): I found a female narrator I love! (see list)

  • My favorite character so far: Bea Szabo from How to Say Goodbye in Robot (1st person, female protagonist)
  • Male I like best: Colm Drucker from In the Space Left Behind by Joan Ackermann (3rd person, male protagonist)
  • Favorite sidekick: Jonah Tate from How to Say Goodbye in Robot
  • Excellent first person (classics): Holden from Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, and Alex from A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

I don’t feel likability is necessarily the most important trait on a character—after all, there are tons of types of characters, and not all of them are going to be easily likable, but a reader does need to feel some connection to your star to keep turning pages.

In my new book I’m putting some effort into making my main character, Lindsay, someone to care about. I honestly don’t know what she’ll turn out to be like, though I have a long list of the traits, characterizations, and history that makes her up. I don’t even know what point of view I’ll use to tell the story, but I like Lindsay; I just have to make my feelings for her come through on paper.

I also created a new character this week—a boy, Jax, who will help Lindsay out with her “quest.” I really like him and am excited to write about him. I’ll probably try writing some from his point of view here in the future.

Am I Likable? (Part 1 of 2)

Experts who write how-to’s for writers frequently state that a writer needs to have a realistic but likable main character. Even if your star is a serial killer, you have to give him something—like having him selflessly rescue a puppy—for readers to latch onto. It makes sense—what I’ve learned, though, is that we all like different kinds of people. If we didn’t there’d be some people who would never have friends or get married.

An editor told me a while back that the main characters in my book, The Partial Garden, are profoundly unlikable. After spending a day frustrated, confused, and depressed, my roommate helped snap me out of it by reminding me that she and I never like the same characters on our TV shows. She likes women with an attitude who often make bad choices in men—like Charlotte (Kaydee Strickland) in Private Practice—and I have always gravitated toward the weird, quirky, and villainous—right now Dr. Joe Briggs (James Van Der Beek) in Mercy is really winning me over. So there’s most likely someone else out there who will love my characters just the way they are.

For my newest book-in-progress I’ve been reading a lot of teen/young adult novels, which has been extremely enjoyable. From the few I’ve read so far I’ve made some observations (sweeping generalizations) about likability.

  • Boys seem easier to make likable than girls. It seems to me that you just have to make a boy nice or compassionate instead of a jerk, and you’ve done it, but with girls you have to strike a balance between being so nice she looks weak to so strong she’s painful to have to listen to. My perspective on this is most likely skewed, though, because I am female, and the teenage girl inside of me easily forms a crush on those kind yet mysterious boys.
  • Sidekicks are often more likeable than main characters. On the male side of this issue I’ve seen some very likable love interests for female narrators who only managed to win me over toward the end of their books. There were a couple of stories I stayed invested in only to read about and “see” that male sidekick more. I’ve also read some books with male main characters who came off whiny at times and selfish—maybe I heard too many of their thoughts and opinions. Let’s face it, would any real person be likable if we could hear all of their thoughts all of the time?
  • First person narrators are less likable than third person narrators. I’m still investigating this idea. My favorite main character from my research was in a third person book, and many I’ve read in first person take me a while to get into, but first person is harder to pull off effectively to begin with, and there are books like Catcher in the Rye, and A Clockwork Orange with narrators I adore (that second one probably screams to my demented taste in characters). I intend to research this idea further on my next library trip.

What’s the Book About? …The Hollywood Effect

Lately, I’ve been sending queries to agents for my manuscript The Hollywood Effect. It is my best work so far, in my opinion, but has a special feature that can make it a risky sell, which I’ll explain later.

I could submit straight to publishers instead of agents, but a lot of publishers won’t even consider your work without an agent (though there are a lot of agents who won’t consider you if you haven’t been published before). Agents also help you get the best deals and do tricky and unpleasant negotiations for you. So for now I’m trying the agent route.

Here is the actual summary of my book that is in my query letter to agents.* Don’t worry—there aren’t any spoilers; you need to leave agents wanting more so they’ll request some pages to read—or even better, the full manuscript.

Some people in the movie business have suggested to Valerie Ipsum that she is Hollywood’s newest rising star. Valerie hopes they are wrong.

She’d tried out for a small film just for fun and ended up getting the leading role despite having no acting experience. Gwen, her character, is a selfish, promiscuous, and destructive socialite whose only joy is making her husband miserable, and for the role Valerie engaged in profuse swearing, mental breakdowns and even nudity. At the time it had seemed right for the character, but now she is mortified that people will see her like that in theaters.

Instead of embracing the fame that trickles her way, she does all she can to avoid it. Her new boyfriend, the movie’s director, encourages her to do what’s right for her and not let Hollywood change her, but the more she resists attention the less like Valerie she is and the more she behaves like the last person in the world she wants to mimic—her own character, Gwen.

Then a celebrity-obsessed stalker endangers Valerie and her young brother, making her more afraid than ever of being in the spotlight. Just like Gwen, Valerie finds herself isolated from everyone she loves, and following her character’s path could easily lead Valerie toward tragedy.

The special feature I’ve mentioned earlier is that the full screenplay of Valerie’s movie appears throughout the book. I do it to compare Valerie to Gwen, but I like the screenplay’s story just as much as the narrative. I wrote the screenplay in traditional format but made it readable (no direction notes or jargon), so hopefully it’s entertaining and doesn’t have to be seen on an actual movie screen to be enjoyed.

I thought at some point I’d make a short play about Gwen and Sam—the screenplay’s two main characters—in the same style and put it up here. I have notes written for it, but I just haven’t gotten around to writing it yet.

*Summary was updated March 13, 2010 to reflect the edits made to my query letter.