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Point of View: Eye of the Beholder
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Point of View: Eye of the Beholder

All fiction is a form of magic. The writer weaves a spell in which simple words on a page evoke people, places, actions, and emotions so vivid that the reader experiences them as real. Viewing the story in her mind's eye rather than on a movie screen, the reader actually fills in many details from her own imagination. This doesn't happen consciously, of course, but as an imaginative leap.

 

One of the techniques for weaving such a potent spell is point of view (POV). Simply stated, POV is the narrator. In previous times, that voice was the author's. Godlike and omniscient, he could hop in and out of different characters' heads even in a single scene, letting us know what everyone present is thinking and feeling. This was a favorite device of Agatha Christie, for one. Earlier on, writers of Victorian novels like Vanity Fair could, and often did, take even more liberties by actually stepping out of the story to speak directly to the reader. In scene after scene of Vanity Fair, Thackeray often interrupts the action to turn to address the "Dear Reader" with snide or humorous comments about his own characters.

 

In our time, the best writing uses limited point of view. The writer puts herself inside the heart and mind of a single character, and we know only what that character knows, thinks, imagines, guesses, feels, and experiences. Experienced or especially successful writers sometimes take liberties with POV, but a new writer's job is to master the technique.

 

As a book editor, I was hawkish about POV. If a writer started hopping in and out of characters' heads in a scene, I flagged it immediately. If the writer didn't make the fix, I did so later. Times have changed, and it's hard to know whether it's sloppy editing or careless writing--not artful intention--that's responsible for the head-hopping in some published books today.

 

The "rules" of writing are not set in stone, of course, but taking control of POV will lift your skill to a new level.

 

How POV Works

 

Though the idea behind limited POV is simple, it's one of the things new writers struggle with most. All it means is that you choose a single character, get inside his viewpoint, and never stray from that, come hell or high water.

 

In a short story, you're building to the climax with only a handful of scenes, so it's best if your POV character is also the main character. You'll put the reader inside his mind and heart, and from that moment on we will know only what he knows, see only what he sees, feel only what he feels. Your POV character can guess, imagine, dream, or intuit what another character is thinking, feeling, or doing, but that's the extent of it.

 

In a novel, you may have more than one POV character when you've got more than one plotline, but be sure to maintain consistent POV within each scene. In most of the mass-market novels I edited, the chapters were short--averaging about 3,000 words each. Within those 10 or 12 manuscript pages, the writer usually followed only one viewpoint character. Most POV shifts occurred from chapter to chapter rather than from scene to scene. Each chapter ended with a mini cliff-hanger for that character, which kept the pace moving while building momentum and suspense.

           

Limited Point of View

 

Many books and articles on writing describe as many as eight or more fictional points of view. To my mind, there are only two good ones. These are either third-person limited or first-person POV.

 

In first-person point of view ("I"), the main character tells the story in his own voice. “All right, then, I’ll go to hell!” Huck Finn mutters when he decides to protect Jim rather than turn him in as a runaway slave. In the biggest understatement in English prose, David Copperfield says in the novel's opening lines, "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."

 

New writers sometimes like first person because it feels natural. The protagonist is often the writer's alter ego, with not much difference between the "I" of the main character and the "I" of the writer. First-person can be tricky, though, because it risks becoming a long-winded monologue.

 

Much more common is limited third person (she/he). It's not as intimate as the "I" of first person, but it's not godlike or omniscient either. Third-person is less likely to wear on the reader's patience the way "I, I, I" can do. It automatically creates a sense of "story", too, because the reader knows that somebody is weaving a tale even if it's not a godlike narrator.

 

Just as in first-person POV, limited third person puts us inside the mind and heart of a single character and then lets us know only what that character experiences directly. Let's say you've got a scene from the POV of Janet, who is investigating some eerie noises with the help of her sister Alice. Can you find the head-hopping in the following example:

 

Janet turned and looked at Alice as they rounded a corner, with a closed door at the end of the dark corridor. Too afraid to go first, Alice pushed Janet forward. Janet could hardly breathe, but they'd been through too much to stop now. She reached for the doorknob. Behind her, Alice trembled, closing her eyes in fear.

