My Point of View on Point of View - Part Two
In last month’s column we began a discussion of point of view (POV). We
covered the definitions of person and POV, and looked at how a passage could
be written several different ways.
In this month’s column we will continue examining POV – mostly third
person limited – without going through the definitions and examples from
last month. If you want to review last month’s column – or, in case you
never read it – please visit the
Fiction Fix archives.
Implications of a Selected POV
If you are in a character’s POV, this limits but also directs
your outlook and perception with respect to the events of the story.
Limiting what the reader learns may seem fairly obvious; if you don’t have a
POV character in a scene, then the readers won’t be able to ‘experience’
that scene first-hand. For example, your story might be more exciting if you
can show a murder taking place. However, if your POV character is not at the
murder scene – either as the perpetrator or the victim or simply as a
witness, showing this scene to the readers presents some difficulties (which
are not insurmountable, as we’ll see later).
By directs, I mean that, given your POV character, there will be
some aspects that your story can’t ignore, because they are so important to
your character. For example, let’s say that your POV character is a young
woman who is supposed to get married the next day. The trailer in which she
is sleeping catches on fire. She will be desperate, of course, to get
herself and her trailer-mates to safety. She’s also going to want to rescue
her wedding dress, and unless you mention this, you’re not being true to
your character. (I didn’t reach this point in the example in last month’s
column but the wedding dress would have become an object of either rescue or
regret had the passage continued.)
Let’s go through some aspects which should be limited or directed, and
therefore influence the shape of your story:
Events. In your story, events will happen. A question each author
must answer is whether an event happens on-stage for the readers – or
whether readers will learn about this event second-hand, either in a summary
given by the author (reverting possibly to the omniscient POV), or by
another character speaking about it. If you are using the third person
limited, and are sticking with a single character, your choice is made
clear. If your character is not in that scene, then you can’t show it
first-hand (again, there are ways to get around this).
Information. The same restriction applies to the information which
is accessible to the reader. If there has been no reason for a piece of
information to be introduced to the POV character, then there’s no reason to
introduce it to the reader.
One frequently employed technique is to slip in a piece of information
that seems innocuous to the POV character – and possibly the reader – when
it is introduced. This is used frequently in detective stories. However, you
still need to make it plausible for POV character to encounter even the
innocently disguised information.
Thoughts. Readers should only have access to the thought processes
of the POV character. This means that your POV character does not
automatically know what other characters are thinking, unless your POV
character happens to be a mind-reader.
Of course, sometimes the POV character and the readers need to know what
the other characters are thinking. So, how is this done? Occasionally the
POV character will guess (and what is even more fun, occasionally the
character will guess incorrectly). However, most likely the POV character
will learn what another character is thinking because that character will
make it clear through deeds and dialogue.
Feelings. The POV character’s feelings should be available to the
reader. Occasionally they will be so strong that they will overwhelm
everything else, and prevent the character from doing what he or she ought
to do. Although this may hamper your storytelling, your story may be more
interesting if your POV character has strong feelings.
What about the feelings of other characters? Even though your POV
character will not experience these feelings first-hand, you can still make
many of them clear to your POV character as well as to your readers. One way is
to have another character simply state these feelings. This may seem like
telling as opposed to showing, but you can incorporate these feelings in a
shouting match, a love scene, or a whispered consultation between two
You can also show what the other characters are feeling. Consider the
emotions associated with the following activities: frowning, smiling,
winking, shouting, cursing, blushing, crying, giggling, whispering, dancing,
clapping hands, folding arms, stamping feet, slamming doors, raising
eyebrows, drumming fingers, slapping someone on the back, and kissing. Each
activity gives clues as to how non POV characters feel (and these bits of
body language can also be incorporated with your POV character, too).
Attitude. This will and should influence the POV character’s
thoughts and feelings. Is your character poor and uneducated? Or rich and
snooty? These attributes will affect the POV character’s attitude toward
whatever is happening in the scene.
Furthermore, coloring different events through the attitudes your POV
character helps entertain your reader by giving your character a different
perspective. Consider Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and how the narrator’s
inferiority complex influences the storytelling. The attitude of your POV
character helps make your story unique.
