Point of View–Whose Story Is This?
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?