How to Choose the Right POV (What I Learned Writing Storming)

How to Choose the Right POV (What I Learned Writing Storming)

Your novel is going to be the product of a series of important decisions. One of the most important of those decisions is one many authors take for granted: the point of view (POV) from which the story will be told.

Let me implore you right now: Don’t take POV for granted! The slapdash POV decisions you make in the beginning will literally determine the success or failure of your story.

Think I’m blowing smoke? Consider this. We all know how important story structure is. But if you mess up on one of your story’s all-important structural moments, that bad decision will only, at worst, affect the remainder of the book. Sames goes for character arc mistakes, poor word choices, and even wobbly themes.

But POV? POV is going to affect every single page of your book. That’s not a decision to be made lightly.

Storming K.M. WeilandWelcome to the eighth and final part in our month-long series of Things I Learned Writing Storming–my historical/dieselpunk novel, releasing this Friday on December 4th. This is a particularly apt subject for this series, since the POV in this book was something I came this close to completely blowing. Let’s take a look at three important factors in how to choose the right POV for your book–and how I used these factors to keep myself from making a major mistake that would probably have necessitated a total rewrite of the book.

How Many POVs Should You Include in Your Book?

Your ability to choose the right POV for your book is actually going to come down to a series of choices. The first is the question of how many POVs. And, yes, this should definitely be a conscious decision. If you find yourself writing a new POV off the cuff whenever it feels right, then you’re risking the tightness and overall “wholeness” of your story.

Here are two important rules of thumb about POVs:

1. If you give a character a POV, this is a signal to readers that this character is important. If his POV should fail to show up again, he becomes a loose end dangling in the readers’ minds.

2. If the character is important enough to be given a POV, then that POV should optimally be introduced in the First Act. Recurring elements in the second half bring continuity and resonance to your story, rather than a sense of randomness and indiscriminate cohesion.

The Benefits of Multiple POVs

How many POVs you include in your story will depend, to some extent, on genre. Epic fantasy often includes a dozen or more POVs. Romances usually include only two. Multiple POVs allow you to:

  • Get inside more characters’ heads.
  • Show events outside the immediate perspective of your main character.
  • Create irony and suspense by allowing readers to see things other characters do not.
  • Show different sides to other POV characters (e.g., he may see himself as unlovable, but another POV character does love him, allowing readers to vicariously share that experience).

In short, multiple POVs create flexibility and broaden the author’s options. But keep in mind, the greater the number of POVs, the more complicated the story will become, the more difficult it will be to maintain intimacy between the reader and any one character, and the more scattered your narrative necessarily ends up being.

The Benefits of Limited POVs

I’m a proponent of fewer POVs. In past books, I’ve used as many as six POVs. Then one day during my daily Writing Question of the Day discussion on Twitter (#WQOTD), it hit me: as a reader, I much prefer single-narrator stories. Why? Because limited POVs allow you to:

  • Intimately explore a few characters.
  • Solidify reader identification with the protagonist.
  • Avoid trying reader patience by delving into less interesting POVs.
  • Maintain cohesion in structure and theme.
  • Create a story that feels solid and “whole.”

That’s why in Storming I chose to use the fewest number of POVs in any of my books to date: one main POV from the barnstorming pilot protagonist and a much smaller secondary contrasting POV from a mute eight-year-old boy.

Of course, the choice to stick with fewer POVs also offers its share of challenges. You have to be creative in revealing other characters’ off-screen actions and motivations. But, more often than not, the payoffs you get in return are well worth the exchange.

Which POV(s) Should You Choose?

Now it’s time to get down to brass tacks. Which character should be telling your story? Sometimes the answer to this question will be obvious. There will be only one character whose story you want to tell. But sometimes the options aren’t so clear.

This was the conundrum I ran into while outlining Storming. From the first moment of the idea’s conception, this story started out being about a woman–a mysterious stranger in town who befriends a lonely young boy. This turned out to be Jael, the woman who parachutes out of nowhere in the opening chapter. Not too much later in the story’s evolution, another prominent character showed up on stage–roving, big-hearted barnstorming pilot Hitch, who witnesses Jael’s midnight plunge from the sky.

I had every intention of writing this story from Jael’s point of view. I even went so far as to completely outline the first three chapters from her point of view. But then I was saved from doom by a long weekend in which to ponder the path I was currently taking. I used the following two important questions to compile a list of the pros and cons of Jael’s and Hitch’s respective POVs:

Question #1: Whose Story Is This?

Your choice of POV characters defines your story. Hunger Games is Katniss’s story because it’s told from her POV. If it was told from Peeta’s or Gale’s POVs, it would become their stories. Indeed, how many spinoffs have been written from a minor or antagonistic character’s POV, turning their stories into something utterly different?

Gale Peeta Hunger Games Mockinjay Josh Hutcherson Liam Hemsworth

You can absolutely split your protagonist and main character into two different characters and use your main character’s POV to tell a story about your protagonist. But even when you do that, your choice of POV signals to readers whose story this is.

If you have two equal contenders for the story, as I did, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who has the most at stake?

For me, this one was pretty much a tie: both Hitch and Jael had a lot at stake–their homes and families–and I knew I could spin either character’s tale to emphasize those stakes, depending whom chose.

  • Who will undergo the most dramatic character arc?

