I’m a firm believer that understanding point of view (POV) can cure most common writing problems, and help writers avoid the newbie mistakes we all stumble over at the start. It's a versatile tool that does more than just help us pick which pronoun to use. It allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s head, empathize with them, and see the world through their eyes even if that world is very different from our own. It’s what lets us be storytellers and not just someone who plops details on a page in a logical order.Here are five common trouble spots and how POV can help fix them.
Telling, Not Showing
This is the biggie, and a problem every writer has likely faced at some point. When we tell, we’re explaining what is going on from our author's perspective. We describe what we see as if we’re watching a play, because often we see our stories unfold in our heads like one. But try applying a solid POV to this problem. Look out through the eyes of your character and think about what they see and most importantly, how they feel about it. Forget what you as the author knows. What does the character see? How does that fit into their life and their problem at that moment? Because when someone is running for their lives, they don’t bother to notice what the drapes look like. A solid POV can help keep you from telling what’s there and focused on what matters to the character.
(Here's more on show, don't tell)
If we’re telling someone else’s story, we tend to slip in extra information because the listener doesn’t know the person we’re talking about. But when we’re telling our own story, we usually only tell the details that are relevant to what we’re saying, because we already know the other stuff and know the person we’re talking to knows as well. POV and backstory work in the same way. If you’re looking at a newly created room or character, you’re going to want to explain everything to catch the reader up. But think about that character as if you were her. Would you really think about your past out of the blue? Or bring up painful topics you’re trying hard to avoid? Unless something happened to trigger that memory, you’re more likely to go about your day doing what you do. If you stay inside the POV’s head, you’ll be able to see life as they do and know what’s relevant to that scene.
(Here's more on handling backstory in a novel)
Weak Goals or Motivations
POV is all about motivations, because it’s how a character sees and feels about the world. Understanding how they feel or where they’re at emotionally in a scene will determine how they respond to the situation. Someone who’s terrified will react very differently from someone who is angry. They’re motivated by different things. They’re after different goals. So if a character is just acting out plot, get inside their head and think about what you’d do if you were them and why.
(Here's more on goals and motivations)
Just like POV can help with goals, it can also help you understand what that character has at stake. It forces you to become that person, if only for a little while, and lets you ask why they’re risking their lives or family, or whatever it is that fits the plot. A lot of what we ask our characters to do, no sane person would comply with. They’d run for the nearest exit. So why is this person willing to act? What about them is making them choose this path? If you can’t find a reason for them to care, then you know where to start looking to raise those stakes. Find something about them that they do care about. To do that, get in their heads.
(Here's more on stakes)
Voice is one of those things that’s hard to explain, but we know it when we hear it. For me, voice comes from the judgment of the character, and to get that judgment, you need a strong POV. Who that character is determines what they sound like. If all you’re doing is relating facts about a scene or story, it can sound flat, even empty. But if the scene is described how the character sees it and feels about it, it comes to life. There’s a soul behind the words. A personality. A point of view coloring every word.
(Here's more on finding your character's voice)
I’ve found that point of view has its fingers in pretty much every aspect of writing. We can do all the characterization and study sheets and interviews we want, but until we put ourselves in that character’s head and show the world through their eyes, very little of that work can really shine.
Stories are about people. And point of view lets us be those people.
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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Originally posted during the Blue Fire blog tour at Mystery Writing is Murder