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Make POV Work for You: POV Begins with Character

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

No discussion of Point of View is complete without beginning with characters. Whether you’re an outliner, loose-plotter, or seat-of-the-pantster, knowing who the key viewpoint characters of your story are before writing it is very important. Yes, this can change after a draft is finished—case in point, after finishing the first draft of Ransome’s Honor, I not only dropped one of the five viewpoints, but changed that character from the heroine’s mother to the heroine’s aunt—and I didn’t know until halfway through that first draft that the hero’s little sister was supposed to be a viewpoint character. So when you’re in the composing process, you don’t have to feel locked into the viewpoints you’ve chosen . . . you just need to make sure that if you add a viewpoint or drop one in the first draft, you make sure you weave it in (or out) more thoroughly in the revision process.

I’ve already written extensively about character development, in the Creating Credible Characters series:
Creating Credible Characters—Introduction
Creating Credible Characters—Where Do Characters Come From?
Creating Credible Characters–Who Are You?
Creating Credible Characters–Culture Clash
Creating Credible Characters–Let’s Get Personal
Creating Credible Characters–Mannerisms and Quirks
Creating Credible Characters–What Do You Want?
Creating Credible Characters–What’s in a Name?

And most of the resources on Point of View readily available have a distinct focus on character development. The truth is that many times, it’s your characters who determine what POV and which Viewpoints you’re going to use in a story.

I mentioned in the previous series on POV that one of the first things you need to decide when choosing your POV is which characters are stakeholders in the story. But what does that mean?

The first question to ask yourself when it comes to determining your Viewpoint characters is: Whose story am I telling? In a romance novel, this is easy—it’s the story of the hero and the heroine as they fall in love with each other. In a detective/P.I. novel, it’s probably best to go with 1st Person—the Viewpoint of the one solving the crime. However, even though these are usually the case, you can’t always force your stories to fit into that mold.

Next, which characters have important information to reveal to the reader that cannot be done without getting inside their heads? This is a tricky question—because when we’re first starting out writing, there may seem to be lots of characters who have important things to reveal to the reader, even if it’s just for one short paragraph. But as we read more, study more, and write more, we’ll get a better feel for what really is important and what isn’t. Typically, if it’s only one scene’s worth of information to be revealed, it’s probably not that important in the grand scheme of things—or it can most likely be revealed in another manner without dipping into that character’s POV for just one scene. If you’re not sure, make a list of the characters in your story and try dividing them up into three categories: walk-ons (may not even have a speaking role, may or may not need to be named, might have one or two lines of dialogue, but never appear again); secondary characters (are along for pretty much the whole journey, are somehow connected to the development of the story—but not important enough to have a viewpoint); and viewpoint, or main, characters (those whose story you’re telling). If you’re coming up with too many main characters ask the next question . . .

Which characters’ internal journeys affect the direction, conflict, climax, and resolution of the story? If you’re giving a character a viewpoint just to reveal information to the reader, they may not actually be a viewpoint character, they may be a secondary character. If you still end up with multiple viewpoint characters, ask . . .

Do all viewpoint characters’ story arcs tie in to the main plot of the novel? Does each viewpoint character’s storyline somehow intersect with and/or affect or influence the main plot of the story? Do the characters’ lives intersect with each other? Does each viewpoint character’s storyline wrap up at the end and tie in to the ending? If you have multiple viewpoint storylines going on, and they don’t tie in with each other by the end of the novel, what you have are two plots—two stories that should be separated from each other.

How often does a character’s viewpoint appear? If you have a viewpoint character who has only a few scenes scattered throughout a 300-page novel, it may be time to consider relegating that character to a secondary role and finding a way to incorporate what’s revealed in his/her scenes to one of the major characters—UNLESS there is a very compelling reason to only have a few, such as it’s the villain’s POV or something like that which serves to up the ante and increase the conflict and/or suspense.

Finally, which character has the most to gain/lose in each scene? Who will be the most embarrassed by what’s about to happen? Who has a secret agenda? Whose heart is going to be racing? Who’s going to be ducking around the corner out of sight and overhear something he/she shouldn’t? That will help you choose the correct viewpoint character for each scene. But it isn’t foolproof. If a scene feels flat to you (or to your crit partners or editor), try it from another major character’s viewpoint and see if it changes things.

Choosing which viewpoints to use in your story is ultimately your decision. But listen to the feedback you get. If critique partners tell you that particular scenes in one character’s viewpoint don’t reveal anything the reader doesn’t already know, or that the scene would be more dynamic in another character’s viewpoint, be willing to change it to see if it’s correct.

How do you choose your viewpoint characters?

  1. Wednesday, April 22, 2009 4:28 pm

    You may touch on this later, but another way I’d heard character tie into POV is thinking about how your viewpoint character would tell the story. Are they the type who think only they can tell their own story or would they shy away from revealing information about themselves? My protagonist in my WIP is the type who wants to tell it her way, so I let her tell it first person. It’s worked out for me, though I’m eager to try third again when I’m done:)


  2. Wednesday, April 22, 2009 4:35 pm

    Oh yes, we’re definitely going to be getting into all that!


  3. Carol Collett permalink
    Sunday, April 26, 2009 7:30 pm

    My viewpoint characters seem to be the ones who ‘talk’ to me; the ones who pop into my mind to give the story idea. I’m looking forward to being able to be a little more skilled and sophisticated about choosing the viewpoint character(s) and the POV.


  4. Wednesday, February 10, 2010 3:30 pm

    Ah, good stuff. Reading this, I didn’t necessarily figure out the mystery I mentioned about the opening scene but I did determine one viewpoint I don’t need to use. Her story can be told from the “bad guy’s” perspective. He is politically bad (not a killer) but is a father and has much to loose/hide/struggle with.


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