 

How did you do? Did you notice the POV shift when Alice is too scared to go first? And Janet can't know that Alice is trembling, and she certainly can't see behind her back that Alice is closing her eyes in fear. These are examples of author intrusion, or head-hopping.       

 

Whether short story or novel, we use limited POV to create the illusion of real life. This creates excitement because neither your main character nor the reader will ever be entirely sure what happens next.

 

Choosing the POV Character

 

Just remember that in a short story, you'll choose only one POV character, never straying from what that character knows and feels. Novels, which often have subplots, may have several POV characters. But that doesn't mean hopping wildly from one character's head to another in a single scene. The rule of thumb still applies to each scene, where you will limit yourself to only a single POV.

 

In a short story, the best plan is to make your main character and your POV character one and the same. For readers to stay glued to your words, we must care so much about the MC that we live the story's events as though they're happening to us. What better way to create that connection than by putting the reader squarely in the mind and heart of the main character--and no one else?

 

If private eye Clay Cole is your short story's main character, don't trying following the murderer around unless you're in Cole's POV as he pursues. Or if your thriller novel has character Tracey fearing that someone's after her, don't have her walking down the street hearing footsteps behind her in one paragraph, followed immediately by a paragraph from the point of view of the villain about to commit mayhem. To create suspense, let the reader see, hear, and feel only what Tracey does.

 

Many good story ideas fail because the writer chose the wrong point of view. In deciding, ask yourself which character has the most at stake. She's the one with the burning desire and the obstacle to overcome, so create excitement by putting us inside her POV.  In a short story romance, let us suffer all the slings and arrows of Dora Doveheart's anxiety, longing, even despair. Don't try telling the story from her concerned mother's or her best friend's POV because that's drama at second-hand. If it's a sci-fi novel, let the main character be the scientist who gets trapped in his own time machine, not his girlfriend who is left waiting behind. He's the one who burns to know more than humans are meant to about life's mysteries. He has the most at stake. Sure, you might alternate between scenes of his terrifying experiences and his girlfriend's fears for him to create suspense, but never within the same scene.

 

Memorable Characters and POV

 

Even if you have a great theme and a dynamite plot, it's character that your readers will remember characters long after they've forgotten everything else. What makes Jane Eyre, James Bond, Huck Finn, Scarlett O'Hara, or the vampire Lestat memorable is that we live inside each one's POV.

 

It's no surprise that most of the characters on my short list aren't necessarily goody little two-shoes. We don't fall in love with them because their story has a great moral, and we don't stay awake turning the pages all night because of their story's theme. What makes a character compelling is that we get inside his experience so vividly, so vicariously, so viscerally that what happens to Scarlett or Huck or Lestat feels like it's happening to us. Morality and theme are abstractions, while great characters live and breathe in our imaginations.

 

Later on in our own lives, we may hark back to what we went through with Scarlett. Through the experience of her fierce will, we too learn something about survival. Scarlett O'Hara may at times be flawed and barely likable, but we don't judge her because we understand her from the inside out. All we care about is what's going to happen next and how she will handle it. We come to love her as she is and through sharing her struggle. All great characters have something to teach us because they hold up a mirror to the human heart.

 

POV As Internal Dialogue

 

Each human being experiences life one moment at a time. We exist within our own limited consciousness, then bumble along, doing the best we can. In writing, limited point of view helps create that illusion. In a short story about the supernatural, for example, use the main character's POV to let us experience every creak of the floorboards, every strange glow of some ordinary object, every flash of a figure suddenly disappearing around the corner, every eerie sound emanating from just out of sight. Build terror and suspense by evoking the POV character's fear and trembling, not by hopping in and out of different character's heads.

 

Of course, you need to give your POV character some burning motivation to confront his problem when all he wants to do is escape. But instead of explaining and narrating all this in big blocks of back-story, you can use POV as internal dialogue to gradually reveal Mary or Mario or Murgatroid's motivation as the action proceeds.

 

One of the favorite flaws of new writers is to start with page after page of background information. In one beginner story set against the American Civil War, the writer began with 5 or 6 pages of various characters spouting information on battles and the progress of the war to one another. Ostensibly, this was so that the reader would understand the story's back-drop, but that's not the job of the opening pages of a story or novel.

