POV Matters

Monday, July 6, 2015

One of the hardest parts of writing fiction is maintaining a consistent POV. But since many beginning writers don’t even know what POV is, I’ll start at the beginning.

POV stands for point of view, which is how the narrator sees things. Or, to put it another way, whose head are we in as the story is told?

A good story has a consistent POV within each scene. Otherwise, the reader gets confused. Even worse, POV errors take a reader who is caught up in the story and throw him or her out of it.

That doesn’t mean we’ll throw the book across the room, too. I’ve had that reaction sometimes. But I’ve finished some books that are riddled with POV errors. I keep reading because the plot is so compelling that I’ll put up with some disjointedness to find out what happens. Other authors get away with all those errors because they’ve already gained a following. Their books would be even better, however, if the authors paid attention to POV, and they would probably have bigger sales figures, too.

In any event, don’t you want to give your reader the best story you can?

It is impossible to do justice to POV in a blog post, or even in four blog posts, so all you will get here are the basics. For a more in-depth discussion, I recommend Chapters 12-15 of Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress. I actually recommend the entire book, but those are the chapters that address POV.

There are many POVs to choose from, and this week I’ll look at first person. In the following weeks, I’ll cover third person (singular and multiple), omniscient, and second person. I’ll also discuss distance—how close the reader gets to the POV character(s).

The easiest way to recognize first person POV is by the first person pronouns. This is the story with a narrator who uses “I,” “me,” “my,” and “mine.” Here are the first two paragraphs of Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt.

     “There are two courses open to a gentlewoman when she finds herself in penurious circumstances,” my Aunt Adelaide had said. “One is to marry, and the other to find a post in keeping with her gentility.”

     As the train carried me through wooded hills and past green meadows, I was taking this second course; partly, I suppose, because I had never had an opportunity of trying the former.

The main advantage of first person POV is that it helps the reader identify with the narrator. The biggest disadvantage is that the reader can know only what the narrator knows. If you want to tell the reader about a meeting the POV character didn’t attend, then someone who was there must describe it to the POV character so that he or she knows, too.

I’m going to have a little fun by using animals for some of my examples. Look at the picture at the top of this post. If the zebra in the foreground is our POV character, what do we know as readers? We can’t see the people in the upper left or the zebra in the background because our POV character can’t see them. Still, that doesn’t mean we have to ignore them entirely. Or maybe we do. Again, it depends on what the POV character knows. If he knows there is another zebra who lives next door, we can know that, too. But if he doesn’t know that she is standing under the bridge right now, then we don’t know it, either. Or consider the people in the top left. If they are talking and the POV zebra hears them, then we know they are there and may even know what they are saying. But if he doesn’t turn around, we can’t know what they are wearing (unless that’s the topic of their conversation). So describing their clothing is a POV error.

Talking about clothing, even though a first person POV character knows what he or she looks like and is wearing, most people aren’t so obsessed with their appearance that they think about it all the time. That means you can’t just throw in a description of the POV character unless you also give him or her some reason to think about it, and the reason must be in character. A self-effacing woman isn’t likely to think about her clothes even when she is getting dressed—but she might if she is dressing to please her new mother-in-law.

The third paragraph of Mistress of Mellyn shows one way to describe a POV character. Personally, I think it is still rather forced, but the saving grace of this passage is the way in which it is told. We don’t just get a description of Martha’s outward appearance, we also get insights into her character.

     I pictured myself as I must appear to my fellow travelers if they bothered to glance my way, which was not very likely: a young woman of medium height, already past her first youth, being twenty-four years old, in a brown merino dress with cream lace collar and little tufts of lace at the cuffs. (Cream being so much more serviceable than white, as Aunt Adelaide told me.) My black cape was unbuttoned at the throat because it was hot in the carriage, and my brown velvet bonnet, tied with brown velvet ribbons under my chin, was the sort which was so becoming to feminine people like my sister Phillida but, I always felt, sat a little incongruously on heads like mine. My hair was thick with a coppery tinge, parted in the center, brought down at the sides of my too-long face, and made into a cumbersome knot to project behind the bonnet. My eyes were large, in some lights the color of amber, and were my best feature; but they were too bold—so said Aunt Adelaide; which meant that they had learned none of the feminine graces which were so becoming to a woman. My nose was too short, my mouth too wide. In fact, I thought, nothing seemed to fit; and I must resign myself to journeys such as this when I travel to and from the various posts which I shall occupy for the rest of my life, since it is necessary for me to earn a living, and I shall never achieve the first of those alternatives: a husband.

Can’t you just feel the cynicism of this educated gentlewoman who has resigned herself to being an old maid? (I apologize for the politically incorrect language, but that is how she would think of it.)

If you feel you have to force a description, ask yourself if you need one at all. If so, try to find a more natural way to fit it in. But if you do end up forcing it, at least make the description do double duty.

Even though the reader knows only what the POV character knows, that doesn’t mean the reader is the character’s clone. Although they have the same knowledge, they can draw different inferences from it. If a woman looks toward a POV character and winks a minute before another man passes him, the POV character may think the woman is flirting with him. The reader has the freedom to wonder if the woman was flirting with the other man, instead.

Another disadvantage to first person POV is that it’s hard to keep anything secret from the reader, who knows what the narrator does and thinks. If the first person narrator is a murderer, the reader will know who did it the minute the murder occurs. Maybe that’s what you want as the author, especially if the book is a thriller rather than a mystery. But if you want the murderer’s identity to be a secret until the end, or if you want the reader to unravel the clues, you may need to find a different POV character.

Or you can use an unreliable narrator. Maybe the murderer is delusional and her subconscious mind hides the knowledge of her deeds from her. Or maybe your POV character is Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes. He thinks he knows what is happening but is wrong, learning the truth only when Sherlock chooses to reveal it.

The point is simple. If you use first person POV, the reader can experience only what the POV character experiences and know only what the POV character knows. Using first person can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding. It depends on what you are trying to do.

And if first person doesn’t work, maybe third person will. That’s the subject of next week’s post.

No comments:

Post a Comment