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Point of View–Whose Story Is This?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

For the last week, we’ve been focusing on characters. Hopefully, you’ve picked up a few tips and have spent some time getting to know your character(s) better and learning more about the story they’re trying to tell you.

Before deciding on first- or third-person (or even second), limited or omniscient, present or past tense, the most important thing to figure out is WHOSE STORY IS THIS?

In a typical romance, there are two POV characters: the hero and the heroine. In chick lit, there is only one: the chick telling her own story. In a mystery, you may have only one: the detective/sleuth; or you may have several: the detective, a red-herring character (make the reader think he’s the villain), the actual villain, a victim (alive or dead, if you’re including supernatural elements). In general, historical, sci-fi, and fantasy fiction, there are most likely going to be multiple POV characters.

So, how do we decide who gets to have a say? Whose head we’re going to invade?

If the genre doesn’t dictate the POV (i.e., standard romance or chick lit), the first thing you must do is determine who the stakeholders in the story are. In other words, who has the most to lose and the most to gain in your story? Who has a stake in the conflict/plot? Which character(s) has the most important information to reveal to the reader? Do you want the reader to know it by being inside that character’s thoughts, or do you want the reader to find out when “all is revealed” to another character whose stake in the plot is greater?

Next, who has the most to learn/the most potential for growth? If the theme of your story is forgiveness, a POV character who has already learned how to forgive isn’t going to make for interesting reading. POV characters should be those who not only have a stake in the plot, but who also have a character arc—in other words, they’re different at the end of the story than when we first meet them at the beginning. Not all characters who change/grow are going to end up being POV characters. Some of them will remain secondary. But they have the best potential.

Finally, which characters are most compelling? Who will the reader want to know and become intimate with? Who do you as the author want to get to know and become intimate with? The characters that resonate with our readers are going to be the characters that we, as the author, fall in love with. They are going to be the ones with the deepest flaws (Scarlett O’Hara), the ones who can never seem to get ahead (Charlie Brown), or the ones who must time and again face their greatest foes/fears (Harry Potter).

When I first started writing Ransome’s Honor, I had two POV characters: William and Julia. Then Julia’s mother wanted to have her say. About seven or eight chapters in, Sir Drake burst onto the scene and barged in, telling things how he wanted them to be. These four POVs seemed to work pretty well . . . until I got to chapter sixteen and William’s younger sister arrived in Portsmouth. I suddenly realized she’s a major stakeholder in not just the first book but in the entire trilogy—I allowed her to have a POV, and immediately, the plots for the second and third books materialized in sharp detail, not just the vague idea I’d had up until then. I am now working on the second draft. Julia’s mother has switched teams and is now Sir Drake’s mother (Julia’s aunt) and because of this can become the secondary character she needs to be. Sir Drake’s POV is introduced at the end of the first chapter (the scene not only introduces him, but raises the stakes for Julia’s conflict), and Charlotte’s importance has been increased by her first POV scene (new) appearing at the end of the second chapter (introduces the idea she’s keeping a major secret from her mother and William—raising the stakes for both her and for William—and Julia in Book 2).

Have you chosen your POV characters or have they chosen you? How do you determine which characters you’re going to allow to have “stage time”? Have you ever cut a POV character completely in a revision—or added one? Have you ever written a POV character you didn’t really like?

12 Comments
  1. Tuesday, June 26, 2007 4:26 pm

    Ho. POV is my current trial.

    I’m in my first (focussed) re-write and have been limiting myself to 1 POV per chapter (per… somebody’s advice).

    Trouble is, so far, I’ve just been using the POV of whoever I think has the most interesting perspective, even if I “know” (at this point) they’re going to stay secondary characters, or medium-stakes, e.g., hero’s brother.

    Questions:
    Can I get inside more than one head in a single chapter (I used to think this was the omnipotent narrator) to get multiple perspectives without it sounding like “telling” or jumping around too much?

    Do you have an example of that being pulled off?

    Can I give a chapter POV to someone who doesn’t get it again, or should I assume I need to return perspective to him some time because he was important enough once?

    One of my characters is known for being “perfect” (Think Hermoine from Harry Potter). I like to see things through his eyes because I trust him so far. He seems very perceptive and I like to use that. But he will *never* (?!) be a primary character, and he’s not present for all the action either. Is he safe to be attached to, do you think?

  2. Tuesday, June 26, 2007 4:46 pm

    YES–it’s fine to have more than one POV per chapter. My chapters are usually around 3,500 words (about 13.5-14 pages double spaced/Times 12) and I almost always have two if not three POV breaks–whether it’s breaking to a new scene or just changing to another character’s POV.

