Tips My Editor Taught Me: Point Of View (POV)

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2019-06-11
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Viewpoint Characters In Fiction

The viewpoint character (or point-of-view character, A.K.A. the POV character) is the source of the story. This can be both an incredibly simple concept, and an exceptionally complicated one, depending on how you tell your story.

For a first-time novelist, I would strongly recommend the use of either the first-person ("I") or the use of the close third-person ("he"/"she"). The main difference between first-person and close-third is the pronouns.

In first-person the reader is the viewpoint character. We are in their head, we see what they see, we hear what they hear, and we know only what they know. If our POV character doesn't see or hear something, then we don't see or hear it either.

In close-third, everything I just said about first-person POV stays the same, you just take a half-step back from the character, and refer to them as either "he/she" or by their name. We still only know what they know, and we still hear their thoughts, etc.

There are a lot of different POV styles which can be used when writing. The diyMFA podcast actually has a nice break-down on them, and a cheat sheet you can download on their website. The diyMFA podcast is a good writing podcast that I listen to at the gym. Check it out if you haven't already.

I'm going to stick to talking about first vs. third person in this post, so that I don't overwhelm you. I won't even discuss second-person other than to say: do not try to write a novel in the second-person unless you know what you're doing, or you're writing a self-help book and intend to speak directly to your reader in every sentence.

If you struggle with POV in your writing, I would strongly suggest that you use first-person present tense, as it will make it impossible for you to make a mistake. Whoever is the focus for the chapter will be your POV character, and you will put the reader into that person, so they see and hear what that character sees and hears. Your POV character will always refer to themselves as "I" and each scene will be told from behind their eyes. It keeps it simple, and leaves very little room to make mistakes.

Where I frequently see writers making mistakes is when they try to write a multi-POV third-person story. If you insist on doing that, here are the rules for keeping your POV characters written in a way that makes sense to the reader.

  1. Seldom change the viewpoint character in the same chapter. It's best to change your POV character when the chapter changes.
  2. Do NOT change the viewpoint character in the same scene.
  3. NEVER change the viewpoint character in the same paragraph.

Got it? Simple enough right? When using third-person with multiple characters, you must always ask yourself who is telling the story for that scene, and for that scene the POV character must not change. Full stop. No exceptions. For debut authors you are not allowed to break that rule.

A scene change is marked with three asterisks together in the center of the page, with a line break above and below. Like this (but not red):

***

Unless you have put such a scene break into your chapter, you may not change the POV character.

How do you establish the POV character? Easy, ask yourself who is "speaking" in the first paragraph in the first scene in the chapter you're writing. That's your POV character. The only exception to this is distant-third (A.K.A. third person omniscient). Distant-third's narrator tells the whole story, and the narrator knows everything in distant-third. Unless you're writing a children's fairy tale, I do not recommend that you use that form of POV.

I'm going to illustrate all of this now with some examples. Unlike my other blog posts on self-editing tips, for this one I am just going to make some examples up, because I don't struggle with POV issues in my writing, and thus I have no examples to pull from the edits I've gotten back from my editors.


First Person Present-Tense POV Example:

"Becca, wait!" My arms are pumping hard at my sides. I have to reach her in time.

"Go home!" Becca throws the door in my face, jogging toward the checkpoint.

Like hell I will! I kick the door open and run faster, pushing myself despite the ache in my side. I reach her right before she gets to the checkpoint. The Marines are yelling at me and raising their rifles. I ignore them and step in front of her, throwing my arms out wide.

For a moment I'm positive she's going to bowl me over, but at the last second she stops, centimeters from my face. She's winded from the run too, but trying hard not to show it. She looks into my eyes and smiles bitterly. "Now you care? Now you want me to stay?"

"That's not fair, and you know it." Okay, it was a little bit fair, but she didn't have to— A Marine slams me into the deck from behind and the muzzle of a rifle is pointed at my face.

"Keep your hands where we can see them, and don't move!" one of the Marines yells into my ear.

"Ma'am, are you all right?" I hear one of the other Marines ask Becca.

The Marine's weight is crushing me to the deck, so I can't protest. I open and close my mouth, but no sound comes out.

"Get off her, she can't breathe!" Becca yells. I feel her hand grasp my arm as the darkness closes in on me. "Get off her now!" Becca screams.

