Chapter Six of ‘Writing the Blockbuster Novel’ is about Point of View and, unlike most other writing manuals I’ve read, is short and to the point. Zuckerman, a top editor and literary consultant, says nothing of first person, or third person subjective or objective. What he does say is so worth hearing that I’m going to quote some chunks here.
To a writer aspiring to build her first bestseller, I strongly recommend Follett’s method [which is to use several PoVs]. Several kinds of richness can accrue from it, some of them unsuspected. First and foremost, it forces the author to forget about trying to tell the story in broad narrative strokes as an outside observer might most readily imagine it. Instead, from the very outset the author must burrow deep inside one character, then another, and then another, focusing on the one character who at a particular piece of the action has the largest emotional stake.
Disciplined managing of point of view in The Man from St Petersburg also has the effect of expanding one story into what almost feels like four individual stories that intersect dramatically at key points. We are exposed to one series of events, but through the sensibilities of four points of view, each with widely contrasting world views, emotional makeups, and social and economic backgrounds. This adds a breadth, scope and depth to this book that it would not otherwise have.
He goes on to say that early works by Follet and John Grisham do not have the mastery of their later works in that they use a dozen or so PoV characters, ‘most of whom appear in one chapter and disappear in the next.’
He ends the chapter thus:
Having read all the above and, hopefully, the other example novels I’ve discussed, you may now be wondering if there is an optimum number of point-of-view characters. I would recommend the smallest number possible, taking into account the story you’re telling, but no fewer than three or four. With only one or two points of view, it becomes quite difficult to work up the kind of plot complexity and interpersonal drama readers expect in a big novel.
Another factor to consider is your readership. Both contemporary and historical romances are usually written from only one point of view, a woman’s, and almost all the buyers and readers of these books are women. Conversely, the same holds true for men with action-adventure novels and westerns. Authors who aim for a broad readership, one that comprises both men and women of varying ages, tend to create point-of-view characters who epitomize these differences. … The contrasts between these characters’ world views deriving from their sexes and stages of life contribute vitally to the book’s tension and drama.
For a reader to become engrossed in your character, be it your hero or heroine or even your antagonist or villain, you must love each of them or at least feel deeply with and for them.
I can think of half a dozen exceptions to this wise advice about point of view already, and some of them Booker prize winners, but we have to bear something in mind. Editors in publishing houses tend not to be looking for midlist authors or, come to that, literary wonders (although they may be tempted by these). They want books that sell. And so we would do well to listen to what Mr Zuckerman has to say.
I for one must now ponder whether I really am in the final days of my latest novel or merely the beginning of yet another draft; to be sure, I am one character PoV missing, and I know who it is. So I’m very grateful to Ann for bringing our attention to this useful manual.
As for loving your characters, that is something I heartily endorse, no matter how difficult it is. There was a complete stand-off between me and Lorenzo de’ Medici’s wife until the day came when, miraculously, I penetrated the revulsion I felt and began to understand her. From that moment on, she became one of my strongest characters.