by Louisa Swann.
I’ve heard several responses, everything from “What do you mean, whose head am I in?” to “I make sure every character has the opportunity to play the point of view character.”
Okaaay. Maybe I should amend the question from “Why should I care?” to “Why should I care enough to do it right?”
Point of view is one of the most crucial aspects of story writing. Choosing the wrong point of view can not only weaken a story, it can change the story into something else altogether. Instead of a thriller, you could end up with a comedy.
All because you chose the wrong point of view.
So what is point of view? There is no reason you should trust my definition –I don’t know most of you and most of you don’t know me. So, here are a few words of wisdom from outside sources:
Vicki Hinze, award-winning author of 25+ novels, several nonfiction books, and a gazillion articles, has this to say about POV:
“It (POV) is the perspective through which readers will experience the story. From the inception of the story idea, the writer makes story-telling choices. She chooses characters, plot, setting, theme – and how best to depict them. The writer also chooses who is best to depict specific story elements. That “who” defines the POV character.”
Understanding POV in Literature for Dummies adds this note:
“Literature provides a lens through which readers look at the world. Point of view is the way the author allows you to “see” and “hear” what’s going on. Skillful authors can fix their readers’ attention on exactly the detail, opinion, or emotion the author wants to emphasize by manipulating the point of view of the story.”
My own mentors, Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith not only showed me the pointy end of the stick when it came to POV in storytelling, they drove that pointy end in with Thor’s hammer. If a writer chooses the wrong point of view, not only can said writer lose the emotional impact of the story, the entire point of the story can, and often is, lost.
Take a look at this picture:
How many stories can you find in the image above? One? Two? More?
I see at least ten: chick and eagle; eagle and chick; leopard and chick; chick and leopard; turkey and leopard; leopard and eagle, eagle and leopard, eagle and turkey, turkey and leopard, leopard and turkey; pillow and chick, etc.
One point of view will tell the picture’s story better than the others. That point of view can change, though, depending on the genre (mainstream could use all of the above in omniscient style). A comedy might tell the tale from the point of view of the mirror. A thriller could be spun between the chicken and the leopard. A coming of age story could be told from the chick’s point of view.
A multiple viewpoint story utilizes POV’s of different characters. By utilizing different viewpoints, the author can round out the story, misdirect the reader, fill in details the main character couldn’t have known. However, using too many pov’s can confuse the reader and weaken the overall story by giving too much detail. A good general guideline is that a scene should be told from the pov of the character who has the most to lose in that scene.
Choosing the most effective point of view includes choosing how that point of view is portrayed. For example, if you’re going to use the viewpoints from several characters, it is advisable to use third person instead of first person, but that is a subject for another blog.
Which brings us to “How do I know if I’m doing POV right?”
You can’t go too far astray if you remember one basic rule: Filter everything through the point of view character’s eyes.
So, how does your POV character perceive the world?
Here’s another picture:
What do you see – a fashionable young lady or an old hag?
Now – what does your point of view character see?
Different people will perceive this image differently and how each of them sees the image will lead to different ramifications which in turn lead to results which could be to the far left or far right of what was expected. (Whew!) In other words – if the image is a clue and a detective sees a young woman, but the private investigator hired to clear the unfairly accused sees an old hag, any ensuing discussion will necessarily be fraught with confusion (another word for misdirection if you’re the writer).
One of the reasons (in my opinion) that Watson is the one telling the story (and thus the point of view character) is that Sherlock often solves the mystery fairly quickly and then spends time proving his theory. If the story was told form Sherlock’s point of view, the mystery would be taken out of the mystery, resulting in a different story altogether. By using Watson as the point of view character, the mystery remains a mystery and Sherlock himself is rather mysterious since we don’t know what’s going on in his head.
Perception. It all depends on your perception. Perception is key in getting POV “right.” For example, a POV character does not go around describing him or herself to everyone in sight unless said character is a narcissist or suffering from some kind of insanity. As a writer, if you want to describe a POV character’s physical looks, you need to get creative. Looking in a mirror is considering “cheating.” Jim Butcher uses comparisons to physically sketch his main character Harry Dresden (“Where my features are all lean and angular, with a hawkish nose and a sharp chin, hers are round and smooth, with the kind of cute nose you’d expect on a cheerleader.” Storm Front). He also neatly works in a bit more physical description along with the action. (“I have long legs that eat a lot of ground.” Storm Front) More importantly, the reader gets to know the inside of Harry Dresden before any physical description comes into the story.
What’s inside a character is what makes a reader care. This might seem like a “duh” statement, but it is surprising how many new writers seem to forget this little nugget. They try to wow the world with fancy words or magnificent descriptions, forgetting that the reader doesn’t care what the writer is thinking – the reader cares what the point of view character is thinking. And feeling. And that comes from the POV character’s perception of the world.
So, let’s take a closer look at perception:
“Perception (from the Latin perceptio, percipio) is the organization, identification, and interpretation of sensory information in order to fabricate a mental representation through the process of transduction, which sensors in the body transform signals from the environment into encoded neural signals. All perception involves signals in the nervous system, which in turn result from physical stimulation of the sense organs. For example, vision involves light striking the retinas of the eyes, smell is mediated by odor molecules and hearing involves pressure waves. Perception is not the passive receipt of these signals, but can be shaped by learning, memory and expectation. Perception involves these “top-down” effects as well as the “bottom-up” process of processing sensory input. The “bottom-up” processing is basically low-level information that’s used to build up higher-level information (i.e. – shapes for object recognition). The “top-down” processing refers to a person’s concept and expectations (knowledge) that influence perception. Perception depends on complex functions of the nervous system, but subjectively seems mostly effortless because this processing happens outside conscious awareness.”
Try saying that three times fast!! Loosely translated, perception is the way living beings identify, organize, and interpret sensory information which can be shaped by learning memory and expectation, but is mostly effortless because this internal processing happens outside conscious awareness.
Going back to the image with the chick, the eagle, and the leopard. The chick has an innocent’s view of the world. At this cute and fluffy stage of his life, danger is just a word the hens use to keep him inside at night. His world consists of scratching seeds and worms from the soil, diving into a mountain of fuzzy chicks and clucking hens to stay warm at night. He dreams of growing up to be an eagle so he can soar over the farm and scare all the chickens below him into hiding. (This is one twisted little chick!)
The leopard’s view of the world is cunning and cold. He’s learned through a lifetime of near misses that Death crouches behind every tree. He has no tolerance for misguided chicks who think they’ll grow up to be more than a meal and yet grants a grudging tolerance to those lesser than he who show courage and resourcefulness. He hates getting bones stuck in his teeth and has a perpetual tickle in his throat that causes him to cough during the most inopportune moments.
If animal fantasy is a little out of your comfort zone, then consider something simpler: A wedding told from the flower girl’s pov would convey a different message than the same story told from the point of view of the bride or the groom or the minister or the statue sitting at the altar or the pew bench holding up people’s bums.
Which brings us back to – what story do you want to write? Or maybe I should ask – whose head will you be in tonight?
Louisa Swann is a Lucky Bat Books Project Manager, an expert in publishing and a wiz at wrangling your book as it goes from manuscript pages to published print and ebook.