Thursday, May 05, 2011

Room With a (Point of) View: Understanding POV

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The first thing that probably pops into your mind when I say point of view, is the general first person, third limited, or third omniscient. But it's so much more than that. POV is one of the most powerful tools in your writer's toolbox. How a character sees something (and what they think about what they see) varies wildly between characters, and those perceptions allow you to create fully developed characters and plots to go with them.

POV lets you show how someone feels about something. Show ten random people the same image, and you'll likely get ten different opinions. They all have a different point of view on the subject. Even something as simple as "the" can change how a sentence is perceived.
Bob shot at the zombie with the red shirt.

Bob shot at a zombie with a red shirt.
Notice how "the" in the first example implies that Bob has picked a specific zombie, and not just shooting willy nilly. Like he knows this zombie in some way.

Let's check in with Bob for some more examples...

Bob has been fighting zombies now for months, and he's seen all kinds. Scooters, draggers, crawlers, moaners, you name it. One day he comes across George, who has been living in the backwoods somewhere and hasn't had the undead thrust upon him like the rest of the world. In fact, George is such a recluse, that he doesn't even know there's been a zombie apocalypse. These two men will have very different reactions upon seeing a zombie.

Situation: A half-rotted zombie staggers out of the woods and drags itself toward them, moaning and waving its arms.

Bob's Reaction:

Bob groaned. Great, another dragger. "One sec, George," he said, grabbing the shotgun slung across his back. He aimed and fired, splattering zombie skull all over the pink azaleas. "So then," he said, sliding the shotgun back into the holster. "Any good trader depots around here? I'm out of jerky."

George's Reaction:


It's pretty obvious from this which person is used to fighting the undead, and which is totally unprepared. How they react to the exact same thing says a lot about who they are and how they feel about the world around them.

Let's check in with the gals and see how they're doing.

Sally and Jane have managed to calm down George's wife, Lulu. They've explained how the dead have all crawled out of their graves and now walk the earth trying to chew everyone's face off. George and Lulu are dealing with this new reality as best they can. The gals are sitting in the cabin just after dark, waiting for the men to return from getting supplies.

Situation: There's a creak and a thud on the porch, right outside the front door.

Sally's Reaction:

Sally rose, quiet as death, her nine mil targeted on the door. She looked at Jane, still sitting next to white-as-a-sheet Lulu. Neither had grabbed a weapon. Understandable for Lulu, but Jane knew better, the dumb twit. What the hell did Bob see in her?

"You wanna help me out here?" Sally whispered through clenched teeth, tipping her head at the door.

Jane's Reaction:

Jane jumped and gripped the arms of her chair. Sally was moving before the thud stopped echoing, her gun already aimed at the door. Typical, assuming trouble when they'd have heard a zombie long before it got to the front door. Probably one of the raccoons she'd seen earlier when she'd checked the perimeter.

Sally glared at her like she was twelve. "You wanna help me out here?" Even her whispers sounded like orders.

Jane didn't move. No way was she getting between Sally's gun and anything the witch might even think about shooting.

Lulu's Reaction:

Lulu stifled her scream, pressing both hands against her mouth. That unpleasant Sally woman jumped up with a gun and pointed it at the door like she planned to start shooting through it. Was she crazy? What if it was George out there, kicking the mud off his boots like he always did before he came inside? She shook her head. These folks had to be crazy as loons. Zombies didn't exist. She pushed the image of the body in her prized azaleas out of her mind. She wouldn't think about that right now.

Sally stared at Jane like she wanted to shoot her. "You wanna help me out here?" Her whisper was practically a yell.

Lulu gulped. She knew bad blood when she saw it, and these two women sure didn't like each other much. She was probably better off with the zombies. Not that there were zombies of course.

Each POV not only describes the scene, but tells you just as much about the POV character as it does what they're looking at.

But what if I did the same scene from no one's POV?

Sally jumped up and pointed her nine millimeter pistol at the front door. She looked at Jane, sitting next to Lulu in one of two faded high-backed chairs.

"Wanna help me out here?" she whispered, tipping her head at the door.

Neither Jane nor Lulu moved.


Same exact things happen, but see how boring it is now? All the tension is gone, because you don't know how anyone feels about what's going on. There's no sense of how these women get along, or what they might do next. It's just the what, and they why is always so much more interesting. But you can't learn the why unless you get into someone's head. It's the internalization and the judgment that conveys that adds all the interesting information. The story.

When you write your scenes, think about how the POV character feels about what's going on. See it through their eyes, and let them judge what they see. They don't have to be proper or even right. It's okay (and often better) if they actually think something less flattering or wrong. This isn't how you as the author feels, it's how the character feels. And they can be as wrong as you want if it benefits the story.

Juliette Wade wrote a fantastic article about POV for IROSF. She has a way of looking at this that is just awesome, so I highly recommend it.

So is there anything that trips you up with POV?

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I was blogging about using deep POV a little while back, and getting the character emotions onto the page is critical to involving readers, and as you've shown here, also reveals a lot about the character. Good examples.

    Terry's Place

  2. Some great examples, Janice. I love the idea of zombie brains over the pink azaleas.

    POV is a huge dilemma for new writers, and I'm sure your examples will help.

    But what always gets me is how huge-sellers like James Patterson can get away with breaking the POV rules and still write great stories.

    His Alex Cross novels are a fine example, where 99% of the story is told first person through Cross, and really endears you to this character.

    Then in contravention of every law of writing we'll suddenly see a single scene through the eyes of the villain which Cross knows nothing about.

    What's really interesting of course is that it works.

    Clearly Patterson's readers don't give a fig about writing rules. They just like a good story!

    Can a writer get TOO hung up on doing it "right"?

    Fellow writers like to criticise Dan Brown or JK Rowling or Enid Blyton for not turning out Shakespearean prose. But check out those sales figures...

    Book-buyers apparently haven't read the guide-lines. :-)

  3. This was a great resource. Thank you! The example with the three women was particularly helpful.

    I struggle with sticking to third person instead of straying to third person omniscent. I want to show what every character is thinking. If the character isn't the narrator, they have to physically communicate everything, or else the way they think remains hidden.

    In your example with the zombies, you can't show what each woman is thinking because it would break the pace and weaken the strong point of view of the narrator. I think I need to make my MC's POV strong enough that I don't feel the need to add to it with other people's thoughts.

    1. I completely agree with your last sentence, "make my MC's POV strong enough that I don't feel the need to add to it with other people's thoughts. Love it!

  4. Terry: Thanks! I'm a huge fan of the deep POV. There's so much you can do with it.

    Mark: Rules are more guidelines than anything else. The adage "if it works,m it works" is really true (if frustrating). As long as what you're doing is for a good reason, and that reason serves the story you're trying to tell, you can get away with almost anything.

    I totally think a writer can get too hung up on getting it right. I it causes a lot of frustration because they look at the text and the rules and don't think about the story in that text. And that's what readers are most interested in.

    Teralyn: If you have a good POV, you can "show" what the other people are thinking. You just convey it through what that POV thinks the person is thinking. You'll notice in my examples, all three women judge what the others are feeling, and that suggests what's going on in their heads. It's not actual thoughts, but it gets the emotions across. Think about what outward signs something thinking whatever you want them to think might look like, and have the POV pick up on that.

  5. Came here from previous blog. Great examples of internalizations.