Discussion Topic: Character Perspectives / Tenses in Writing

In thinking about Betsy Tobin’s novel Ice Land (register for the free book giveaway), I was curious to know what others prefer in regards to character perspective and tenses in novels. Tobin’s novel is a bit unconvential, told from multiple character persepctives (both first and third person) and all in the present tense. I rarely read novels written in the present tense and wanted to know what other readers thought about using this tense in writing. Do you prefer novels written in the traditional past tense? Do you like authors who experiment with different tenses and perspectives? If you’re a writer, do you experiment yourself with these techinques? Do you prefer novels written in the first person, third person, or multiple third person perspectives? Anne Gilbert and I have been discussing this topic back and forth for the past week, and I wanted others to weigh in on it.

23 thoughts on “Discussion Topic: Character Perspectives / Tenses in Writing”

  1. As a writer, I have stayed with the traditional past tense and my point of view (POV) preference to date is third person limited (i.e. not omniscient). I will change POV, but only at a chapter or scene change. I think omniscient is tricky to do and not come off smoothly and for it not to read like lice on steroids because of the temptation to get into each character’s head every other paragraph.

    As a reader, I have found most writers aren’t skilled enough to write in first person or omniscient or in the present tense. There are of course exceptions, and I do enjoy reading those renditions. Interestingly, I have read and enjoyed well written prose done in the second person.

  2. I wish I could edit or delete my previous entry because I see I badly mangled a sentence. What I meant to write is I find omnscient POV difficult to carry off because I would be too tempted to head hop every other paragraph. It’s something I have to work on as a writer.

  3. Joan, I prefer the third-person, past tense as well. I also prefer that an author change POVs at a natural break (e.g. – new chapter or obvious scene transition). The novels I’ve read that “head hop” in and out of character perspectives / thoughts from paragraph to paragraph are often difficult to follow.

    What books have you read that use the second person?

  4. This may be a bit of a cop-out, but I don’t really care, as long as it’s done well! Head-hopping, like Joan said, is definitely a turn-off for me, though. I want to be able to keep track of whose perspective I’m in. As long as there’s a clear delineation between POV sections, I’m good. I mainly tend to write in third person limited and past tense, though.

  5. I’m not big on present tense. In fact, I’ll usually skip over present tense stories in something like, for ex., F&SF magazine. Maybe I’m too used to the traditional past tense, but I have a hard time getting into present tense books or stories.

    As far as “head hopping”… yeah, that’s annoying and wrong. There should be a logical break in the structure, not just a jump from one paragraph to another from one character’s viewpoint to another. I don’t know if those authors are “pushing the limit” by doing it, or if they just don’t know any better.

  6. Clare, most of my writing is in third-person limited as well. That’s what I prefer.

    Scott or Clare, can you think of an author who is bad about “head hopping?”

  7. Carolivia Herron’s Thereafter Johnnie is written in second person. She’s a brilliant writer, but this is not an easy book to read–more because of the subject matter rather than the execution.

    One nice aspect of second voice is that the author is talking to the reader directly. I think it’s difficult to execute, though.

  8. I expect everyone has their own preferences. For what it’s worth, I like books with several character perspectives. I always want to see more than one side to a conflict, and quite often find secondary characters as interesting as the main protagonist(s). The first-person narratives I’ve enjoyed have usually been narrated by characters who have an interest in the world outside and try to see other people’s point of view.
    I prefer past tense to present tense, on the whole. This may be partly familiarity. I find present tense oddly distancing, as if the character is standing back from their own experience to offer a sort of running commentary. If that makes any sense.

  9. Joan, I agree. It seems very difficult to pull off. I wouldn’t even want to attempt it with my own writing.

    Carla, the present tense can seem distancing. That’s a good way to describe it, I think. Something about it doesn’t feel right, but like you said, perhaps it’s familiarity. I also agree with you about secondary characters. There are plenty of novels where I’ve enjoyed the secondary characters more than the primary and wished the author had spent more time with them.

  10. As a reader, I’ve found that I’m drawn to books with subjective viewpoints, either first person or third person with viewpoint characters. I agree that head hopping can be a problem, but it’s worth mentioning a counterexample: Dune. There’s a dinner scene in the first half of the novel where we get the action and reaction of people throughout the whole dinner that would simple not be as compelling without the head hopping. So it can work.

    The only style I get uncomfortable with is really dry, third person omniscient viewpoints. Once again, I know it can work, but I like being with the characters. If a third person narrator is being used, I’ve always preferred something like Neil Gaiman’s style of making the narrator a personality in his own right, like in the Graveyard Book.

    My first novel (Seeking Publication! [tm] sigh) used first person, present tense, mostly because it felt right, but also because it made the story feel like it was happening now, not in the past.

