Point Of View

Posted by Derek Chamberlain on Monday, February 20, 2012 Under: Writing

Point-of-view is one of the most important tools in any writer’s toolbox. Used well, POV provides an intimate connection with the main character. Used badly, it dilutes the impact of the story.

Take the time to study any best-selling novel and you’ll find that the writer has limited the POV as tightly as possible. This is because the fewer the POV characters, the more likely the reader is to make that emotional connection with your character that will keep them turning the page. 

The fewer POV characters you have, the tighter and more coherent the story becomes.

The converse is also true, the more POV characters you have the looser and more incoherent the story becomes, and the less likely it is that the reader will make any emotional connections.

In Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, the first book, The Eye of the World, was tightly written. All of the main characters were involved in the same story. In subsequent books Jordan followed each of those main characters into their own, related but separate stories. This meant that later books, despite their thickness, rarely felt as though they moved the main plot significantly forward. 

This same effect can occur in much shorter works if writers divide their attention between too many POV characters. And when it does occur, it usually means that there has been inadequate characterization as well. Jordan used several thousand pages to develop his half a dozen POV characters into believable people.

POV can give the illusion of depth to an inadequately developed character.

In most writing books it is assumed that your protagonist and your POV character are one and the same. This is one of those rules that you should only break if you’ve got a really good reason, such as if your detective protagonist knows who-done-it before you want the reader to know. The POV in such cases usually shifts to the side-kick — Dr. Watson or Hastings — the person who follows the main character around without understanding anything until it is revealed to them by the protagonist.

All stories are about people trying to deal with some sort of imbalance in their lives. That imbalance might be personal, a need to recognize and deal with one’s own unhappiness. Or it might be global, the need to prevent one set of political or religious ideas from dominating the world.

The protagonist is the person who is centrally involved with resolving the central issue of the story. 

There is no point having, in a story about international intrigue, the White House janitor as your POV character unless he or she happens to be the person upon which the action turns. Normally, such a person would have no access to the information or people whose decisions are shaping the situation, and thus no ability to act to change it.

If you find yourself needing to change POV in order to explain something, perhaps you should pause and consider if you have actually chosen the correct person to be your protagonist. Ask yourself, ‘Whose story is this?’ and, if you can’t decide; ‘Whose actions are moving the plot forward?’  This person is your protagonist.

Making the protagonist the POV character gives the reader a better understanding of what is happening, and why. 

Counter to expectations, having too many POV characters actually makes it harder to know what is going on. The more people you have speaking at the same time, the less likely you are to be able to understand any of them. 

This is why, if you absolutely have to have more than one POV character, they should never share that role in the same scene or, better yet, chapter. By making the POV change at the same time as the chapter change, you provide a clean break that reduces the opportunity for confusion. 

The POV character should be the one you introduce first, by name, in each chapter or scene. 

These self-imposed limitations actually make the story stronger. As humans, we know only what we personally experience or are told about. Your characters, if human, should have the same limitations. By limiting POV, you make it easier for the reader to keep straight what your protagonist does and doesn’t know, has and hasn’t done.

POV is the thread by which the reader traverses the maze of plot.

Too many threads following too many trails just leads to confusion. A confused reader is much more likely to put down your book and abandon your characters. Too many threads means that the reader has no emotional involvement with any of them. One thread, carefully constructed, can be strong enough to hang a whole series upon.

In : Writing 

Tags: writing "the craft" 
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Meet the scribbler

I'm a writer, editor, indie publisher, and dedicated Magic Spreadsheet user. Originally from Adelaide, Australia, I've been living in Japan since 1995. I've had a life-long interest in writing and in speculative fiction. My first book was published in mid-2014.
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