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Crafting Fabulous Fiction:
My Point of View on Point of View (Part Two)

by Victoria Grossack

Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

May 16, 2013

In the last column we began a discussion of point of view (POV). We covered its definitions and examined how a passage could be written several different ways. In this column we will continue exploring POV -- mostly third person limited -- without going through the definitions and examples from the last lesson, and consider what it means for your storytelling.

Implications of a Selected POV

If you are in a character's POV, this limits but also directs your outlook and perception with respect to the events of the story. Limiting what the reader learns may seem fairly obvious; if you don't have a POV character in a scene, then the readers won't be able to 'experience' that scene first-hand. For example, your story might be more exciting if you can show a murder taking place. However, if your POV character is not at the murder scene -- either as perpetrator, victim or witness -- showing this scene to the reader presents some difficulties.

By directs, I mean that, given your POV character, there will be some aspects that your story should not ignore, because they matter to your character. Let's say that your POV character is a young woman who is supposed to get married the next day. The trailer in which she is sleeping catches fire. She will be desperate, of course, to get herself and her trailer-mates to safety. She will also -- if she is like most young women -- want to rescue her wedding dress, and unless you mention this, you're not being true to your character. (I didn't reach this point in the example in the last lesson but the wedding dress would have become an object of either rescue or regret had the passage continued.)

Let's go through some aspects that should be limited or directed, and therefore influence the shape of your story:

Events. In your story, events happen. A question each author must answer is whether an event happens on-stage for the readers, or whether readers will learn about this event second-hand, either in a summary given by the author (reverting possibly to the omniscient POV), or by another character speaking about it. If you are using the third person limited, and are sticking with a single character, your choice is made clear. If your character is not in that scene, then you can't show it first-hand.

Information. The same restriction applies to the information which is accessible to the reader. If there has been no reason for a piece of information to be introduced to the POV character, then there's no reason to introduce it to the reader.

One frequently employed technique is to slip in a piece of information that seems innocuous to the POV character -- and possibly the reader -- when it is introduced. This is used frequently in detective stories. However, you still need to make it plausible for POV character to encounter even the camouflaged information.

Thoughts. Readers should only have access to the thought processes of the POV character. This means that your POV character does not automatically know what other characters are thinking, unless your POV character happens to be a mind-reader.

Of course, sometimes the POV character and the readers need to know what the other characters are thinking. So, how is this done? Occasionally the POV character will guess (and what is even more fun, occasionally the POV character guesses incorrectly). However, most likely the POV character will learn what another character is thinking because that character makes it clear through deeds and dialogue.

Feelings. The POV character's feelings are generally available to the reader. Occasionally they are so strong that they overwhelm everything else, and prevent the character from doing what he or she ought to do. Although this may hamper your storytelling, your story may be more interesting if your POV character has strong feelings.

What about the feelings of other characters? Even though your POV character will not experience these feelings first-hand, you can still make many of them clear to your POV character as well as to your readers. One way is to have another character simply state these feelings. This may seem like telling as opposed to showing, but you can incorporate these feelings in a shouting match, a love scene, or a whispered consultation between two thieves. You can also show what the other characters are feeling. Consider the emotions associated with the following activities: frowning, smiling, winking, shouting, cursing, blushing, crying, giggling, whispering, dancing, clapping hands, folding arms, stamping feet, slamming doors, raising eyebrows, drumming fingers, slapping someone on the back, and kissing. Each activity gives clues as to how non POV characters feel (these bits of body language can also be incorporated with your POV character, too).

Attitude. This will and should influence the POV character's thoughts and feelings. Is your character poor and uneducated? Rich and snooty? These attributes will affect the POV character's attitude toward whatever is happening in the scene. Furthermore, coloring different events through the attitudes your POV character helps entertain your reader by giving your character a different perspective. Consider du Maurier's Rebecca, and how the narrator's inferiority complex influences the storytelling. The attitude of your POV character helps make your story unique.