    Present tense can be a tightrope, and I don’t know that it works as well in third person as first, but it has its uses, and I’m very happy with how it turned out in the book. And if you listen to people tell stories orally, a lot of times they use the present tense and not the past.

    In the end, the story and its effect tells you what to do, if you’re willing to listen closely to what it’s saying.

  11. Interesting discussion!

    FWIW … I write in the 3rd person, past tense, limited (non-omniscient), but I try to get in that one person’s head as much as possible.

    The only time I don’t get inside the head of the POV character is when it is the main villain for two reasons:

    (1) Sometimes a reader doesn’t like getting that close to a villain. Yes they want to be sympathetic to them to an extent, but not too close.
    (2) I want to keep the villains plans a secret.

    I do tend to write from multiple perspectives, and try to take on a unique voice for each. Not always easy to do!

    My daughter, however, writes strictly in 1st person past tense, and she loves it and swears by it.

    I never thought I could do that, but have found myself slipping into 1st person lately and and having to go back and fix it. Yikes! What’s happening to me?

    My daughter also has an interesting perspective on present tense … she has noted that a good story-teller will change on purpose to present tense during a very intense section … kind of a blow by blow, its happening now kind of thing, but then go back to past tense afterward. And I think she has done this now and then in her novel as well. The change highlights the action but then relaxes.

    2cents,

    -Robert

  12. Robert, I think the change from third person past tense to first person present tense can work exceptionally well if you’re getting the internal thought of the POV character. The majority of the story is told in the third person limited, past tense, but adding — on occasion –the internal thoughts of characters written in the present, first-person (usually noted in italics) gives a sense of events being more immediate and personal. I wish I had an example off-hand but can’t think of a particular passage. I know I bring up George R.R. Martin a lot, but he does this as good as anyone I’ve read.

  13. My novel is called Broken Magic. It’s a young adult, modern fantasy (I’d say urban fantasy, but it’s really more suburban). It’s about a high school senior who meets a runaway girl who gets by as a busker, a street musician. The girl is on the road looking for her father, who she believes has found a magical city, a city that you can only find if you’re on a journey, on the road. And he has to decide if he’s going to help her, and leave his life behind for a life of travel and magic, or stay home and continue in a world of science.

    I’m horrible at describing this book for some reason and I don’t have my query letter in front of me to copy from, which has a much cleaner version of the above explanation.

    Anyway, that’s the that.

  14. Eric, every time I try to explain what my novel is about to someone, I always think it comes off sounding lame, so you’re not alone in that regard. For some reason, it’s more difficult to explain it verbally than it is for me in writing. Our books have a similar element with the magical city thing. Mine’s more of an ancient city, a lost city, much like the Incan or Mayan cities buried deep in the jungle and lost for generations. Good stuff. Best of luck with your writing!

  15. Oh the agony of trying to capture ones novel in two or three short sentences! By the time I finish rendering my thoughts down to blurb length, it feels like it died and left a bad smell behind. Blech!

  16. “Scott or Clare, can you think of an author who is bad about “head hopping?””

    My belated answer: I was quite surprised to find that Bernard Cornwell did it once or twice in his Sharpe series. It might have just been one book in particular; I can’t remember details. I do remember that it was quite jarring: one second reading along from one character’s viewpoint, the next–wt…?–and we’re in someone else’s head. Not sure if it was intentional or a slip on Cornwell’s part.

  17. I noticed Cornwell also did that in Heretic (book 3 of the Grail Quest series). I thought the same thing because in the other two in that series, I don’t remember him head hopping like that.

  18. I am writing a fanasy novel. My nephew read the first chapter and said it sounded like it’s own mythology. Greek mythology was something I always loved but I wanted my own. Some inspiration comes from this mythology but also from other fantasy stories I’ve read. My wife seem to think I should write the whole thing in past tense. I think it may be boring if I did. Maybe it will not but I don’t know. Chapter one begins in past tense. It says,”It all began many ages ago. A race was not born but created for a purpose. Who or what created them remains a mystery to this day.” this is not exact since I’m not on my laptop. Because it starts this way I thought she might be right. Any thoughts? Thanks in advance.

  19. Michael, it’s difficult for me to give great advice without having read any of your novel. I would say to write in whatever tense you feel is best, the tense you prefer. There really is no right or wrong answer here. I’d just go with what you are comfortable with and be consistent.

    A book you might consider reading is Iceland by Betsy Tobin. The novel draws on a lot of Norse Mythology. It might give you some good ideas on the style to use in writing your own novel, because I remember Betsy uses the present tense a good bit.

    You can find my review of it here: http://steventill.com/2009/08/26/review-of-ice-land-by-betsy-tobin/.

    Hope this helps!

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