This week’s post is a preview for the workshop I’ll be teaching next week on writing Characters and POV. I find that writers either understand Point of View (POV) innately, or they struggle. With a few pointers, I hope every writer will master POV, also called Viewpoint.
Writing Tip for Today: Here’s a refresher on the “rules” of writing POV and some other factors to consider:
In fiction or memoir, Point of View helps readers follow a character’s version of a story in a personal way. Effective POV hooks readers and makes them ache to find out what happens to that character. Here is a short recap of the main POVs and their uses:
- Third Person Limited POV uses the “he/she” pronouns. Limited: each Point of View’s thoughts, feelings, actions and dialogue only flows through one character at a time. This POV is most common in fiction. The reader is like a cameraman following someone around, with the added benefit of being able to sense what the character senses.
- First Person POV is also popular and uses the “I” voice. Readers still follow one character, but now the experience feels more intimate or immediate, as if the character were confiding in the reader. Readers are inside the character. The simple exchange of he/she for “I” brings the camera closer—readers are always inside the POV character, not simply observing. The drawback? Readers can only know or see what the POV character observes or sees.
- In Omniscient or God’s eye POV, the camera sees a less intimate picture and floats above the entire scene. Readers can enter the heads of more than one character in the same scene. The main drawback for this POV is confusion. If readers become confused as to who’s telling the story, they may lose interest. Another pitfall of Omniscient POV is that readers may dilute their sympathies or not know whom to root for or follow.
- Second Person POV uses the “you” pronoun and is much less common than Third or First POVs. Unless written with great skill, readers quickly tire of feeling as if the writer is pointing at them or telling them how to feel or act. Recommended for advanced writers. A great example is this essay by Lorrie Moore.
Who Am I?
The easiest way to keep your POV from head hopping (jumping from one character’s POV to another within a scene) or other writing sins, is to remember who is telling the story at any moment. When you write, imagine that you are this POV character. You use your senses to engage with the world, and you have a rich inner life too. Yet you don’t know what others feel, sense or say to themselves. Keep this in mind as you write your character. Prevent reader confusion by switching POV (if you are using more than one viewpoint) only at scene or chapter breaks. Think of each POV as a separate actor who must come on stage before the camera switches to another angle.
Who Should I Be?
Writing Point of View mastery gets more complicated in Multiple Viewpoint work. When you add more voices to a story, be sure you really need to tell the story from each of these character’s viewpoints. If you add POVs simply to “add interest” or because they have unique voices, readers’ sympathies will again be diluted or confusion may erupt. Ask yourself: Whose story is this?
Try this: Line up all your characters. Ask them each to tell their version of an event in the story. They’re all different, right? Which character has the most to lose? This character is usually your best bet as protagonist or Main Character POV.
Don’t try to tell competing stories from different viewpoints. Instead, focus all the energy possible on the character who will grow, learn or change the most by story’s end.