Get Set: Picking Your Point of View and Viewpoint Characters #ReadySetWrite
Now that you know the backstories of your characters and storyworld, it’s time to start preparing to choose in what style and in what viewpoints your story will be told.
Picking Your Point of View
“Point of View” or POV is quite often the term used to identify which characters’ heads the reader is allowed into in a story. However, we’re using it in the more technical, grammatical definition today.
In order to set your story up to get ready to write it, there are three parts of POV you must decide upon:
- Person: First (I, me, my), Second (you, your, yours), Third (he, she, his, hers, they, theirs).
- Omniscience: Omniscient (using a narrator, even if it’s an invisible/god-like narrator), Limited (camping out in just one viewpoint character’s head per scene, the narrative is in the character’s voice, not a “narrator’s”), Objective (more of a journalistic style—“just the facts, ma’am”—not seen in fiction often).
- Tense: Present (action is happening in the here-and-now), Past/Active (verbs are past tense, but because this is the most common form of storytelling, it still seems to be immediate action), Past/Passive (usually a form of the “be” verb plus a gerund—word ending in -ing—or a form of the “have” verb + past-tense verb).
You can read more about these, and the vast array of combinations thereof here.
Must you know what POV you’re going to use for your story before you start writing? It’s a good idea to have a grasp of what’s accepted/expected in your genre—and the example I always give here is that in romance, the accepted and expected (by readers) POV is 3rd Person, Limited, Past/Active with the heroine and the hero being viewpoint characters. But since you’ll be writing multiple drafts, if you want to play with POV to see what works best for your story, please feel free to experiment. However, you should know how to do the POV you choose well and you should know the guidelines and conventions for it from studying craft-of-writing books, attending courses, and extensive reading of published books using that POV.
Picking Your Viewpoint Characters
No discussion of Point of View/Viewpoint is complete without talking about our 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, in the first draft of Ransome’s Honor, I had five viewpoint characters: Julia, William, Julia’s mother, Sir Drake, and (after the halfway point) Charlotte. Once I wrote the ending and learned what actually happened in my own story, I not only dropped one of the five viewpoints, but changed Julia’s mother to her aunt, Lady Augusta. I also introduced Charlotte’s viewpoint much earlier. That’s the benefit of allowing yourself to write a first draft—knowing that you might (and probably will) go back and make significant changes in subsequent drafts.
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 go back and weave it in (or out) more thoroughly in the revision process.
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 viewpoint 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/or 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? (This may not be apparent until after you’ve completed your first draft.) 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 viewpoint 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? With your synopsis/treatment/write-up of your premise, you should know at this point what many of the major scenes will be with the conflicts that happen in your story. Examine those and ask these questions: 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 as you’re writing it, or to your crit partners or editor later, try it from another character’s viewpoint and see if it changes things.
Choosing which viewpoints to use in your story is ultimately your decision. And when you’re writing your first draft, you need to trust your gut and go with what feels right—but allow yourself the freedom to make the decision to demote a viewpoint character to secondary or promote a secondary to viewpoint halfway through. The easiest way to do this is to just keep writing with the change made—and then revise in the second draft stage. But if you just can’t do that, go back and rewrite just the scenes that would be affected by the change—don’t try to completely revise/rewrite your entire draft to that point. You’ll get stuck in an endless loop of revision and never finish it.
Most of all—have fun exploring your characters’ inner lives and conflicts, both internal and external. Lose yourself in them and their world. This prep time—and the time you spend writing your first draft—should be filled with the joy of discovery, not the agony of tedium and make-work.
For more on Point of View/Viewpoint, see the Make POV Work For You series.
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