I hear shouting and feel people jostling me, but I'm fading. My eyes feel way too heavy, and I can't seem to keep them open. What a stupid way to go, Dad's never going to for— The pressure on my back vanishes and I greedily pull in air to my oxygen-starved lungs and let my head slump to the deck. I'm seeing spots, but I'm alive.

I feel Becca's hand glide through my hair, and I smell her shampoo as she leans in and whispers to me. "What am I going to do with you?"

"Hold me and love me forever?" I rasp back without opening my eyes.

"Please don't do this to me. We had a good run, don't end it like this. Don't torture me for doing my duty."

I roll over on my side and squint at her. "Why does it have to be you?"

Becca bites her fingernail and looks away from me. The Marines are hovering behind us, shuffling their feet. None of them are smiling.

"Damn it, Jess. If I don't go, who will?" Becca shakes her head and stands up. "You know I have to go. The Zeki just took our last colony in the Gamma sector. They'll be in orbit over Earth in the next few months if we don't stop them at Eridious-3."

I struggle to my feet and put my hands on her shoulders. The Marines flinch forward, but Becca waves them back. I look into her eyes, trying to see our spark. After a few seconds I hang my head in defeat, letting my hair fall across my face. "I can't live without you," I whisper. It's a cheap shot, but it's all I have left.

"I love you too. But I have to do this."

Becca takes a step back from me. Then another. My hands fall limply to my sides. I can't bear to look up at her. It hurts too much.

"Ma'am . . . the transport . . ."

"They can wait," Becca snaps.

I feel her body heat press closer to me for a moment, and a spark kindles inside me. Maybe . . .

She grasps my hand and presses something into it.

"What's t—"

"I'll be back for you. I'm gonna beat those bastards, and then I'm coming back, and we're getting married, just like we talked about. Okay? Wait for me," she whispers into my ear. I feel her body heat slowly retreating from me.

She's lying. We both know she is. The Angel Fleet has the best odds of beating the enemy, but their casualty rates are expected to be near total. It's an all-volunteer fleet.

"Please don't d—"

She rushes forward and silences me with a kiss. I breathe in the scent of her, likely for the last time. She pulls back from me an eternity before I'm ready. "Wait for me," she repeats. There's tears in her eyes. The Marines are looking everywhere in the hallway except at us.

I jerk my head forward in my best imitation of a nod. It's the best I can do when my world is ending. I'll wait for you, but only because nobody could ever replace you.

Becca mouths love you, then turns and waves the Marines to follow her. They hurry after her up the boarding ramp, their boots clanging on the metal gangway sound like nails hammering into my own coffin.

The last Marine pauses as he closes the door and salutes. I return the salute out of habit before he closes it. Slowly, I open my hand and stare at the silver eagle she'd pressed into my hand. A small smile tugs at the corners of my mouth. She always has to get the last word in.

First Person Present-Tense POV Discussion:

In first-person present tense, it's very easy to see who's speaking. In this example, we are immediately placed inside Jess, and we stay there. Everything we experience is through the lens of her interpretations of the events.

Jess's POV doesn't tell us how Becca's feeling. It doesn't tell us what the Marines are thinking. We don't know anyone's motivation but Jess's. This can be a powerful tool, as you can quietly mislead your readers if your POV character doesn't perceive things correctly, or has their perceptions influenced by strong emotions, etc. It also grants your readers a strong connection to at least one character (at the cost of a closer connection to other characters). First-person is also the easiest POV to write with, because you can just put yourself into the role, and then tell the story as if it is happening to you at that moment. Jumping it up to first-person present tense makes it even easier, because then everything is happening now


Close-Third Past-Tense POV Example:

"Becca, wait!" Jess pumped her arms hard at her sides, running after her.

"Go home!" Becca threw the door closed, jogging toward the checkpoint.

Like hell I will! Jess kicked the door open and ran faster, pushing herself despite the ache in her side. She caught up to Becca right before she got to the checkpoint. The Marines were yelling and raising their rifles. Jess ignored them and stepped in front of Becca, throwing her arms out wide.

She thought for a moment that Becca would bowl her over, but at the last second she stopped, centimeters from Jess's face. Becca was winded from the run too, but trying hard not to show it. She looked into Jess's eyes, smiling bitterly. "Now you care? Now you want me to stay?"

"That's not fair, and you know it." Okay, it was a little bit fair, but she didn't have to— A Marine slammed Jess into the deck from behind, and the muzzle of a rifle was shoved in her face.

"Keep your hands where we can see them, and don't move!" one of the Marines yelled.