 

In your opener, put the main character into some exciting action that also lets us get curious and interested in her. The action might be dialogue or some other dramatic situation, but it's skillful use of POV that makes us immediately begin to care. Here's an example:

 

Josie hummed softly as she pulled a heavy, wet sheet from the tub and began pinning one end to the line strung across the yard. Laundry day was hard work, but she always felt good when it was done. The sheets and pillowcases hanging in the hot August sun would grow whiter as the day wore on, and there was nothing like the fresh smell of sun-bleached laundry.

 

She'd only just begun when the clatter of horse hooves broke the early morning stillness. Standing on tiptoe, Josie peered over her clothesline as five soldiers came riding at full gallop into the yard. 

 

 As the dust cleared, she ducked quickly so the soldiers wouldn't see her. They were more like boys than men, but Josie didn't need a second look at their torn and mud-spattered uniforms to recognize the hated Union blue.

 

Though the intent of these few lines is to get the reader involved quickly with Josie, they also manage to pack in a lot of information--the time of day, the setting, Josie's social status, the season, the month, the historical period, on which side of the Mason-Dixon line the story takes place, and Josie's political sympathies. It's all done through her POV, not through narration, author intrusion, or artificial conversations in which characters recite facts at one another. It's also written so that the reader barely realizes he's getting all this information. As a technique, that's the beauty of point of view.

 

For practice, try choosing some historical setting of your own and then write a couple of opening paragraphs as I did. Maybe it's a couple of Gestapo who drive up to a farmhouse in the French countryside or some Roman soldiers surprising a Christian character in his hovel or even a fantasy or sci-fi background of your own invention. How much factual information can you work in through internal dialogue without the reader ever realizing that you've been feeding him back-story?

 

Enjoy the View

 

Like word count, limited POV is a self-regulating mechanism. One reason new writers struggle with it so much is that they're too anxious to tell the reader what that they should be showing us instead. The writer must have one foot inside the story and one foot on where the story's going, and that takes practice to master.

 

For example, if your POV character is Dan is in the midst of an argument with his wife Sally, he might feel his throat tighten or his face get hot.  If we're firmly in his POV, he definitely won't "glare at Sally with his piercing blue eyes" or "run one hand through his sandy blond hair".  No one walks around thinking of himself in those terms. Dan can't see his own blue eyes, and it's not likely he's thinking of what color they are in the middle of an argument anyway.

 

If you need physical description for some reason, use technique to bring it out. Few of us walk around thinking about our eye color or hair color or whether our skin is rough or smooth. We're getting on with our lives, which usually means struggling with this or that problem or person, just like your story's main character. If you still need to describe Dan's physical appearance in the midst of an argument with Sally, you'll have to reveal it through some words or actions of hers or another character present in the scene.

 

In Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, it's fifty-two pages before we get a physical description of first-person narrator Philip Marlowe. Chandler doesn't use the well-worn device of Marlowe looking in a mirror, but the words of the night captain when Marlowe gets thrown in jail. "No visible scars," the captain says. "Hair dark brown, some gray. Eyes brown. Height six feet, one half inch. Weight abut one ninety. Name Philip Marlowe. Occupation private detective. Well, well, nice to see you, Marlowe. That's all. Next man."

 

In one series of novels I edited, a multi-book author routinely had characters thinking of themselves with "emerald eyes" or "flowing golden hair", phrases that I just as routinely edited out because (1) they violated POV and (2) had nothing to do with the action. Years later, fans were combing these novels looking for descriptions of some recurring characters, but only I knew the reason the physical details were so hard to find.

 

Name Your Characters

 

Many new writers neglect to give their POV character a name, especially in first-person fiction. Maybe the writer can't figure out how to work the name in, but it's easy enough to have someone call the character by name in the opening lines or in the next scene. It's true that some writers have left their main characters nameless. In Rebecca, Daphne DuMaurier never tells us the name of the second Mrs. DeWinter, perhaps to suggest her self-effacing nature. Still, I've read too many stories where the main character seemed anonymous, lifeless, and unsympathetic merely because she is nameless.

