Somewhere along the writing process, every author should contemplate point of view and tense. With my last two projects I just picked a point of view and a tense subconsciously; I started writing and went with whatever felt right. But for this project, I want to be purposeful in every step of the way. I want to really contemplate the best perspective for telling the story and choose my style (point of view and tense both are big parts of a writer’s style) by consciously weighing the options.
I used to think that fantasy couldn’t be written in first person point of view and that it needed to be past tense. When I started my last project, I chose third-person limited past tense because it was fantasy and I thought the only other choice for fantasy was omniscient past tense. I wanted to be as close to my main character as possible, so I went with the better of two evils. (I wrote my first trilogy in first person present tense and I fell in love with that voice; in a way, I feel first person is still the superior option.) I was trying to make my writing fit in with what I mainly experienced with fantasy as a reader.
I worry now that it reads like something that fits in a box. And as every agent, editor, and self-editing writer knows, issues with point of view or tense are the most problematic and time consuming to edit. I worry that the project would have been better in first person present tense, for example, and that it will never be published because I can’t just fix the tense and point of view with an easy revision. I’d have to rewrite the whole book. (Yikes!)
Somewhere along the writing process? The earlier the better, in my opinion. So my Step Four is choosing the point of view and tense. But how?
Since I’m still somewhat early in this project, I feel like I could most certainly stand to get to know my characters and my world better. So I’m going to write a scene that may or may not make it into the book. This will help me really explore who my characters are and what their world is like.
While doing this, I’m going to play with the writing tense and viewpoint. I reread an old favorite of mine during this process: Self Editing for Fiction Writers (How to edit yourself into print) by Rennie Browne and Dave King. While rereading and working on this project, I was reminded of just how helpful this book was to me when I first started writing. If you don’t own a copy of Self Editing for Fiction Writers, I strongly suggest it!
Sylvan Rainforest Fantasy
Below the floating sky city of Nebula hides the Rainforest Realm of the Sylvan. Though the land is perpetually shrouded in the cloudy Nebula’s shadow, the constant rain and natural plant magic of this realm spur the forests to grow with tall trees, plentiful berry bushes, and even keeps the fields crowded with crops below the canopy. At the heart of this Realm, the Life Tree reaches toward the skies in a sort of Living Mountain so vast, its Roots are like hills reaching out across the land.
Upon one such Root three Sylvan of the Fox Clan stride onward, intent to make it to Fox Den before nightfall. All three have fiery red hair cascading in braids down their backs, though the leader’s hair is gray at his temples. He uses his living staff as a walking stick as he treads along behind a small red fox. The boy comes next, a spear propped against his shoulder. His eyes dart from the surrounding foliage to the clouds above, ever wary. Finally, the girl brings up the rear, her thin staff strapped to her back. With her eyes down on the moss-covered Root upon which they tread and her head lost in a daydream amid the clouds, she is quickly falling behind.
“Keep up, Elda!” the boy calls after a quick glance back. “You’re too far behind again.”
“Do you need a break, child?” the man asks. He leans on his staff and waits for Elda to approach.
“I’m not tired, Uncle Drake,” Elda insists as she trudges up the Root to them.
“She just doesn’t like to hurry,” the boy Sylvan interjects with a playful sneer. His smile is so wide, he unintentionally shows off his pointy fox-canines.
“Perhaps a game will keep you interested in the task at hand,” Drake proposes as his tiny red fox joins them on the Root, rearing up on hind legs with his shiny black eyes on Drake.
“Games are too boring by myself. Arro won’t play,” Elda says. “He’s too grown up for games.”
“Not true; Elda is the one who won’t play,” Arro counters. “She’d rather put her head in the clouds. It’s easier than interacting with someone.”
Elda scoffs. It is true, but she still acts hurt to save face. She is the youngest of her Smallclan and expected to play like a child, but she’s already forty-two seasons old. In her mind, that is plenty old enough to give up on fun and games. If she is seasoned enough to join the fighting south, then she must be too old for child’s play.