"Ma'am, are you all right?" a different Marine asked Becca.

The Marine's weight was crushing Jess to the deck; she couldn't speak. Opening and closing her mouth she tried, but no sound came out.

"Get off her, she can't breathe!" Becca yelled. She felt Becca's hand grasp her arm as the darkness closed in. "Get off her now!" Becca screamed.

People were shouting and jostling Jess, but she was fading. Her eyes felt way too heavy, and she couldn't seem to keep them open. What a stupid way to go, Dad's never going to for— The pressure on her back vanished and she greedily pulled air into her oxygen-starved lungs, letting her head slump to the deck. She saw spots, but she was alive.

Becca kneeled down next to her, running her hand through her hair. Jess inhaled the smell of her shampoo. "What am I going to do with you?" Becca whispered.

"Hold me and love me forever?" Jess rasped back without opening her eyes.

"Please don't do this to me. We had a good run, don't end it like this. Don't torture me for doing my duty."

Rolling over on her side, she squinted at Becca. "Why does it have to be you?"

Becca bit her fingernail, looking away from her. The Marines were hovering behind them, shuffling their feet. None of them were smiling.

"Damn it, Jess. If I don't go, who will?" Becca shook her head and stood up. "You know I have to go. The Zeki just took our last colony in the Gamma sector. They'll be in orbit over Earth in the next few months if we don't stop them at Eridious-3."

Jess struggled to her feet and put her hands on Becca's shoulders. The Marines flinched forward, but Becca waved them back. She looked into Becca's eyes, trying to see their spark. After a few seconds she let her head hang down in defeat. Her hair covered her face. "I can't live without you," Jess whispered. It's a cheap shot, but it's all I have left.

"I love you too. But I have to do this."

Becca took a step back. Then another. Jess let her hands fall limply to her sides. She couldn't bear to look up. It hurt too much.

"Ma'am . . . the transport . . ."

"They can wait," Becca snapped.

Jess felt her body heat press closer for a moment, and a spark kindled inside her. Maybe . . .

Becca reached for her hand, pressing something into it.

"What's t—"

"I'll be back for you. I'm gonna beat those bastards, and then I'm coming back, and we're getting married, just like we talked about. Okay? Wait for me," she whispered. Jess felt her body heat slowly retreating.

Jess knew Becca was lying. The Angel Fleet had the best odds of beating the enemy, but their casualty rates were expected to be near total. It was an all-volunteer fleet.

"Please don't d—"

Becca rushed forward and silenced her with a kiss. Jess breathed in the scent of her, likely for the last time. Becca pulled back from her an eternity before she was ready. "Wait for me," she repeated. There were tears in her eyes. The Marines were looking everywhere in the hallway except at the two of them.

Jess jerked her head forward in her best imitation of a nod. It was the best she could do when her world was ending. I'll wait for you, but only because nobody could ever replace you.

Becca mouthed love you, before turning to wave the Marines to follow her. They hurried after her up the boarding ramp, their boots clanging on the metal gangway sounded like nails hammering into Jess's own coffin.

The last Marine paused as he closed the door and saluted. Jess returned the salute out of habit before he closed it. Slowly, she opened her hand and stared at the silver eagle Becca had pressed into her hand. A small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. She always has to get the last word in.

Close-Third Past-Tense POV Discussion:

In close third-person we stay with Jess as the POV character. We still get to see/hear her thoughts, and everything we see and hear is still through the lens of Jess's perceptions. We are Jess, but we've taken a half-step back from her.

In close-third our POV character only refers to themselves in the first-person during their thoughts and dialog. Else we refer to them using he/she/them pronouns. We are also forced to use their name a lot more. You can see in the close-third example, because the two main characters in the scene are female (Jess and Becca), we can't get away with she/her very often in the scene. Almost in every sentence at least one of the names must be used, so we know who is being referred to by the pronouns.

The other major change in this example is pulling it into past tense. That, again, removes the reader a little more from the action. They are not right in the middle of the action as it is happening, instead they are right next to the action as it happens, seeing it a beat after it happens. The distinction is subtle, but the end-result is that your reader will see your prose as more objective when you use past tense, and less objective when you use present tense. Use whichever tense and whichever point-of-view will best enhance the way you want to tell your story. As I said at the start of this post, there are a lot of POV options available. I only covered the two best suited for debut authors. Practice with the various POV options available, and use the one which best suits your writing.


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