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Establishing the Right Point of View: How to Avoid "Stepping Out of Character"

by Marg Gilks

"Dalquist was shaking with rage, tears streaking down her face. 'Get out,' she whispered. Then she lunged for the other woman, shrieking, 'Get out! Get out!'

Tamlinn managed to hide her surprise at the doctor's reaction; she'd expected an angry denial, not near-hysteria. With an exultant laugh, she dodged Dalquist and ran for the door to the head. It hissed shut behind her.

Shaking uncontrollably with the roiling emotions the other woman had dredged up, Dalquist collapsed onto the bed, sobbing, and covered her face with her hands."

Yikes! Reading this excerpt from my first novel now, I'm not surprised that agents bounced it back to me so fast, the glue was barely dry on the stamp.

If you can see what's wrong with this excerpt, congratulations. You understand point of view (POV). If not, don't feel bad; of all the skills a writer must learn, maintaining point of view seems to be one of the hardest. As a freelance editor, I see POV slips in almost every manuscript I work on. Once attuned to it, a careful reader will even notice subtle POV switches that slip past editors to wind up in published novels.

What's wrong with the above excerpt?

Paragraph one is ambiguous. Who's the POV character? The tears streaking down Dalquist's face could be either felt or seen. Referring to "the other woman" implies that this scene is from Dalquist's POV. But then, in paragraph two, we are inside Tamlinn's head, privy to her thoughts. There is no way that Dalquist can know what Tamlinn had expected, so Tamlinn must be the POV character. However, in paragraph three, our POV character, Tamlinn, has left the room; the door has shut behind her, leaving the reader behind to see what is impossible for Tamlinn to see. More, the reader knows not only that Dalquist is shaking -- something Tamlinn could have seen, had she stayed -- but that she is shaking because her emotions are in turmoil. Tamlinn may have suspected rage, but "turmoil" suggests more. This is Dalquist's POV.

Every scene should have only one POV character, and everything must be filtered through that POV character's perceptions. Only the POV character can know what he or she is thinking -- he can't know what anyone else is thinking, so the reader can't, either. The POV character can't see what's going on behind her or what the person on the other end of the phone line is doing while they are talking, so the reader can't know what's going on in those places, either. Keep that in mind -- stay firmly inside your POV character's head -- and you'll rarely have trouble with point of view.

But, isn't it so much easier just to tell the reader what character X is thinking, rather than trying to show it in ways the POV character (and thus, the reader) can see and understand? Why stick to the one-point-of-view rule?

Let's look at that again, and we'll see a hint: isn't it so much easier just to tell the reader what character X is thinking, rather than trying to show it in ways the POV character can see and understand?

Yup: "show, don't tell."

"People become, in our minds, what we see them do," says Orson Scott Card in his book, Characters and Viewpoint. We believe what we see more readily than what we're told. And what are readers learning, watching through our POV character's eyes? They're learning about the characters. Firstly, they're learning what character X is like by viewing his actions, and secondly, they're learning about our POV character by how he perceives character X's actions.

Yup: characterization.

Choosing one POV character strengthens readers' identification with that character. The more readers are carried along with that character, the more willing they are to stay immersed in the fictional dream. There is nothing more jarring to readers than a switch in point of view. They must mentally change gears. If readers are tagging along inside character X's head and then find themselves looking through character Y's eyes, they're confused. They stop reading to figure it out. They come out of the fictional dream. Pull another POV switch without warning, and they may never sink into the dream again.

Of course you don't have to tell your entire tale from the POV of only one character, but each character who takes up the mantle of POV must have their very own scene -- not merely one paragraph or one sentence within a scene, but a scene devoted wholly to that character's POV. And to avoid any confusion, you have to let readers know right away that they're now tagging along with character Y for this scene instead of their old pal, character X.

Here's how: first, tell readers the POV is changing by leaving a blank space between the end of character Y's scene and the beginning of character X's, or start a new chapter. Now that readers have been primed for a change, don't keep them on tender hooks -- tell them who they're with as soon as possible. Here's an example:

"Lexas didn't turn around. His heart thundered for escape; could he die of a coronary at twenty? After an eternity, he walked very deliberately to the door. He heard his mother catch her breath as if about to say more, then release it unformed.

He pulled the door shut behind him. His legs went to jelly at the soft click of the latch.

* * *

Faeston pushed away from the wall as the queen's door opened to release Lexas. The prince actually sagged against the door for a moment, eyes closed.

What was wrong, Faeston wondered, and put the question into his friend's name. 'Lex?'"

There's no confusion here. We end the first scene in Lexas' head; there's a clear break; we immediately start the next scene with Faeston.

"Mastery of viewpoint... requires a fair amount of technical skill," says literary agent Noah Lukeman, author of The First Five Pages - A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, "thus it is not surprising that many amateur writers are revealed in this way. Viewpoint and narration comprise a delicate, elaborate faŤade, in which one tiny break in consistency can be disastrous, the equivalent of striking a dissonant chord in the midst of a harmonious musical performance." Later, while discussing characterization, he says, "Some novels end up being equally dominated by several characters; they keep progressing, and we're still not sure whose story it is, who we should care about."

We've seen how point of view strengthens characterization and helps the reader identify with the character; how it keeps the reader immersed in the story the writer weaves. Resist the temptation to step out of your POV character, and you'll strengthen your story overall.

Related Articles:

Headhopping, Authorial Intrusion, and Shocked Expressions, by Anne Marble

Copyright © 2001 Marg Gilks
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Marg Gilks' short stories, poetry, and articles have been appearing in newspapers, newsletters, magazines, and e-zines since 1977. She considers writing fiction, especially sf/f, the ultimate form of escapism -- in what other field can you create your own universe? Contact her with feedback and queries through Scripta Word Services, her freelance editing business:

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