The sun suddenly peaked under the clouds of the flying cloud city above us, blinding my right eye. I glared away and tried to ignore the slight flutter in my gut. If the sun was already lower than Nebula, were we going to make it to Fox Den before nightfall? My brother and uncle and I had been walking all day. We left our Smallclan at Fox Hole before the sun even came up, but it seemed like the head start wouldn’t get us to safety before night fell.
“Keep up, Elda!” Arro called after a quick glance back. “You’re too far behind again.”
“Do you need a break, child?” Uncle Drake asked. He leaned on his staff as he waited for me to catch up.
“I’m not tired, Uncle Drake.” I trudged up the Root of the giant Life Tree that rose like a mountain at the epicenter of Sylva, our Rainforest Realm. I just hated walking like this, but I knew better than to complain. Arro already treated me like a child. If I started whining, who knew what he would do in response.
“She just doesn’t like to hurry,” Arro said with a playful sneer, showing off his pointy fox-canines. That was also true. It wasn’t that I was slow, but more that I didn’t like to be rushed through anything. It was easy to understand that we needed to be at Fox Den before night fell, but that didn’t mean I was about to work up a sweat to get there sooner. We had a long journey ahead of us. I couldn’t very well tire myself out on our first day.
“Perhaps a game will keep you interested in the task at hand,” Uncle Drake said as his Companion Auma reared up on his hind legs with his shiny black eyes on his Master. I wished that I could have my own fox Companion, but that was impossible. Even if I was capable of harnessing that level of magic, I wasn’t supposed to be that strong yet. It was one of the reasons why I preferred to be alone. Alone, I didn’t have to hide my true power.
“Games are too boring by myself. Arro won’t play,” I said. “He’s too grown up for games.”
“Not true; Elda is the one who won’t play,” Arro argued. “She’d rather put her head in the clouds. It’s easier than interacting with someone.”
The truth was that I wasn’t day dreaming. I was remembering. Every time I looked at that monstrosity of a tree, I couldn’t help but remember a time when I was thirty seasons old and my Smallclan journeyed to the Flitters’ Farm.
The truth is that Elda isn’t day dreaming. She’s remembering. Every time she looks at that monstrosity of a tree, she can’t help but remember a time when she was thirty seasons old and her Smallclan journeyed to the Flitters’ Farm near the Life Tree’s base.
The journey was rough on her father more than anyone, because he had been injured by a Shifter when Elda had only been a few seasons old. Elda can’t remember the attack, but she remembers the journey their Smallclan took to try and heal their father’s crippled leg.
The Flitters’ Farm is so far from home it took nearly half a season for them to walk there and back. They carried their whole entire harvest on their backs, and even young Elda was expected to help bear the burden. And in the end, it had all been for nothing. The atrocious Flitters refused to take their wheat as payment for healing their father. Flitters are vegetarian; everybody knows that. But her family hadn’t known that the Sky People refuse to eat plants that are killed when they are harvested for food.
Every time she sees the Life Tree, Elda remembers the look of disgust and loathing on the face of that tiny Flitter when they presented their wheat. The stormy thoughts make it hard to be cheerful or sociable. Though Elda isn’t the least bit thrilled with the idea of playing a game, she puts on a face and agrees anyway.
“What sort of game, Uncle Drake?” she asks.
“A racing game,” Drake suggests. “I’ll name a landmark along our path, and you two will race Auma there.” He nods at his fox Companion. “The first one there wins. You can rest while I catch up and then I’ll name another landmark.”
“What do we win?” Arro asks. Of course, he would only care about the prize for winning.
“Hmm,” Drake says as he tugs on his pointed chin. “How about the winner chooses our dinner tonight? No matter the cost, if it can be found in Fox Den, I will buy it for us.”
“I’m playing,” Elda says without hesitation. “And I’m winning.”
“We’ll just see about that,” Arro says. Her older brother is almost seventy seasons old. Standing nearly a whole head taller than Elda, he’s practically finished growing, meaning he has longer legs for running. But Elda is big for her age. She isn’t completely outmatched.
