By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Point of View is one of the strongest tools a writer has in their toolbox. A story can drastically change just by who's telling it and how they feel about those events. The wrong POV can even kill an otherwise great story. But there are so many choices. First person, third person, close or distant narrator, single or multiple views.
I've gone into the mechanics of POV before, so here are some links on the basics for those looking for a refresher. General POV overview. A more technical study. POV in action.
Choosing a Point of View Character
General rule of thumb says the one with the most to lose is the protagonist. Most times your protagonist is your POV character. But to determine which type of POV to use, I like to look a little deeper than that and ask...
1. Is this a personal story or an epic tale?
Personal stories often require a tight POV to really understand the nuances of that personal struggle. Epic tales tell a bigger picture story and often require multiple people to show all sides. If the story is about a person and their journey, close and single POVs (third or first) can be a great choice, because they allow you to really get into the head of that character and focus on their problem. A story about a situation, be it a quest, a war, a terrorist attack, might be better told through the eyes of characters who can see all sides of it.
2. What scope do you want to show?
Even if the tale is personal, you might choose to look at the bigger picture to convey a theme or ideal. Or a massive situation might be seen from the eyes of one single character. Think about what aspect of the story you want to focus on. Big tales don't have to be told by a big cast, same as personal tales can involve more than one person.
3. Who has the freedom to act?
If the story is about something happening to a particular person, it seems natural that that person would be the POV. But sometimes the one in the thick of it isn't the one in the best position to know what's going on. In The Shifter, Tali is the one in trouble, but it would have been a boring book if she were the POV, or even a POV. She might have been in the mess, but Nya was the one with the freedom to act and get her out of it.
4. Multiple or single Point of View?
I've found multiple POVs can be tricky because when you have a lot of them, it can be a red flag that you have a premise novel. So make sure that every person you're telling the story with has a solid reason for being there. If the only reason is because "you can't show that part of the story any other way" then you might want to reconsider. If there's no goal driving that character, they'll feel flat and their sections will feel pointless--or worse--that they're just there as exposition or back story.
Multiple POVs work best when each POV brings something unique to the tale. A fresh perspective, goals of their own, a subplot that connects to a larger theme that encompasses the entire story. The reader cares about that POV, even if all they care about is to see them get what they deserve.
Developing Characters Based on Point of View
Regardless of what POV you choose, character development is pretty much the same. You want layered characters with goals and stakes, and plausible motivations that come from real desires. Tight POVs might have more personal goals and stakes, as close narratives are often about more personal journeys, but even in a third omniscient POV, you still want your readers to connect to the characters through their goals and motivations. Telling an epic tale doesn't mean you skimp on the character development. In fact, it's probably even more critical because there are more characters to keep track of, and you'll have less time per character to make that reader connection.
The farther away you get from the character's head, the easier it is to make them do what you want, not what they want. Because the narrator often becomes the author at that point. And the author knows all, and starts telling the reader all so they can keep up. So a more distant POV runs the risk of sounding flat, having more told sections and less showing. But if you keep who your characters are in mind, and show things from their heads regardless of how close or far away you are, then you hold onto that character and show the world thorough their eyes.
Of course, there is a flip side risk here. First person or a tight third can sometimes make you feel that you have to explain everything, and you can get that "I did this, I felt that" thing going. So instead of having a tight POV, you have a narrator who's not actually in the story, just observing it and relaying it to the reader. These types of characters can often be yanked from the story and the events won't change all that much. A bad thing, especially if your POV happens to be first person.
A great POV trick is to convey how a character feels about something by their actions. They won't think "I feel sad," they'll cry. They won't "be afraid" they'll tremble and cower. They won't "hate that girl" they'll slip her homework into the trash when she accidentally leaves it on her desk. Let the reader figure out how a character feels by observing what they do.
A solid POV, no matter what type, gives you the freedom to let that character shine. Because if you're in their head, then everything they think and do and say is who they are and what they believe in. Not only will that flesh out the character, but the world around them as well.
Which POV do you prefer? Do you change per story?