Physical Experience. Your POV character should also physically experience the scenes in which s/he participates, given his/her own particular physical character. For example, one of my characters has an unusually sensitive sense of smell, which suits her fastidiousness. Another character, very musical, has a keen sense of hearing. A character who is short and weak will experience a crowd differently from a character who is tall and powerful.

Alternatives to Using the POV Character

It may not be possible to tell everything that happens in a particular story from one POV. What, then, as an author, are your options? Here are a few, with examples from the Harry Potter books:

Change Point Of View. Something may be so important to your story that you feel you need to show a part of the story from another POV. Rowling shows nearly all of her story from Harry's POV, but there are exceptions at the beginning of a few of her books. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the book begins in the omniscient POV, without a focus on any particular character. In Goblet of Fire and Half-Blood Prince we have similar introductory chapters, also from the omniscient POV, without taking the reader inside a particular character's head. Only in the second chapter of Half-Blood Prince does Rowling get inside the head of another character -- the Muggle Prime Minister -- whose POV is simply too much fun to resist!

Changing the POV is always an option, although if the rest of your story is supposed to be from the POV of your protagonist, you will want to limit how and when you do this.

Have Another Character Tell The Story. Conversation is one way to bring information to the attention of your readers and your POV character. Some writers will do this at length, and another character will take a long time telling his or her story. Consider how Hagrid, for example, tells about his visit to the giants in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Other Sources Of Information. The POV character can read newspapers and books and diaries, or listen to the radio.

Memories, And So On. Occasionally a story lends itself to more fanciful methods of presenting a scene. The Harry Potter books include a magical instrument known as a Pensieve, which allows incidents to be 're-experienced' from the POV of the person who originally experienced the event -- filtered, of course, by the POV character who now swims in that second person's memory.

Eavesdropping. In the Harry Potter books, much of his eavesdropping takes place when he is underneath his Invisibility Cloak. In this way he is able to overhear many conversations not meant for him. This is a way to convey information that can be very shocking to the POV character. It can also be a way to mislead the reader and the POV character, for the POV character may not understand the context of the conversation in full.

Choosing POV

If you are writing a story in first-person, then your choice of POV character is generally clear -- although even then you could have your narrator listen raptly while another character relates some event.

Otherwise, you can choose the POV character for a particular scene. Which character should you choose? There is no clear-cut, one-size-fits-all answer -- for which I'm grateful, for this is what shifts storytelling from formula to art! However, there are, as always, factors to consider. Here are a few:

Limitations. If you are limiting yourself to one POV, then you may want to consider continuing the limitation, even if it means forgoing showing something entertaining and interesting. Breaking the POV can weaken the connection you are making between the reader and your story. Perhaps that entertaining bit belongs to another and different story, instead of the one you are currently writing.

Narrative Necessities. Occasionally the readers need to see particular events take place. What information does the reader need to have for the story to continue to make sense -- or not to make sense, if that is your intention at this point?

Intensity. For which character is the event most devastating and full of conflict? The character with the most to gain or lose will be most intensely involved in a particular scene -- and most intensely involving for the reader.

Emotional Journey. Which character will help the reader best on his or her emotional journey? How do you want your readers to feel at this point of the story?

Reader Relevance. To which POV will your reader relate best? If you are writing for teenagers, for example, you may want to write your scenes from the POV of a teenager. If you are writing a romance, you will want to focus mostly on the POVs of the lovers.

Author Empathy. For which POV do have you the most empathy? As the writer, you need to imagine and feel everything that happens in your story, and you will do this better when you can empathize with your character.

Proper use of POV helps your readers be inside the story - and contributes to creating the character-driven story.

Find Out More...

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

Headhopping, Authorial Intrusion, and Shocked Expressions - Anne Marble

My Point of View on Point of View (Part One) - Victoria Grossack

Viewpoint, Perspective and Time - Will Greenway

Column Index

Copyright © 2013 Victoria Grossack
A version of this article appeared at the Coffeehouse for Writer's Fiction Fix.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.

Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.


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