Sometimes choosing a flat-arc character, who already has your story’s Truth pretty much figured out, will be a prime choice. But often, you’ll gain a more dramatic narrative by allowing that character to be the impact character in another character’s change arc. One of the things I wrote in the “Pros” column for Hitch’s POV was “stronger character arc.” His inner journey was much more dynamic than Jael’s.

  • Whose perspective best aligns with your theme?

Usually, the character who undergoes the most dynamic change is going to the character whose POV will give you the most opportunities to explore your theme.

  • Who gets the best scenes?

Especially if you’ve chosen to limit your POVs, you’re going to want to consider which characters are going to be present for the most important and interesting scenes. You don’t want to end up with a character who is basically a passive observer on the sidelines.

If both potential narrators are present for the good scenes, then ask yourself, Which perspective presents the most interesting aspect of the scene? For example, I realized one of the drawbacks of Jael’s POV was that she lost much of her mystery. Whose perspective was going to be more interesting for that opening scene in which Jael falls out of the sky in front of Hitch’s plane: Jael, who knows exactly what’s going on–or Hitch, who hasn’t got a clue?

  • Who has the best narrative voice?

We’ve already talked about this in depth in a previous post in this series. I’ve saved it for the last question here, both because it’s a little arbitrary (hopefully, you’ll make your chosen POV character have an awesome narrative voice, no matter whom you choose), but also because it’s so crucial. An interesting narrative voice can spell the difference between a mediocre book and an awesome one. I had a sneaking suspicion Hitch’s brash, slangy voice would be the more interesting–and I was right.

Question #2: What Will You Lose/Gain by Including Certain POVs?

You also need to take a moment to consider both what you’ll gain and what you’ll lose by choosing a particular POV. Although all of the above were important in my choosing Hitch’s POV over Jael’s, the deciding factor came down to the fact that for everything I would gain from her POV (more backstory and a clearer understanding of her mindset, since she doesn’t start out speaking fluent English), I realized I would lose far, far more by killing off the mystery and humor we get by viewing her from an outside perspective.

What Kind of POV Should You Choose?

Once you’ve figured out which characters will be given POVs, your next dilemma is to decide which type of POV you’ll use. For more information on all of the below, I recommend Nancy Kress’s Character, Emotion & Viewpoint and Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint.

  • Third-Person POV

The third-person POV tells the story in the third-person, referring to all the characters with the third-person pronouns “he” and “she.” This can be a POV of varying depth, either skimming the surface of the POV character’s consciousness, or digging down deep, as I ended up doing with Hitch.

  • First-Person POV

In a first-person POV, the protagonist himself is telling the story directly to readers and referring to himself by the first-person pronouns “I” or “me.” This is, perforce, a deep POV.

  • Mixed First- and Third-Person POVs

You can use a mix of first- and third-person in the same story (a technique going all the way back to Charles Dickens’s Bleak House). This is a nice way of emphasizing the importance of one POV (the first-person) over another (the third-person).

Picture shows:- ANNA MAXWELL MARTIN as Esther BBC ONE: Thursday October 27th, 2005 Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson, Charles Dance, Alistair McGowan, Pauline Collins and Johnny Vegas lead a star cast in a ground-breaking adaptation of Dickens' Bleak House for BBC ONE, written by Andrew Davies and produced by Nigel Stafford-Clark. One of Dickens' most celebrated achievements and generally regarded as the greatest-ever depiction of Victorian London in fiction, Bleak House is a skilfully crafted thriller and passionate indictment of the legal system which is as searingly relevant today as it was in the mid 19th century. WARNING: Use of this copyright image is subject to Terms of Use of Digital Picture Service. In particular, this image may only be used during the publicity period for the purpose of publicising 'Bleak House' and provided the BBC is credited. Any use of this image on the internet or for any other puspose whatsoever, in cluding advertising or other commercial uses, requires the prior written approval of the BBC.

  • Omniscient POV

The omniscient POV tells its story from the perspective of a distant narrator who is able to observe the thoughts and motives of all the characters. (I have written extensively about the challenges and limitations of the omniscient POV here.)

  • Second-Person POV

Finally, we have the little-used second-person narrative that refers to the protagonist using the pronouns “you” or “your.”

Most modern stories will be told in either third- or first-person. Which you choose will depend on a number of factors, including tone and narrative voice. First-person is widely considered the more challenging to write. If you’re considering a first-person narrative, keep these two rules of thumb in mind:

1. If the narrator’s voice isn’t scintillatingly awesome, opt for third-person.

2. Be aware that a character’s flaws are more likely to be emphasized when in first-person. Some characters who would be likable in third-person won’t always be so in first-person.

Once I ran through this checklist and decided upon Hitch’s POV over Jael’s, I never looked back. The story would have been vastly different–and, I think, much less interesting–from her POV. Had I not taken the time to realize that early in the outline, I very well might have ended up writing the entire book from her POV–and then having to toss it and start over.

If you choose your POVs with care from the very start of your writing process, you’ll avoid major rewrites by creating a story that is solid, cohesive, and takes advantage of all its best possibilities right out of the gate.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What are your steps for how to choose the right POV for your stories? Tell me in the comments!

How to Choose the Right POV (What I Learned Writing Storming)

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Trackbacks

  1. […] For more information on choosing the right POV for your story, check out K.M. Weiland’s blog post How to Choose the Right POV. […]

  2. […] to keep a character’s thought processes a bit mysterious. Novelist K.M. Weiland talks about this when she explains she chose to use Hitch’s viewpoint, not Jael’s, in Storming because she didn’t want to lose “the mystery and humor we get by viewing her from an […]

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