10 Steps for Handling POV Like a Boss
When you’re ready to do character thoughts with sarcasm, you know you don’t need to think about POV any more.
POV Like a Boss Checklist
At the end of this post I’ve done a bulleted list to show you what you need to do to POV like a boss, so you don’t have to wade through my rambling, if compelling explanation.
Here’s a jump for the TL;DR version.
The First Rule of POV…
I’m constantly trying to convince my authors to stop thinking about POV.
Something has happened amongst all you self-taught writers (and even some of the qualified ones, whatever that means) to convince you that for every story you write you have to take a conscious decision about POV, and think about it all the time.
The least egregious consequence of this is that the story slavishly follows one character at a time…
The worst consequences come when the author can’t stop himself from constantly reminding the reader whose POV is currently in focus…
POV is the Enemy of Good Writing
This might sound a little strong, but I think I’m expected to be controversial where possible.
I’ve been told there’s this elusive quality called “clickbait” and I have to track it like a good little snarkhunter, but all sarcasm aside (for at least the next couple of sentences), conscious POV usually results in poor style.
Conscious POV – which is when the author consciously chooses to limit the reader’s experiences to those of one character at a time – is a gimmick.
Like 1st person narrative, present tense or “unreliable narrator” it’s a form of exoticism that an author should certainly learn how to use, and then employ occasionally, with care, for powerful effect.
All Narration is 3rd person, Past Tense, Omniscient Narrator
You may have heard me make this claim before, and the more I examine the question, the more true I think it is.
3rd/past/omni is the narrative voice of fairy tales. It’s the narrative voice of Homer and Virgil.
It’s the narrative voice of preschool and early learning (although some authors of these ‘readers’ make the bizarre error of using the present tense to ‘make it easier.’)
My theory is that they are confusing learning to read with learning a foreign language.
It is the default narrative voice for thousands of years of written and oral storytelling. That sort of thing has long term consequences.
It means that any other narrative voice is exotic – if even mildly. So the choice of another narrative voice should come with other conscious choices.
In reality, I always encourage new writers to use the narrative voice that comes naturally to them.
The great writers – the really experienced ones, whose work will be remembered long after they’re dead – know that you either choose a different narrative voice because it will make the story stronger, or because they want the story to be bounded or limited, in an unusual way.
But one of the ultimate aims of the writer – a primary reason why I describe my exercises for writers as writer’s Kung Fu – is to pass unnoticed. The writer who succeeds in truly immersing the reader in his story does so by drawing attention to the story, not to himself.
You don’t want the reader to think “what a great writer” until she has finished the book. How to stay out of the way of the story should be your constant study; any time where you use an exotic narrative voice, you will draw attention to yourself, and to your technique.
It is possible to sidestep the whole issue of POV.
Narrow or strict POV is a device whose purpose is to limit the flow of information to the reader, which contains its own justification.
Usually, withholding information from the reader is a great way to annoy the reader, especially if you plan to spring it on the reader just before the climax, as a means of artificially raising the stakes.
But if you’ve withheld information because the main character had no way of knowing it, and the reader has got used to knowing only what the main character knows, then the reader will swallow your clumsy plotting without complaint.
That’s the theory in any case. (I managed to keep off the sarcasm for several paragraphs there!)
Sidestepping the issue of POV is as simple as just deciding what you intend to reveal, and what you don’t intend to reveal.
That’s definitely an oversimplification, right? Not really.
Most of the time, when telling a story, you’re recounting a series of events that happen to, are influenced by, and have consequences for, some people (characters).
To the observer, to a third party, those consequences may be shown. But the observer can also infer, deduce, intuit or, often, empathize those consequences: if the hero’s wife is murdered, you hardly need mention that the hero feels grief.
The third party is the reader.
I go to a lot of trouble to explain to writers that a work of fiction is an act of communication between two people – the author and the reader. But the principal conceit of fiction is that the reader is a third party, an observer.
In some fiction traditions, this goes as far as the writer imagining that he is telling the story to a character, and that if a reader comes along, this is coincidental.
But you should be aware that this is a conceit. A narrative device that ensures that writer and reader are on the same wavelength (a figure of speech which, to touch the mask, is a means of ensuring that you and I are sharing the same cultural tradition).
Back To Free Indirect
If you have read my blog before, or you have read my Editor’s Guide to Writing Fiction, you will be used to my vaunting of editor and writer Emma Darwin, and you may already have noticed that I’m working my way towards repeating a lesson I’ve taught elsewhere. Emma took the French lit. crit. category of pensée indirecte libre and evolved it into Free Indirect POV.
Free Indirect is when you relate a character’s point of view without saying so. Without having a convention to show whose POV it is.
To do so, you have to be a little more relaxed about what the reader is, or is not aware of. It works best if you have the self-discipline to keep to one main character per story, so that you don’t have to keep signposting the POV.
The ultimate aim of every author should always be to bring the reader to a point that is stronger than the trust required for so-called ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. The point is one of willing complicity in the pretense.
How can you make a reader complicit?
By showing the reader that they are complicit. Jane Austen does it by sharing a joke with the reader at a character’s expense, right at the start of the book.
You might need a little more practice before you can get to that point. But once a character is well enough established, once the reader has got to know them well, the reader will start to have genuine expectations of the character.
To get to this point, however, you have to have shown how the character behaves. You have to have placed them in a number of situations that will have revealed their values, foibles, caprices.
It’s no good telling the reader that the character is needlessly finicky about trivialities, f’rinstance, you have to show enough incidents where this behavior creates obstacles or problems for the story, the character, or the people around them.
Once you know that the reader shares your opinion of the character, you have complicity.
The best measure of whether the complicity is sufficient is to see if you think you can get away with making a sarcastic observation about a character. If it seems okay to you, and your Beta Readers swallow it, then you’re probably doing okay.
Here’s an example from a soon-to-be-published series I’m working on right now. Esper, the character in question, has been established as meek but principled. Full of self-doubt, but with occasional flashes of resolve.
She’s also young, and the memory of being a childhood outcast – poor and a little nerdy – still smarts. She’s just gotten hold of a tablet computer…
It was an OmniWalker Tudor, last year’s most popular high-end model—not that Esper had followed such trends, or quietly envied the Harmony Bay scientists’ children who carried them.
Under normal circumstances, when editing, I would have flagged ‘not that’ as chatty – breaking the narrative register – and suggested something a little more formal.
But this is a point of complicity between author and reader, and therefore exactly the right time to break the normal narrative register to make a colloquial observation to the reader.
POV Like a Boss Checklist
- One main character per story
- Can be per book for a serial
- Can be per thread or arc for a longer book
- Don’t think about POV
- Don’t choose the POV at a chapter level
- Use strict POV when-and-only-when you need to control the flow of information
- The reader should not notice that you are using POV even when you are
- Think about what the reader needs to know and how best to reveal it
- as an author, you’re allowed to think outside the characters’ headspace
- Let your reader get to know character by observation
- Share your character’s weaknesses and values through incidents and challenges
- Build complicity by ensuring that the reader knows enough of the character’s inner life
- Once the reader knows the character well, draw attention to details known only to the reader
- BONUS: If you get the opportunity, use this to make the reader laugh, smile or nod knowingly