“See that berry bush a few strides along?” Drake says, tipping his staff in the right direction.
Elda takes off like a deer.
“Hey, no head starts!” Arro shouts, but Elda doesn’t stop, and Auma quickly follows after her. “Cheater,” Arro mumbles as he races after them.
The truth was that Elda wasn’t day dreaming. She was remembering. Every time she looked at that monstrosity of a tree, she couldn’t help but remember a time when she was thirty seasons old and her Smallclan journeyed to the Flitters’ Farm near the Life Tree's base.
The journey was rough on her father more than anyone, because he had been injured by a Shifter when Elda had only been a few seasons old. Elda couldn’t remember the attack, but she remembered the journey their Smallclan took to try and heal their father’s crippled leg.
The Flitters’ Farm was so far from home it had taken nearly half a season for them to walk there and back. They had carried their whole entire harvest on their backs, and even young Elda had been expected to help bear the burden. And in the end, it had all been for nothing. The atrocious Flitters had refused to take their wheat as payment for healing their father. Flitters were vegetarian; everybody knew that. But her family hadn’t known that the Sky People refused to eat plants that were killed when they were harvested for food.
Every time she saw the Life Tree, Elda remembered the look of disgust and loathing on the face of that tiny Flitter when they had presented their wheat. The stormy thoughts made it hard to be cheerful or sociable. Though Elda wasn’t the least bit thrilled with the idea of playing a game, she put on a face and agreed anyway.
“What sort of game, Uncle Drake?” she asked.
“A racing game,” Drake suggested. “I’ll name a landmark in our path, and you two will race Auma there.” He nodded at his fox Companion. “The first one there wins. You can rest while I catch up and then I’ll name another landmark.”
“What do we win?” Arro asked. Of course, he would only care about the prize for winning.
“Hmm,” Drake said as he tugged on his pointed chin. “How about the winner chooses our dinner tonight? No matter the cost, if it can be found in Fox Den, I will buy it for us.”
“I’m playing,” Elda said without hesitation. “And I’m winning.”
“We’ll just see about that,” Arro said. Her older brother was almost seventy seasons old. Standing nearly a whole head taller than Elda, he was practically finished growing, meaning he had longer legs for running. But Elda was big for her age. She wasn’t completely outmatched.
“See that berry bush a few strides along?” Drake said, tipping his staff in the right direction.
Elda took off like a deer.
“Hey, no head starts!” Arro shouted, but Elda didn’t stop, and Auma quickly followed after her. “Cheater,” Arro mumbled as he raced after them.
Even with the head start, my sister only barely beats me to the bush. “That’s one!” she calls out with a cock-sure tilt of her head. “Where next?”
Uncle Drake takes his time catching up to us, all the while scanning the crest of the Life Root for likely targets. I, on the other hand, keep my eyes on the sky and the darkening crevices below us where the Root meets the earth. Elda might call me paranoid, but Uncle Drake would say I’m cautious, and rightfully so. Shadows can be anywhere, and I know full well how much they hate us Sylvans.
“The sentinel pine,” Uncle Drake says with a tilt of his staff, and Elda is already on the run, but I’m right behind her. And I’m faster. With quick strides I stay just behind her nearly the whole way to the pine tree growing right out of the Life Root. When Elda skirts around a large bush, I stretch my long legs and hurdle over it. Just like that, I’m in front of her.
I nearly reach the tree when I see it: something in the shade below us moves. It’s subtle, but I saw what I saw. I instantly pull out my spear and stand at the ready, the game forgotten.
“You let me win!” Elda complains, and I glance up to see her lips turned down in a snarl. “It’s no fun if you don’t try!”
I shake my head. “Shadows, El,” I say under my breath, pointing down the small ravine with my spear.
Elda loosens the bo staff on her back. “Uncle!” she calls, then she squeezes close to me and hisses, “Where?”
I point again, but even I don’t see it any more. Maybe I spooked it into hiding. Or the movement I saw was the Shadow running away. Half the time they’re cowardly, and there’s three of us. We’d probably already be dead if it wasn’t a single Shadow.
