This is a post about Point of View (henceforth to be referred to as POV). It is not about the What or How of POV. It is about the Who and, most importantly, the Why.
Why does POV matter and Why is it important to master it.
Let’s face it, POV is the microwave of writing. When my microwave broke, I replaced it with a milk frother because heating milk was the main thing I used it for. It’s a big appliance just heat milk with. But such is the nature of microwave use. We stick in something we want defrosted or reheated, hit the timer button, the start and maybe the stop button*. That’s it. Yet on the control panel there are all these other buttons. All these functions that the microwave can do that would make it more useful and probably produce much better results, yet they are never used. Why? Because hitting timer and start gets the job done.
So it is with POV. It gets the job down, and yet, Point of View is one of the most powerful tools a writer has. All those things that matter when writing: tension, suspense, structure, emotion, character develop, world-buildings, add your own; all these things can be more effectively, can be made more powerful by mastering POV. This post is not about how to do that. I used mastering for a reason. It’s not simply a matter of throwing in a few tips or tricks. As with anything, POV takes time, study and lots of practice to master. Not one blog post.
Is it worth it? If you’re happy to be a push-the-timer-button writer, maybe not. If you want to get more functionality out of a powerful writing tool… hopefully I can get you started on that.
So, let’s start with the basics: the two questions most writers ask themselves when they consider POV
First, is the thing you probably thought of when I mentioned POV: first person or third? There are many, many, many websites and books that talk about these. Just ask Mr Google. (Even a simple search like “point of view” will give you lots of interesting stuff.) But as somewhere to start and to put us all on the same page, the three most common forms of POV are:
Third Person Limited
(Third Person) Omniscient
First person uses “I”. It’s a natural POV to use because it’s what we use when we recount a story to another person, so it’s easy to use. Unfortunately, it’s also easy to do it poorly and end up with a narrator with no apparent personality, who sounds the same as every other first person narrator.
Third Person Limited (or Subjective) is he/she/they, from the perspective of one character at a time. The reader gets to experience what the character sees, hears, feels and thinks, but only that character.
Third Person Omniscient is he/she/they, from the perspective of whatever characters the narrator wants to share with us.
As I said, much is written on these so I’m keeping my comments to two things:
1. Omniscient is not badly done Third Limited. If you have a scene where we’re in Frank’s head for the whole time except for two lines with something only Jane knows, that’s not Omniscient. It’s badly done Third Limited. Now I say that, because if you’re thinking “That doesn’t matter”… well, you’re writer it doesn’t matter. It’s the writing equivalent of hitting the start button until you get the time you want. It gets the job done. But if you want to master this thing called POV, it does matter.
2. If you usually use First, trying writing in Third. If you usually use one of the Thirds, use the other or First. Actually, don’t try. Do it. Learn how to do it. Then you’ll be able to use the perspective that works best for the story you’re writing, rather than falling back on your default because it’s what you know. And you’ve started on the road to more effective POV use.
Now the second question: how many POV characters?
With First Person, that answer is usually one, but you can have multiple first person characters. This upsets some readers but it’s a valid narrative choice. They need to be distinctive so it’s obvious who the reader is following, and generally more than two is not a good idea. Treasure Island is an example of multiple first person. Otherwise, the same considerations apply as for Third Limited below.
Third Person Omniscient is usually multiple POV characters. That’s sort of the point of it. (Could you have a Third Person Omniscient with a single character? How would that vary from Third Limited? Maybe it’s a matter of depth. Depth… that’s something for later.)
Now, Third Person Limited. This is where the question of how many POV characters really matters. But first, an important question: whose story is it?
You might say, obviously it’s the main character’s story, but who is the main character? (If you now say, the main character is the POV character, expect to get thwapped 🙂
Instead of looking at the main character, for a moment I want to consider the protagonist. Aren’t they the same? Usually. But you can mount an argument for them being different. There’s one here.** He does make a good point that the protagonist is the one who pursues the story goal. What is your story goal? What is that the character/s are trying to do? (If you don’t know the goal, you don’t know whose story is it.) You can also view the protagonist as the one who is causing events to change. The one at the centre of the story hurricane.
So, obviously the protagonist will be a POV character. Yes. No. A not uncommon technique is to have POV characters who are telling the story about the protagonist, but the protagonist is not one of them. The Sherlock Holmes stories are a well-known example. Wuthering Heights is another. It can be a useful way to tell a story, but it can also suffer a lack of emotional effect.
Emotional attachment is what makes fiction work. It’s easiest for a reader to make an emotional attachment to the character they are following, that is, the POV character. So, when you have e a choice of POVs, you need to consider who will have the greatest emotional impact for a particular scene, who is the one with the strongest emotions in that scene. If the story is being told from the perspective of people who are not directly involved in events, it’s easy to lose that emotional attachment. This is why the protagonist is usually a/the POV character. But sometimes a better emotional attachment can be obtained from the people reacting/caught up in events.
Emotional attachment is also why it’s not good to have to many POV characters. Every time there’s a change in POV, the reader has to readjust to the new character. If it’s a familiar character, that’s easier to do. The less characters the reader has to “learn” to adjust too, the stronger the emotional impact. Also, every time you change POVs, you’re creating a break in your narrative. That’s the point where the reader might put the book down.
On the other hand, using lots of POVs characters lets the reader witness events in multiple locations. This might be necessary for stories on an epic scale, when its important for the reader to see what is happening elsewhere, and helps create a richer tapestry. But this again comes back to the question of whose story is it?
Let’s say we’re writing a fantasy novel about the overthrow of the evil king of Badkingland. Most of the story takes place in the castle, but there’s a big battle on the border where the king’s much-loved brother Prince Wonderful who is leading the Forces of Good against evil King Baddy is killed! Obviously an important and dramatic event. Do we need to bring in a new POV character to show this first hand? If the story is how the people of Badkingland overthrew the tyrant, then the answer might be Yes, as showing the death of Prince Wonderful first hand is necessary. If the story is how long-lost Prince Jane, with the help of loyal sidekick Frank, is working to gain the throne of Badkingland, then it might work better staying in her POV and showing how she finds out about the death of her beloved uncle, or maybe from Frank’s POV as he learns about the death, and his frustration at how helpless he is.
Questions to consider:
Whose story is this?
Who will bring the most emotional impact?
Will multiple POVs weaken the story or strengthen it?
That’s all for now***. Next time, Narrators. (No, the Narrator is not the same as the POV character).
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*If you’re one of the few who use it for more, pretend otherwise 🙂
**That’s a screenwriting website. Screenwriting websites have lots of useful stuff about structure, POV, character development etc. Adapt it for literary/prose writing.
***My hand is hurting, right up to my elbow. If there are any weird typos/words, that is why.