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Tuesday, March 10th 2009

3:07 PM

Confessions of a Contest Judge - Part 2 - Point of View Basics

  • Mood: Hectic. Where does the day go?

Note: This is Part 2 of an article I’m writing for submission to several magazines. To see Part 1, go to the Sunday, March 8th entry.

The POV Police

As a newbie writer, my first brush with the term “Point of View” as it relates to writing came when I joined a critique group comprised of other unpublished writers. I was the most inexperienced member of the group, and one of my critique partners (who I soon secretly nicknamed the Point of View Police) was all over me about this issue. She told me that I frequently switched to what she called “omnipotent” point of view. Furthermore she was confused by all of my “head hopping.” I had no idea what the hell she was talking about.

No matter how much I gave lip service to the idea that I was ready for criticism, I didn’t enjoy hearing that my work had (what she assured me were) glaring beginners’ mistakes. But when the first dozen or so contest entries were returned to me with the same comment, I figured maybe I should find out what this darned Point of View thing was all about.

What she called “Omnipotent,” others called “Cinematic” or “Omniscient” point of view. In older works of fiction, especially pre-twentieth century, it’s quite common. It’s when the story is being told by the all-knowing, all-seeing author instead of by the characters.

There are advantages to omniscient point of view, not the least of which is the ability to tell the reader things that the characters don’t know about. You can describe the bad guy who is sneaking up on the sleeping hero, or explain what’s going on in another character’s mind.

The disadvantage to omniscient point of view is that readers are unlikely to get emotionally invested in characters if they do not get a glimpse into their minds. And, in fiction, it’s emotional investment that keeps pages turning.

Emotional investment? I hear you asking. Not action? Not plot twists?

Hey, if you don’t care about a character, what does it matter if a volcano nearly blows him up or his best friend betrays him?

I’ve only seen a couple of modern examples of books written in omniscient point of view. To be fair, both did well as movies and the authors probably made more money on either of them than I’ve made with any of my books (so far J). On the other hand, I found both hard to get into because, without having ever experienced what the characters were feeling, I found it difficult to care about them. I started scanning ahead, waiting for something to catch my interest and, ultimately, put both down without finishing.

THEREFORE, for the purposes of this article (and all of its subsequent installments) I am going to put forth the following premise: At any given point in any work of fiction, there should be a point of view (POV) character.

The POV character is the one who perceives the story.

How many point of view characters should there be in a story? As many as you need. And you probably need fewer than you think.

I have a couple of general rules which are, admittedly, a matter of personal preference.

     1. Have only one POV character per scene (MUCH more on this later), and...

     2. Don’t give a POV scene to a “throwaway” character.

By this, I mean someone who is just there to move a minor story point forward—the bartender in a bar to which we will never return, or the old friend at the high school reunion who appears in no other scenes.

Also, I’ll expand the second item to say “Don’t give a POV scene to a character you are going to kill off in the first quarter of the book.” It really pisses me off when I’ve just started to learn my way around a character’s mind and, poof! He’s gone.

Now, write this down: The most important aspect of creating realistic Point of View is Perception.

Hell, write it down twice. I’ll wait.

So, how does a character perceive? First and foremost, with the five senses. Ask yourself: Can the POV character...

      - See

      - Hear

      - Feel

      - Taste, or...

      - Smell

...the thing you are describing on the page? If not, leave it out.

 

Here are some examples from actual contest entries I’ve judged (used with the entrants’ permission).

The POV character walks into a room for the first time.

            The chair cushions were soft.

Okay, that one was easy. The chair cushions could look soft, or the tired POV character could imagine how nice it would be to sink onto soft cushions, but until the character actually feels them, he can’t know.

Here’s another. The POV character has been awakened by the sound of wind howling around a cabin.

            Icy cold wind blew between the fragrant pines.

This is not as glaringly obvious, because the character could easily imagine that the wind was icy, and may know from experience that such wind carries the scent from pine trees. It would only take a tiny tweak of the wording to make the sentence true to the POV. If you like, enter a comment, rewriting the sentence so that it uses POV effectively.

And to show that I, too, made plenty of POV mistakes when I was starting out, here’s an excerpt from an early draft of Men In Chains. You can still buy this book (see the Virginia Reede link above) but you won’t find the following paragraph in the published version!

Jeryl scanned the sheer cliff walls, trying to find a way up. The wind blew his hair into his face, and he tossed the wet, blonde curls aside. His sea-green eyes sparkled in anticipation of a challenge.

Can you spot the problem? Jeryl (how’s that for a soap opera name, BTW?) is noticing the color of his own hair and that his eyes sparkle. He’s not looking into a mirror!

But, I hear you thinking, in my writing 101 class, they told me it was important to give the reader a mental picture of my character. How am I going to let them know that Druscilla has an unruly mane of auburn curls and that Dirk has a dimple in his manly chin?

