Perspective & POV 202-01

Every character in a story has a perspective, a unique way of perceiving and interpreting the world around them, revealed to the audience through what a character says and does. Every story also relies on one or more characters to convey the story to the audience through their perspective. These are known as POV or point of view characters.

Choosing a POV Character
When choosing a POV character, consider who is most invested in the story? It may be someone actively working to control the outcome, or someone most affected by the outcome. Who grows or changes the most? Who knows all the information the audience needs to understand the story? Who most closely resembles the target audience? Who’s perspective is best suited to tell the story?

For example, the Sherlock Holmes anthology. The titular character, Sherlock, has a vested interest in the outcome, and has all the information the audience needs, but he can’t be the POV character. He’s too different from the target audience; he knows all the secrets that audiences can’t know until the end of the story. Thus the character of Watson is added, someone who stands in for the audience, asking all the questions and expressing the opinions that the audience will probably be thinking as they read.

It’s also important to consider the personality of the story; the ideas & emotions being expressed, as well as the tone, style, and genre. For example, most murder mysteries focus on the harsh realities of murder; but what if someone wanted to tell a murder mystery as a comical adventure? That would require a POV character capable of creating humor in the midst of such a serious topic. Castle and Bones are two examples.

When choosing a POV story, consider the length of the story as well. A short story only has room for one point of view character, while a book can accommodate more, though it’s best to start with 1-2 POV characters, and add others gradually; keeping it under 5 POV characters unless there’s a strong reason.

Maintaining POV
Once POV is established, it’s important not to break it. If Christy is the POV character, she can’t simply know that Mark is nervous. She needs a reason to think that; either physical signs through body language, or prior knowledge.

Another common mistake is to not address the elephant in the room. If Brian is the POV character, and John walks into the room and slaps Brian across the face, Brian has to respond. The response can be as subtle as a few thoughts that explain why he’s not reacting in a more common manner, such as anger or surprise, but whatever Brian’s reaction is, audiences need to understand it.

Last, recognize when a character will retract into their own thoughts, and when they will be very present in the moment. The more intense and active a scene, the more immediate and present the character. The more boring and relaxed, the more likely the character is to fade. By the same token, the more intense a character’s emotions are, the more likely they are to retract, which doesn’t mean they stop actively participating. A person can be actively fighting for their life while simultaneously focusing on their own inner reflections.

When a character becomes distant; focus on sensory information. A person who’s in the moment recognizes that “Matt walked into the room,” while a person who’s distant may “hear someone’s footsteps” or “feel the floor shake”.

Next Time…
Perspective Types

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11 thoughts on “Perspective & POV 202-01

  1. Great post Adam. I had this very issue when starting ‘Guns’… I’d intended to write from who I consider to be my main character, grace, but then decided it would make much more sense to write form Johnny’s POV for EXACTLY the same reasons as in your Sherlock example. I simply don’t want my audience to have access to grace’s thoughts. So Johnny was born (probably three chapters in) purely to be a pop vehicle. Now he’s become so integral to the story, I couldn’t write it without him!

    • Often times that’s the way. Something small leads you to an answer, which gradually becomes a pivotal part of the story.

      • It’s fun when stories start to develop a life of their own. And it’s good that you were open to it. I think one of my lifelong dreams is to get to a point where I can write a story and then turn around and read it the same way that I’ve read the works of other authors, with that same wonder.

      • And where to get more, right?
        Of course that is the trick. We cultivate this strange mental state in ourselves, resisting the urge to clutch at it, because we know it will slip through our fingers. Instead we coax it, woo it, and gradually learn how to find it again. I often thing the old cultures had it right when they created the idea of the muse. There is something almost alchemic about the whole process.

      • I should probably start figuring out which one I pray to. Mostly I simply await with open arms and welcome whatever comes.

  2. Interesting. I’ve not thought of POV characters in terms of target audience. The characters usually tell me what role they play in some way. What’s more difficult to figure out is whether a story is in first person, second, or third person POV.

    • I agree. It doesn’t often come into play. Many stories manage it simply by making their characters generally relatable, and by engaging universal underlying ideas, but some stories, particularly those that focus on an extremely unfamiliar setting, often rely on an outsider as a stand in for the audience, someone who can ask questions for the audience.

      For example there are setting focused fantasy stories like Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the Chronicles of Narnia, and to a lesser extent the Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, all of which rely on an outsider protagonist who is no more familiar with the magical world than the audience accompanying them.

      Choosing the voice (first, second, or third) is the topic of the next post, Perspective Types, on June 13th.

  3. Pingback: Scene & Beat Types 201-02 | Write Thoughts

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