 

We can never underestimate the power of a name. Naming is one of the things that make us human. In a gesture of intimacy and affection, we name our pets, our cars, our boats, our homes. We give special nicknames to our friends, family, and other loved ones. Juliet said of Romeo that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet", but names give off their own perfume. So, make sure your POV character has a name and that the reader knows what it is sooner rather than later.

 

Forget the Epithets

 

The opposite of failing to name your POV character is calling him by so many different epithets that the reader gets hopelessly lost. I once edited a novel manuscript where, in a single scene, the POV character was variously called Alex, the Captain, Montgomery, the ship's commander, the officer, and the tall, thin man, among other epithets. This was the character's first appearance in the novel, so how could I know that his name was Alex, that he was the captain, or that Montgomery was his last name? Or was Alex one person and Montgomery somebody else altogether? And how could I tell whether "the commander" was a separate character from "the officer", much less that the writer was actually trying to find a way to avoid repeating the name of a single character?

 

Once you've chosen your character's name, stay consistent throughout. Decide whether he's to be known, even in his own POV, as either Alex or as Montgomery. Calling him by his first name will create more intimacy, but using only his surname might be appropriate for a more hard-edged character. Of course, who remembers that "Rick", Humphrey Bogart's character in "Casablanca", is actually someone named Rick Blaine? The snappy first name says it all, and no one ever calls him anything else.

 

Here's another example using a character named Vladimir Petrov. He is eighty years old, emigrated to the U.S. from Siberia years ago, and is bald. If we are really in his thoughts and feelings, he would never think of himself as "the octogenarian", "the bald-headed man", or the "former resident of Siberia". If he thinks of himself at all, it would likely be by his first name or by some nickname like Vlad or even as "you".

 

Taking it a step further, let's put Vlad in conversation with Sacha Tcherensky, an old friend from Siberia who is down and out. If you're in Vlad's POV, you wouldn't write:

 

        "Well, how much did you come begging for today?" the former resident of Siberia said to his friend from the old country. 

 

Suddenly referring to a character by an epithet breaks the illusion of reality. If Vlad becomes a "former resident of Siberia" and Sacha "his friend from the old country", you're no longer in Vlad's POV. Now you're standing outside the story looking in rather letting us live it from inside the viewpoint of a vivid and memorable character.Surely Vlad would always think of Sacha by his first name, so let Vlad be Vlad and Sacha be Sacha.

 

Multiple POVs

 

Many novels use more than one POV character. Usually these appear as the main character of the main story plus secondary characters involved in subplots. The main character, for example, is trying to solve a crime while another character is trying to cover it up. Or, in novels like Cashelmara and Penmarric by Susan Howatch, one POV character may carry the story for 100 pages or so, and then the POV shifts to a completely different character as the story jumps forward in time to another long section.             In some genres, you may have as many as 5, 6, or more POV characters. In one series I edited, the action spanned galaxies, with space empires ruled by dynastic families. The political struggles of the dynastic characters shaped the story line from one book to the next, while each novel also followed the life and times of some mercenary or other humble character that the reader could easily identify with.

 

Unless you're writing military thrillers like Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan novels or space opera like the BattleTech, too many POV characters may prevent the reader from getting involved with any one character long enough to get invested in the book. In such novels, the POV shifts usually occur from chapter to chapter. The danger is that the reader will lose interest when the main character drops out of sight for 5 or 6 chapters or more. And unless you've got an exciting page-turner, the Byzantine plot may get too confusing to grab the reader for long.

 

On the other hand, subplots may help a writer hike across what novelist Heather Sellers calls "the lonely and vast desert" of a book's middle. She suggests three plotlines as the ideal number. As you alternate between characters, the subplots help create surprise, tension, and drama for both the writer and the reader.

 

Sellers also suggests using the technique as a revision strategy when your plot just isn't working. It may be that you simply need to add one or two POV characters, each with his or her own storyline. In The Great Gatsby, one of the most famous novels in English, Jay Gatsby wants only to win the love of Daisy, a married woman. In another plot thread, Daisy's husband Tom is having his own affair. As these and other subplots gradually meet and erupt in the novel's climax, the outcome is as inevitable as it is tragic, as memorable as it is moving.