There are a number of ways you can let your reader know what Dirk and Druscilla look like. For example, you actually can have a character look in a mirror, if it makes sense at that moment in the story. You can wait until another character has a POV scene, and describe the new character’s impressions. Finally, you can give them a reason to think about their own appearance, which brings us to the topic of the next installment of this article.

Next Installment: How does a Point of View Character think?

39 replies.

Posted by J.E. Braun:

Ohhh..avoid the mirror, avoid the mirror!! Excellent points - points my creative writing professor HARPED on...but avoid the mirror. Even when I look in a mirror, unless I'm looking for something, I don't tend to think about my wavy brown hair or dark brown eyes. I think, "Shit, I need to shave," or "Where'd that scratch come from.." The mirror scene for self-description gets overused. Have it come from another character..or even a photograph is better! The sharp contrast between his brother's blond hair and blue eyes, and his own brown hair and brown eyes, often made him wonder if they really had the same parents. - for example. There are ways to be more creative than a mirror. Another example: Long, brown strands fell to the sink as he ran the comb through his hair. - We just saw he's got long, brown hair and is losing it! :) Just my suggestions..but again, great points.
Tuesday, March 10th 2009 @ 3:40 PM

Posted by Edward G. Talbot:

Thank-you for this post. On a general level, I totally agree with you on POV. I received similar kinds of critiques from my initial contest submissions.

While I think there is a lot of truth to what you're saying as a general concept, I have trouble believing it should be anything approaching absolute. POV is critical, but I don't think it follows nearly as strict a set of rules as you are suggesting.

I write conspiracy thrillers. So when I got this feedback, I decided to reread some of my favorite works from Clancy, Cussler, Ludlum, the masters of the genre. I took away three things related to POV:

1.As you say, it absolutely IS critical that the reader care about the characters. In this kind of thriller, the characters do not have to be of the three dimensional sort that you find in "literary" work, but they have to be fleshed out enough that the reader can get into their heads.

2. Again, as you suggest here, switching POV too much can be problematic. What I would say is not so much that you can't give POV to a minor character (I'm talking thrillers here, romance may be different), but that when you give POV, there needs to be a reason for it. A lot of thrillers use a technique where a chapter is done from the POV of a new character who dies in some cataclysm at the end of the chapter. That would violate a couple of your directives, but if works because now you're giving the reader an even bigger reason to care about the disaster. Tsunami wipes out a village? So what. Tsuanmi takes out Joe, who's the last in a long line of fisherman struggling to eke out an existence? Aside from the cliche example, it's far more compelling. That's just one example of the ways in which you can use POV. POV gives people a reason to care, and as such it can be used creatively if done consciously. (sorry for all those adverbs!)

3.Again just for thrillers, I have to disagree about needing to have a POV character all the time. Substantial portions of the
Tuesday, March 10th 2009 @ 3:47 PM

Posted by Toni Andrews:

Excellen point, J.E. Yes, what you see when you look in a mirror is brought up in the "Think" installment of the article.
Tuesday, March 10th 2009 @ 3:47 PM

Posted by Jorge Tostada:

Gee, Toni, this is an excellent article! Boring characters are like boring people, they're...well...BORING.:)
Tuesday, March 10th 2009 @ 3:52 PM

Posted by Mary Ricksen:

Where were you when I was writing that first book and made all of the above mentioned mistakes? This is a great post, I wish I had read eons ago, but it still can ring true for all of us. Watch that POV, it can make or break a book.
Tuesday, March 10th 2009 @ 4:16 PM

Posted by Kristin Wallace:

These are excellent. I guess I'm not a newbie anymore, but I still need reminders of these things.
Tuesday, March 10th 2009 @ 6:24 PM

Posted by Mona Risk:

Am I POV police who called it omnipotent instead of omniscient?? I guess I haven't changed because head hoping still makes me cringe. Great post Toni, enjoyable, easy to read and assimilate.:)
Tuesday, March 10th 2009 @ 9:00 PM

Posted by Toni Andrews:

Yes, Mona, it was you! I resisted, but eventually came around to your way of thinking...
Tuesday, March 10th 2009 @ 10:53 PM

Posted by Lin Neiswender:

Nice article shaping up, Toni. Pointing some friends here who are dealing with POV issues. I'm looking forward to Show Not Tell, my personal Nemesis.
Wednesday, March 11th 2009 @ 8:23 AM

Posted by Mia Powers:

Love the articles and I will definitely let others know about these.

I see that no one has taken a stab at the sentence & I'll be no different. Now back to the paying day job!
Wednesday, March 11th 2009 @ 2:20 PM

Posted by Megan:

Is tossing out the original sentence and writing three new ones a tiny tweak? o:)

"Joseph awoke to the creaking of the cabin walls, and the chill as the wind crept in through the crack under the door. Out the window, he saw the pines bowing in the wind. He could almost smell their sharp fragrance."
Thursday, March 12th 2009 @ 1:57 PM

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