    In a first draft, I think it’s great to experiment with POV—to see who is going to be important and who isn’t. Don’t try to force characters to stay quiet if they’re trying to take over a scene and tell it from their perspective. But also don’t force a character to come forward to be a POV character. I have four very important secondary characters in Ransome’s Honor who have a lot to say and do . . . but they’re not quite important enough to get inside their heads. However, as I mentioned, sometimes it is important in a first draft to try out all of the different characters, then once the draft is finished (or even halfway through, if you discover it that early), you can always give that character’s scenes to someone else, cut them if they’re not necessary, or keep it.

    I would caution against giving characters only one or two POV scenes in the entire novel, though—if a POV isn’t used regularly, it’s jarring to the reader to suddenly be inside someone else’s head.

  3. Tuesday, June 26, 2007 5:05 pm

    It was the number of POV characters (and the help of my brilliant crit partners) that showed me that my last book was not, in fact, the romance I thought it was. There were four POV characters all in crisis, and the book turned out to be an historical. The scope of the book was so big, that to have limited it to two POV would’ve taken a lot out of the story.

    I did a short stint of first person with a ‘lit’ novel I started. I think the main character sounds an awful lot like me.

    The current romance is two POV’s, his and hers, and I’m liking it very much. :)

  4. Tuesday, June 26, 2007 5:44 pm

    Limiting my first chapter to one POV made my stranger much more mysterious than I had intended, but my stuff is YA– and/or at least my chapters are much shorter than yours.

    Would the length have something to do with not thinking there’s enough room for more voices?

    i.e., my first chapter is all one scene, so eye-contact is about the only way I’ve come up with to shift focus/perspective.

  5. Tuesday, June 26, 2007 5:55 pm

    Amy, Susan May Warren’s Mission: Russia series is on of the best for multiple POV within the same chapter. She’s just amazing!

    So far, my POV characters have all picked me. I have had to cut storylines and characters to keep the POV under control though. I cut an entire character arc out of my Epic because it was so involved that it deserves its own seperate story.

    I seem to stay with 2 main POV characters most of the time, particularly in my historical stuff. It just seems to fit well with my writing. I will use another character as the main POV if the situation calls for it, but do try to keep it to someone who’s had scenes already. Sometimes you just have to look at a war through a mother’s eyes, even though she’s become a secondary character.

  6. Tuesday, June 26, 2007 6:15 pm

    Amy Jane–
    Maybe it’s best to look at your POV breaks by scene, rather than by chapter. Which character has the most to lose/gain within a given scene? That’s usually the character you want to stick with for POV.

    Rachel–
    I’ve grown accustomed to writing in the two-POV format in the Romance Genre. So expanding into other POVs in my historical was sometimes difficult in the first draft of RH–when I went through the draft and made Scene Cards (in a PowerPoint presentation–one slide for each POV scene throughout the entire novel), I color coded them so I had a visual reference of how many POV scenes each character had and how far apart they were spaced. That really helped a lot in determining to get rid of Lady Augusta as a POV character when, toward the end, her POV cards were very few and very far between.

  7. Wednesday, June 27, 2007 1:13 pm

    I’m not sure whether my current wip is romance or women’s fiction. Part of my dilemma is that the story starts with the hero and heroine already married. Recently, I switched their story arcs and found the whole thing to be much more interesting. But that gave the hero a more prominent role than he would have had and I’m starting to feel as though it’s his story more than hers.

    Then there are a couple of secondary characters who pop in enough that I have to hold them at bay. I don’t think they’ll be POV characters in this work but they might wind up with their own stories.

  8. Wednesday, June 27, 2007 9:49 pm

    If it focuses a lot on him, it’s not women’s fiction. Women’s fiction has very few male characters, and certainly no male leads.

  9. Wednesday, June 27, 2007 11:23 pm

    Patricia–
    My advice (for what it’s worth) is just write it the way you feel best tells your story. Don’t worry about trying to fit it into a genre. Write your story in the most honest, true way you possibly can. Because that’s what’s going to resonate with editors and/or agents . . . not a preconceived idea of what genre it fits into.

    Yes, eventually, you would need to figure out what marketing category it fits into–general fiction is a fine choice–when you start submitting it. But you don’t have to worry about that right now. Just revel in the creative muse’s visitation and enjoy the creative process.

    And maybe let those “secondary” characters have a say now and then, even if you end up not using it in your final draft. Sounds like they might have something important to say that could be worth exploring.

  10. Sunday, October 26, 2008 3:00 pm

    Hello, Kaye.

    I am reading over the POV posts as you recommended ;-) . I think I’m getting it…I should change the first scene so that it is in Elizabeth’s point of view because Mattie is never a main character, right?

    Oh, by the way, I could have kicked myself when you mentioned the traveling companion thing. I pride myself on knowing all about customs then. Hehe. Pride goes before a fall, I guess. Off I go to read the rest…;-)

Trackbacks

  1. Upcoming Series: Make Point of View Work for You « KayeDacus.com
  2. Writing Series Spotlight: Showing vs. Telling and POV « KayeDacus.com

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