What is POV and why is it important?

POV (Point of View) is the difference between you telling the reader the story and the readers seeing the story through the character’s/characters’ eyes, hearing it through their ears, feeling it, smelling it, etc.

Often, the mastery of the POV is what separates a good author from a great author (IMO).

There are many to choose from (list taken from Wikipedia):

  • Narrative point of view

  • First-person view

  • Second-person view

  • Third-person view

  • Alternating person view

  • Narrative voice

    • Stream-of-consciousness voice

    • Character voice

      • Unreliable voice

  • Epistolary voice (letter/email/text, etc writing)

  • Third-person voices

    • Third-person, subjective

    • Third-person, objective

    • Third-person, omniscient

To any of these you can apply

  • Narrative time

  • Past tense

  • Present tense

  • Future tense

Future tense is rare. Can you think why?

Historically, third-person omnipresent (and past tense) was the most common.

Advantages:

  • Narrator is objective, reliable (you can trust the story to be true).

  • Best suited to telling epic, complicated stories in which a single character simply wouldn’t see all that was going on.

People may distinguish between third-person omniscient and universal omniscient. With universal omniscient, the narrator is able to tell the reader things that the characters wouldn’t know.

Can you think of any disadvantages?

First-person/present tense is currently popular among, in particular, the Young Adult themed books (well known example is Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins). This style creates a sense of immediacy. The reader experiences events through the eyes of one of the characters in the book at the same time the characters do.

Advantages:

  • Can share inner most thoughts (depending how aware the character is that they’re sharing their story… if they are aware, they may “choose” to keep some thoughts private).

  • Sense of drama may be greater as you experience events unfold with the character.

  • Others?

Disadvantages:

  • Subjective, perhaps unreliable.

  • The details the character notices may be coloured by their previous experiences – you may not see the whole picture.

One thing to be aware of when writing present tense, in particular, is what would the character want to share in the middle of events? It can read disingenuous when the character is noticing the feel of her dress around her ankles as she runs for her life… unless she’s noticing the tripping risk.

Hunger Games works because its narrative is really very sparse. Katniss thinks, and we’re right there with her as she does, but her thoughts are focussed on what is happening and what that means for her. There is little, if any, noticing of the pretty things. All is about what can be used as a tool and calculating how likely she is to succeed at trying.

Third-person is the most commonly used. When I began early edits of my novel Healer’s Touch, I asked some friends if they preferred first- or third-person narrative, and third came back the winner (small sample size, but, meh…).

Third-person can be delivered as close as first-person (subjective), even delve into the character’s thoughts, or it can be omniscient (objective), or somewhere in between (hence the popularity). As such, third-person has the same advantages and disadvantages as omniscient and first-person, and for the same reasons.

And, of course, you can mix all of these within a novel (I wouldn’t recommend mixing more than 2 for a short story… but it’s up to you to play)… the success or failure all comes down to how well you can use these tools.

Combining narrative forms, or simply alternating (while still using first-person or third-person) can give you the benefits of all narrative points of view. You can delve into the thoughts of various characters, plus one character can see what others don’t, giving the reader a greater understanding of the characters themselves as well as the world they live in.

If you are going to switch POV, it is recommended to clearly signal this to the reader. Either with a scene break (***), or a full Chapter break.

I find that first-person/past tense has a real “storyteller” feeling to it. It’s like you’re reliving an event in your life. Perhaps you’re finally writing it down. Or, perhaps you’re sitting by the fire sharing the tale with listeners, rather than readers. This can be a very comforting style. The disadvantage would be that it’s not so good if you want to achieve a sense of risk-of-death to the main character, because it’s immediately clear that they survived the tale!

Ultimately, it depends what effect you are going for. The closer the reader can be with one character, the stronger the “bond” they will form.

The key to successful POV writing is in being genuine to that POV.

David Farland: Tightening Your Focus.

Some examples:

  • Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie perfectly illustrates David Farland’s point.

  • A Song of Stone by Iain Banks (my he rest in peace) shows a successful first/second-person narrative.

  • Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is an excellent example of first-person present-tense.

  • The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks has a switch from first-person past-tense to first-person present-tense as the main character reflects on the story they’ve just shared with you.

  • Inversions by Iain M. Banks is a beautiful example of alternating points of view in that the reader (hopefully… I was, anyway) is drawn into both sides of the story, supporting both causes, only to realise near the end that they oppose, and must eventually face each other.

If you’re writing from first-person POV, do you think they notice how their forehead scrunches when they’re confused? Or, do you think they just feel confused?

If you’re writing third-person, but through the eyes of one of the characters, can they see what is going on behind them?

Homework:

Three characters are driving along listening to the radio. They argue as to which station they should listen to. Write each character’s defense of why the others should listen to the station he or she prefers. This defense could include the merits of the music and/or why the others should do what this character wants (i.e., “I’m older, that’s why.”) What does the preference in radio stations–and the method of argument–tell the reader about that character?

A teenage couple is sitting at a restaurant, playfully making up a fake Cosmo love test for each other. What questions do they ask each other? Now, write the same scene, but this time the couple is in their thirties. How would the questions differ? Write the same scene again, but this time the couple has been married for fifteen years. How would their questions be different than the other two tests?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s