My spear feels heavy in my hand all the same. I fight to hold my weapon steady while behind our backs Uncle Drake quickly catches up to us. When he reaches us, he puts himself between us and the ravine and looks down warily, one hand on his staff and the other on Elda’s shoulder.
“Let’s keep moving, and stay together.” He gestures for me to go first.
“Does this mean the game is over?” Elda asks as I step in front of her and lead on, stumbling slightly on the uneven Root beneath my boots.
“I’m afraid so, child,” Uncle Drake says.
“Fine by me,” Elda retorts. “I’m choosing dinner!”
I roll my eyes as I hurry along the Root.
The two young Sylvan raced for the bush, but given the head start, Elda reached it right before her older brother.
“That’s one!” Elda called out, very pleased with herself. “Where next?”
Drake followed after the youngsters, all the while scanning the crest of the Life Root for another landmark for their game. Beside the bush, Arro kept a watchful eye on the sky and the shadowy ridge below, where the Root of the Life Tree melded into shadow before becoming solid earth.
“The sentinel pine,” Uncle Drake said with a tilt of his staff, and Elda led the way, Arro right behind. With quick strides and longer legs, Arro easily kept up, and when she sidled around a bush, he leaped over it and passed her by.
Below them, the noise startled a Shifter who had been dozing under the pleasant shade of a poplar. Still groggy from waking suddenly, the Shifter leaped to her feet and nearly ran. But just before she gave away her location, she managed to calm down and stay still in the shadows, where she was invisible and safe.
“You let me win!” It was a young girl’s voice. “It’s no fun if you don’t try!”
The Shifter turned toward the sound to see a small boy pointing his spear almost directly at her. He was a fox-Sylvan, she could tell, because he had fox-red hair and pointy ears. She had to remind herself that she was invisible if she didn’t move.
Beside the boy, a fox-girl loosened the bo staff on her back. “Uncle!” she called, then she squeezed close to the boy and hissed something in his ear.
The boy pointed again with his spear. The Shifter felt the hair on her neck stand up, but she fought the instinct to run.
Finally, the older Sylvan reached the younger two. When he held up his staff, the Shifter almost bolted. But soon enough, the threesome decided to move on, and the Shifter sighed with relief.
It was only after the danger was over that the Shifter noticed the fox that followed along behind the old fox-man; the Sylvan was one of the Stray Swayers who controlled animals with his magic. The Shifter glared at his back. Unlike the Stray Swayers, the Shifters had true animal Companions, not prisoners or slaves who were coerced at best, and forced at worst, to do as their Stray Swayers commanded. “Come, Theaba,” the Shifter whispered and the shadow beside her stirred. The Shifter put her hand on her feline Companion and slowly she shifted into the form of a panther. The two felines slinked after the Sylvans, careful to stay in the shadows.
Again, my purpose for writing this is to help me decide which point of view would serve me best while doing this project. As a result, my writing is not completely up to par. I’m ignoring any possible issues with craft and focusing instead on how the different points of view and tense brought out different versions of the story and gave it a much different feel.
The first part of the scene is much different in omniscient PoV than in first person. I managed to include some details about the world in first person, but it felt forced. Why would Elda be thinking about the name of her Realm or pay enough attention to the Root she was walking on to let me adequately inform the readers about these details of my fantasy world? Even though it was a challenge to build the world of my story, I could more easily build the world of my character. She feels like a real person as she thinks very real (though potentially confusing) thoughts about her day-to-day life. The opening in omniscient PoV isn’t my best writing, I’ll admit, but I can’t deny how easy it was to describe where my characters were or what they looked like. I was also able to give the reader a general idea of why the threesome is journeying south: to join the fighting. In this PoV I felt like a camera with a built-in mind-reading device, able to zoom out and give a panoramic description of my world, or zoom in to give a close-up of my character. That freedom was very refreshing.
