Point of View, One More Time

Dear Puzzled,

Foolproof? Probably not. But here are a few things you might consider as you decide which of one of you undoubtedly fabulous characters is going to carry the POV in any given scene.

1) In truth, determining who the POV character is is sometimes as simple as following your nose. Logic and good storytelling dictate who it has to be, the hero in this case. From DANCE by Judy Cuevas:
Sebastian knew Marie Du Gard slightly better than her father realized. Sebastian has slept with her once. It had been a fleeting, feverish encounter on a rainy August afternoon that made no sense then, and made even less now.

2) Start with the strongest voice in the scene. If you are writing in first person, this is the first person character. From REBECCA by Daphne DuMaurier:
Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.

Or if you are writing in third person. . . From TELL ME LIES by Jennifer Crusie:
One hot August Thursday afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren’t hers.

3) In some cases, you can determine the POV character by what it is you want to either hide or reveal. This review of one of Dick Francis’s mysteries says everything about the art of misdirection: “Dick Francis lays all the clues on the table, then blithely directs your attention to the chandelier.”

Through the use of his POV characters, no doubt.

But mystery writers aren’t the only ones to use this technique. In Kristin Hannah’s romance WAITING FOR THE MOON — a classic amnesia story — the prologue takes place before the heroine develops amnesia. If the heroine were the POV character in the first scene of the novel, there would be no questions to ask and answer about her past.

Instead, to keep her heroine’s secrets, Hannah begins the book in a stranger’s POV. We are privy to his observations about the heroine, the questions he has about her behavior — and the incident that causes her amnesia. He is a character that does not reoccur in the course of the boo, but as brief as his appearance is, his POV throws us into the very midst of the story.

4) The POV character is often determined by who has the most at stake. In Laura Kinsale’s novel SEIZE THE FIRE, the hero is tortured by what we know of today call water-boarding. By using him as the POV character, we are privy to his panic and fear as he is questioned. We feel his determination to protect the heroine, and how quickly his will to resist is eroding. The consuming question of whether he will be able to keep his secrets — and hers — keeps us reading and gives this scene enormous emotional power.

Sometimes, however, the most dynamic or active person in the scene is not the one who has the most at stake. In Elizabeth Grayson’s book, SO WIDE THE SKY, two men are in love with the heroine. As both of them prepare to leave on a dangerous mission, the POV hero watches the woman he loves say good-bye to the other man. He sees her give him the food she’s packed for him. He sees her kiss his rival and he can see how much she cares for the other man. In those moments, his envy and grief all but tears him apart. Though he does no more than observe, it is clear he has the most at stake. Therefore, he should be the one to describe what is happening so the reader to realizes how deeply this simple exchange affects him.

5) If you are having trouble getting one of your scenes to “work,” consider looking at the story from another character’s POV. Sometimes a new perspective on a scene can deepen the reader’s perception of what is happening in the plot, the actions of the characters, and the subtext of their emotions. Occasionally I have written the same scene from every character’s POV. Not only have I learned a lot about the individual characters in doing that, I am able to chose which one of them best advances I mean to tell.

If you ever find yourself arguing about POV with another writer, do remember that in the end POV is no more than a tool in your writer’s tool box. Learn to use it effectively and you can shape the reader’s experience, draw them more deeply into the story, and play on their emotions. Things all successful storytelling — and storytellers — do.

Just a few more things from my point of view —