Saturday, August 21, 2010

Viewpoint, Voice and Setting

Point of view is a sticky subject for most writers.  It's hard enough to stay consistently in one point of view while writing that story which is dear to your heart, but even harder to keep the narrative voice appropriate to the POV character and still describe the setting enough to create a vivid experience for your readers.

It's particularly difficult in fantasy, because as the author I want to describe so many things for my reader... all that Really Cool Stuff I've invented.  But I can't spend time describing anything except what the point-of-view character would be likely to notice, given their state of mind at the time.  No matter how important I, the author, think it might be, if it's not out of the ordinary to the POV character they won't notice it.

For example, I may want to describe his boots or his clothing, but it would be out of character for me to have him go into a detailed description of his own appearance.  Unless he has a hole in his boot or needs to buy new clothes, he wouldn't think about them. And unless it advances the plot, any extra time I spent describing them would be both misleading and distracting.  The same goes for buildings, dishes, interior decorating, etc.

Tudor room in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

If he does notice something, he can only describe in terms a manly sort of guy would use. He isn't going to say that the heroine's dress was made of "jade-colored satin."  He would say it was "green and shiny."  Not quite the effect I was going for.

The obvious way around this is to use an omniscient narrator. But omniscient is frowned upon in most writing circles as being old-fashioned and distant.

So what's a writer to do?


  1. I've run into this same thing. When I post an excerpt from my novel I get so many comments from people saying, "I think you need to expand on this or show some detail of that", but close 3rd doesn't work that way. I can only show what the character is truly seeing or thinking. I just muddle through the best I can.

  2. I'm reading George RR Martin's "Game of Thrones." and he does it well, desribing clothes after a couple lines of dialogue, or describine setting through a POV"s vivid memory.

  3. I agree with Will that memory idea might work, you could also try to do it with metaphors and similes. ex: "The dress was green and shiny like the mossy river in late July" I know its not exactly like what you thought about- but the idea is there, he can still express the coloring to get the point across, he just has to associate it with something, we all do it, if we see a color we recognize we associate it, maybe briefly, but we do it.

  4. This is why, in fantasy and sometimes other genres, I don't always like the single, limited POV. I know it's preferred right now and some readers don't like dealing with more than one viewpoint, but for many fantasy novels, especially epic fantasy there is a broader scope than just what the one main character sees. Since that's what I liked to read, I'm having a hard time keeping in the one POV mode for some of my books but I guess that's what editing is for... I'll fix those unless I think the novel is better with having the unlimited (or not as strictly limited) approach.

  5. Dawn, I am using two point-of-view characters because they each see some of the action, and each have individual story lines.

  6. This is definitely tricky. I think the trick is to pick out only a few details and somehow work those into the POV's thoughts. You cannot possibly describe an entire room but perhaps mentioning the excess gilding or marble on a fireplace and a clock (for a standard high fantasy) will give the reader the idea of wealth.

    Perhaps a man might not be able to name the exact color/material of a woman's dress but he would notice if it was silk (or wool etc) or if she was wearing jewels etc so you could pick out those details from a man's POV. Historically some things men might not notice today would be noticed in a more fantasy like setting since they marked rank, for instance certain colors, materials were reserved for nobility and high-ranking merchants especially if the dyes were scarce and/or expensive say for purple or reds.

  7. Having recently published my first novel, I dealt with this issue like Christine, using two POV characters to tell the story in third. My MC is a woman, and the other POV is a man, so readers get a look at the scene through both views. Each character contributes to the setting in their own way, noticing different details so the reader gets all the info they need without slowing down pace with repetition. A woman might notice the feel of the silk dress against her bare skin and the rustle of it as she moves, but a man would notice the way it highlights her green eyes or enhances her hips and heaving bosom ;-) Another example: A woman might watch the approaching storm clouds with apprehension as she has clothes drying on the line, but a man might view those same clouds with relief, as the crops are in dire need of rain. You get the picture.


I apologize for the word verification. I hate it, but the spammers made me do it.