The middle part of the scene transitions to third person PoV. I was really playing with the tense during this section. I chose to use the same PoV for both my first and second attempt at the scene, because I was delving into backstory. In this way, I really noticed how awkward present tense storytelling with backstory can really be.
In present tense, the story is happening right now, meaning the reader is following the character around as the story happens. In first person PoV, the reader is privy to the character’s thoughts as the story unfolds. This makes traditional backstory impossible, in my opinion, because the character isn’t going to stop what she’s doing to ponder her past, just to give the reader some much-needed backstory. Characters will think about their past every now and then, but those sorts of thoughts would be so fleeting and confusing. If I had written part two in first person, it would have had a completely different focus. I maybe would have needed to use dialogue to get the same backstory to come out, and why would the characters suddenly start talking about their childhood memories while walking? Normal people don’t deeply ponder their pasts in organized ways or strike up conversations about their pasts. Not unless they know they’re telling a story, and that’s when first person present tense can start to feel weird, like you are somehow sharing a psychic link with the main character.
What I really want to focus on with the second part of this little scene is the tense shift. In present tense, I had to concentrate really hard to make sure I didn’t break tense while writing backstory. It even feels slightly unnatural, going back and reading it. There might be mistakes in the tense. But in past-tense, the backstory flows more naturally. It doesn’t once feel broken or awkward. This could explain why writers usually use past tense, and why they often use third-person point of view too.
Let’s take a look at the last part of this scene. Inside Arro’s head, the reader gets a better feel of the action and inner thought process, and even how real the danger is. It was moderately intense to be locked in Arro’s head and not know what was watching him. But with the omniscient PoV, the reader can really see the danger. As a floating camera above the scene, I could choose to go down the ridge of the Root and take a closer look at what Arro thought he saw, and the result is more tension. The reader knows now that Shifters can hide in shadows, that they have beasts who fight alongside them like real Companions, not slaves, and even understands why the Shifters are fighting the Sylvans. That truth could very well come out naturally later, and make for a great reveal for the end of the story, but with omniscient PoV I can bring it out now and increase the tension.
Well, now I have to make a decision. What PoV should I write this fantasy in? Now that I’ve really explored all the options, I am so glad that I did! I have a feel for why so many writers write in past tense, and use third person PoV, as a sort of balance between two extremes. I can’t help but admit that I am leaning toward this choice just because it offers the most flexibility (and not coincidentally, it was the PoV I chose for my last fantasy project.)
But if I wanted to, I could get nearly all the details from each of these attempts to come into my final version of the story. How, you might be wondering?
I could use a flowing omniscient/third person point of view combination to portray the main character at a camp fire with her grandchildren in the present. The older and wiser versions of Elda and Arro could tell the story to their grandchildren in first person point of view using past tense. Backstory would be peppered in wherever it made sense to tell more about their past. (I could even have a grandchild ask a prudent question to prompt the grandmother to explain something more.) I could also use the main character or just use the omniscient narrator to share commonly known traditions or happenings from other places of the world.
The only problem with this idea is the obvious one: if the main characters are in mortal peril, the reader will never truly be afraid for them, because they obviously survive to tell the story to their grandchildren. It gives the whole story a light-hearted feel. If that’s okay with me, then I could tell the actual story in first person past tense. I could work all the backstory naturally into the story and still use present tense to show the characters gathered around the fire for story time. I could use a combination of all three points of view and both tenses.
I have a feeling this sort of storytelling has been done before, and for some reason it feels very old fashioned. I honestly can’t think of any stories that have been told like this. And I certainly have never read a book like this first hand. Have you? Please share them in the comments section. It might be refreshing to have an old-fashioned sort of style of writing come back again, a sort of new twist on an old style. Or it could be an awful idea, and I might ultimately decide to go with a standard and boring route to keep it safe. I’m still pondering.
Thank you for reading my rambling thoughts! I hope they were insightful enough that you might ponder these choices the next time you start a project, instead of just choosing what feels natural and jumping right into the writing process.
This has been another glimpse at A.C.’s Desk.