One of the best ways to tailor your fiction is through point of view. Point of view is defined as the narrator's take on the story being told, but I think of it as similar to aperture in a camera lens.
You can dial the aperture of point of view down all the way to a single unwavering spotlight. In that case, the author only reveals things that the lone point of view character knows or experiences firsthand. Ann Leckie does that in the last volume of her trilogy, Ancillary Mercy. She never strays beyond the first-hand impressions of her main character.
The other end of the spectrum is to widen point of view out all the way and get into everyone’s heads simultaneously, bouncing from one person’s thoughts to the next in the same scene. The key to shifting point of view is to be consistent and in control. If your narration only occasionally slips from one character’s thoughts to another, that looks like an accident. If it takes in all points of view equally, that’s omniscience. Frank Herbert used that to good effect in Dune, but it’s gone out of fashion now. That’s not to say you can’t use that technique, although you may be teased for “head-hopping.”
Usually, authors use a combination of points of view, bouncing the story back and forth between two main characters. Laura Anne Gilman does that in Silver on the Road. Her protagonist is 16-year-old Isobel, but older, wiser Gabriel is able to comment on things about the young woman that she doesn’t see in herself. His voice gives the story depth it would otherwise lack.
Some authors tell the bulk of their stories through a central character, with scenes from other characters interspersed. Dana Fredsti does that in her Plague World series. The story unfolds in the first-person voice of Ashley Parker, a tight point of view character that comments on the action and interprets other characters’ motives, but doesn’t always guess correctly why people do what they do. Dana isn’t misleading the reader; she’s demonstrating that Ashley is as fallible and self-centered as anyone else. Folded into this main story are third-person scenes of the spread of the Walker flu. These interpolations allow Dana to show the virus striking characters that Ashley will never encounter, whether kids in a pub in England or Gothic Lolita girls in Harajuku. The combination of points of view allows the story to feel simultaneously very intimate and global.
In The Dangerous Type, the first book of my space opera trilogy, I went about tailoring the story a different way. I chose to keep the book’s point of view focused tightly on whomever is speaking in each scene, but the point of view character shifts almost every time the scene changes. The text throughout is written in the third-person voice, in the interest of keeping the flow from one point of view to the next fluid. At the same time, each third-person scene is dialed into a single character’s head.
The first chapter is chiefly told from the point of view of one of the secondary characters. Tarik Kavanaugh is the most decent person in this universe. He is the only character with a conscience, which makes him a good grounding for a book filled with rogues and scoundrels. In chapter one, Tarik lays out the recent history of the galaxy, talking about big political events in a small human voice.
Counterpointed against Kavanaugh is the book’s villain, Jonan Thallian. Thallian is a genocidal killer who longs for the glory days of the past. Thallian is an operatic villain like those in the old Hammer Horror movies, so that language he uses – both in dialogue and in the descriptions from his point of view – reflects that.
One of the experiments I did in The Dangerous Type was to play with the points of view of clones. There are two generations of clones in the book: Thallian and his three surviving brothers, then his nine young “sons.” The men are quite dissimilar from each other, because life has scarred them each individually, but the challenge was to differentiate the boys, since they’ve been isolated throughout their childhoods and their life experiences would be very similar. I individualized them by focusing on their interpersonal relationships, the competition between the siblings. The boys are all jockeying for their father’s favor. The secrets they hide define them -- but only the reader gets an overview of that.
When you write, do you find yourself always falling into one particular point of view? Try expanding the voices who tell your story next time. You may learn something new about your characters and your story.
Excerpt from The Dangerous Type:
According to plan, they’d wriggle into the tomb one at a time. Kavanaugh always went first. He was the crew boss, hence the most expendable if they tripped a booby-trap. It was a point of honor for him that he didn’t ask the men to do anything he wouldn’t volunteer for himself. It made him better than Sloane. Besides, Curcovic always joked, Kavanaugh would need the others to figure out how to free him if the slab slipped.
Kavanaugh always had a moment, as he slithered past the edge of a slab, when he feared it would rock back into place and crush him. Or worse, it would rock back after he’d passed it, trapping him inside the tomb. No telling how long it would take someone to die inside one of those graves, how long until the air ran out or dehydration made breathing cease to matter. It wasn’t as if Sloane would feel he had enough invested in the team to rescue anyone. Kavanaugh wouldn’t put it past the boss to decide it was more cost effective to simply hire new men, leaving the originals behind as a warning to be more careful.
Most of the tombs they’d entered had warehoused whole companies of bugs, the dead warriors of a single campaign buried together. Kavanaugh played his light around the inside this cavern but found only a single catafalque, an uncarved slab of obsidian in the rough center of the room. Whoever lay atop it must be important, he thought. Shouldn’t take too long to loot one body. Maybe there would actually be something worth stealing this time.
Kavanaugh peeled off his face shield and lifted the flask, sucking down the last half of its contents as the men converged on the catafalque. His boot knocked something over. When he bent down to retrieve it, he found a human-made electric torch. Damn. Had someone beat them to this one?
“What’s a human girl doing in here?” Taki asked.
“There’s your dancing girl,” Curcovic teased. “Maybe you can wake her with a kiss.”
“ ’Cept for the dust,” Lim commented.
“Well, yeah, ’cept for the dust, Lim. Damn, man, don’t you have any imagination?”
“Just what did you have in mind?” Lim asked skeptically.
“Are you sure she’s human?” Kavanaugh asked as he slipped the flask back inside his coat.
“I think she’s just a kid,” Curcovic added. “No armor. You think she was somebody important’s kid?”
“She’s the best thing I’ve seen on this rock so far,” Taki pointed out. His hand wiped some of the dust from her chest.
Kavanaugh was crossing the uneven floor to join them when a low female voice said clearly, “No.”
Curcovic stumbled backward, dropping his torch and fumbling at the gun at his hip. The corpse sat up, straight-arming her fist into Taki’s face. Stunned, he cracked his head on the stone floor when he went down. He lay still at the foot of the catafalque.
Lim backed away, light trained on the figure rising in the middle of the tomb. It was hard for Kavanaugh to make her out in the unsteady light: a slip of a girl dressed in gray with a cloak of dusty black hair that fell past her knees.
Curcovic finally succeeded in drawing his gun. The girl darted sideways faster than Kavanaugh could follow in the half-light. A red bolt flashed out, blinding in the darkness. Lim collapsed to the floor, cursing Curcovic.
The girl rounded on Curcovic, turning a one-handed cartwheel that left her in range to kick the gun from his hand. She twisted around, nearly too quick to see, and cracked her fist hard into his chest. Curcovic fell as if poleaxed. Lim groaned from the floor, hands clasped over his belly.
None of the men were dead yet, Kavanaugh noticed. She could have killed them as if they’d been standing still, but she’d disabled them instead. He suspected that was because they posed no real threat to her. Maybe she needed them alive. He hoped that was true.
Cold sweat ran into Kavanaugh’s eyes. He held the flask in his gun hand. He’d have to drop it to draw his weapon. If the noise caught her attention, he’d be headed for the ground before his gun barrel cleared his holster.
“We didn’t mean you any harm,” he said gently as he let go of the flask.
Loren Rhoads is the author of The Dangerous Type, Kill By Numbers, and No More Heroes — the In the Wake of the Templars trilogy — all published by Night Shade Books in 2015.
You can find Loren on the web, on Facebook, or on Twitter. The Dangerous Type is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.