Physical experience. Your POV character should also physically
experience the scenes in which s/he participates, given his/her own
particular physical character. For example, in one story which I am writing,
one of my characters has an unusually sensitive sense of smell. This
actually surprised me (it’s funny, how the characters we create can surprise
us) but I realized later that it suited her fastidiousness. Another
character, who is also very musical, most logically has a keen sense of
hearing. A character that is short and weak will experience a crowd
differently from a character who is tall and powerful.
Alternatives to Using the POV Character
It may not be possible to tell everything that happens in a particular
story from one POV. What, then, as an author, are your options? Here are a
few, with examples from the Harry Potter books, as I’m currently enjoying
the last volume in the series – warning, there are
minor spoilers below for
the earlier books:
Change Point of View. Something may be so important to your story
that you feel you need to show a part of the story from another POV. Rowling
shows nearly all of her story from Harry’s POV, but there are exceptions at
the beginning of a few of her books. In Harry Potter and the
Philosopher’s Stone, the book begins in the omniscient POV, without a
focus on any particular character. In Goblet of Fire and
Half-Blood Prince we have similar introductory chapters, also from the
omniscient POV, without taking the reader inside a particular character’s
head. Only in the second chapter of Half-Blood Prince does Rowling
get inside the head of another character – the Muggle Prime Minister – whose POV is simply too much fun to resist!
Changing the POV is always an option, although if the rest of your story
is supposed to be from the POV of your protagonist, you will want to limit
how and when you do this.
Have another character tell the story. Conversation is one way to
bring information to the attention of your readers and your POV character.
Some writers will do this at length, and another character will take a long
time telling his or her story. Consider how Hagrid, for example, tells about
his visit to the Giants in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Other sources of information. The POV character can read
newspapers and books and diaries, or listen to the radio.
Memories, and so on. Occasionally a story will lend itself to more
fanciful methods of presenting a scene. The Harry Potter books include a
magical instrument known as a Pensieve, which allows incidents to be
‘re-experienced’ from the POV of the person who originally experienced the
event – filtered, of course, by the POV character who now swims in that
second person’s memory.
Eavesdropping. In the Harry Potter books, much of his
eavesdropping takes place when he is underneath his Invisibility Cloak,
although occasionally he is underneath a table, or behind a crate. In this
way he is able to overhear many conversations which are not meant for him
and learn information that is expressly being denied him. This is a way to
convey information that can be very shocking to the POV character. It can
also be a way to mislead the reader and the POV character, for the POV
character may not understand the context of the conversation in full.
This technique is employed by many storytellers, because it is so
convenient. Hence much more eavesdropping takes place in books than in real
If you are writing a story in first-person, then your choice of POV
character is generally clear – although even then you could have your
narrator listen raptly while another character relates some event.
Otherwise, you can choose the POV character for a particular scene. Which
character should you choose? There is no clear-cut, one-size-fits-all answer
– for which I’m grateful, for this is what makes storytelling from formula
into art! However, there are, like always, factors to consider. Here are a
Limitations. If you are limiting yourself to one POV, then you may
want to consider continuing the limitation, even if it means forgoing
showing something entertaining and interesting. Breaking the POV weakens the
connection you are making between the reader and your story. And perhaps
that entertaining bit belongs to another and different story, and not the
one you are currently writing.
Narrative necessities. Occasionally the readers need to see
particular events take place. What information does the reader need to have
for the story to continue to make sense – or not to make sense, if that is
your intention at this point?
Intensity. For which character is the event most devastating and
full of conflict? The character with the most to gain or lose will be most
intensely involved in a particular scene – and most intensely involving for
Emotional journey. Which character will help the reader best on
his or her emotional journey? How do you want your readers to feel at this
point of the story?
Reader relevance. To which POV will your reader relate best? If
you are writing for teenagers, for example, you may want to write your
scenes from the POV of a teenager. If you are writing a romance, you will
want to focus mostly on the POVs of the two lovers.
Author empathy. For which POV do have you the most empathy? As the
writer, you need to imagine and feel everything that happens in your story,
and you will do this better when you can empathize with your character.
Point of view is a tricky topic. I’m sure there’s much more to be written
on the subject, but my contribution ends here, at least for now. I’ve gone
well beyond my word limit in both articles, and I’ve also exhausted the
boundaries of my own personal expertise.
If you have questions or comments, or simply wish to share your point of
view, you may contact me at grossackva at yahoo dot com. Until next time!
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