Sweetie by Kathryn Magendie

When Not to Give an Interesting Character a POV

This week’s video provides a different perspective on choosing the right POV characters.

Video Transcript:

One of the toughest decisions for any book is which and how many characters should be given a POV. A lot of writers seem to just dive in and write whatever POV is handiest for any particular scene, without giving a lot of thought to how this will affect the book as a whole. One of the tip-offs of a savvy author is his control of his POVs. If it’s obvious an author has specifically chosen his POVs, rather than just writing whatever’s handy, you know he’s knows what he’s doing. As we’ve discussed in previous videos, there are many factors to consider in selecting POV characters. One of those factors is usually, “Is this character interesting? Does he have a good narrative voice?” And this is absolutely a great rule of thumb. But sometimes you’re actually going to want to resist giving POVs to your most interesting characters.

Why? I mean, on the surface, that sounds idiotic, right? But I promise there is a method to this madness. And here it is: the reason you may want to consider restricting POV from an interesting character is to give readers a little distance from him. Sometimes strange or fascinating characters lose a little of their magic—their mystery—if we get too close to them.

Kathryn Magendie, in her haunting coming-of-age story Sweetie, chose to do exactly what we’re talking about. The title character is easily the most fascinating person in the book. But she isn’t given a POV. Magendie lets readers view her only through the lens of the first-person narrator, who is Sweetie’s best friend. The result of this clever choice is that Sweetie gets to maintain every last bit of her ethereal strangeness. If we had gotten into her head, a lot of that would have been explained away—or, at the very least, severely mitigated. So before you jump right in and give a fascinating character a POV, consider whether you might capture him better by filtering him through the lens of another character’s perspective.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever opted to restrct POV from a particularly interesting character? Why?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Not too difficult, writing for children and I use the first person constantly for the hero. However, soon to branch out into books for grown-ups, difficult decisions…

  2. Thanks for the post. I’d never looked at it that way, but can easily see how a character loses some of their mystique when the reader gets too close. I learned something today!

  3. Case-in-Point: Gatsby

  4. @Carole: Every book is its own adventure and requires its own considerations – POV being one of the most important, since it will influence the entire book.

    @Tom: It really depends on the character. Sometimes the mystery needs to be maintained, but sometimes it’s worth losing if the character has a fabulous narrative voice.

    @Noah: Great example.

  5. Maintaining the mystique as a reason to not use a character for a POV is different than what I usually here, but it’s a sound point I think should be shared more often. Usually, I hear to not use a POV to prevent a story from getting to complicated or resisting that cast of thousands problem. Also, I’ve heard it’s good to resist using a POV because the character doesn’t have enough internal conflict to make it interesting. However, I suspect maintaining mystique might be a more compelling reason, especially for new authors, because we like our characters to be fascinating and don’t want to ruin that. Great point! Thanks!

  6. This was actually something I had to deal with in my WIP. I very nearly gave the main POV to the female lead, who is, shall we say, from “out of town.” 😉 But after discussing it with a beta reader, I realized this choice was all wrong for a number of reasons, chiefly because it killed all the mystery related to her origins.

  7. My main character (human huntsman for the Wild Hunt), who gets at least 80% of the POVs, shares his head with a god (Cernunnos) who takes over from time to time. In 3 books, I’ve only once given the god a POV, and that was because I wanted to show both his distance from his human host, and the fact that he could still feel an emotional event of his own directly.

    A god should be inscrutable. I’ll no doubt finish the series without doing it again, but that one instance, however brief, was worth it.

  8. Although I’m not a fan of POVs that are introduced late in a book, I do think the most effective time to peek into a mysterious character’s POV *is* a little later, after he’s been established. By that point, the mystery is diminished a little, and readers are curious about what’s going on inside his head.

  9. Just like how Doyle gave Watson the POV instead of Sherlock in order to keep the mystery of the deductions so that we don’t know exactly what’s going on at the same time Sherlock does. I do struggle with POV at times. In my WIP, I actually have several POV’s because I’m dealing with 4 different lead characters, all in separate places in the beginning, each with their own story. However, as I’m progressing and these characters’ lives are starting to meet, I’m struggling with determining which to use for the best. I have a feeling I’m going to be reexamining some things when I finish the first draft. It’s all part of the learning process.

  10. Watson is a great example. Conan Doyle did write at least one story from Holmes’s perspective, and, since it was late in the series, it offered an interesting glimpse into Holmes’s mind. But, generally, the Watson perspective was much the stronger.

  11. Anonymous says

    Many modern authors do not understand the difference between limited omniscient POV and (fully) omniscient POV. In (fully) omniscient POV, by definition the narrator sees through all eyes and this is NOT “head hopping” as people without degrees in English tend to call omniscient POV. With LIMITED-omniscient POV the narrator is usually “through the eyes” of one character and sometimes a couple of characters. The choosing of POV cannot happen until an author has thought through his/her characters and how the plot will progress. The piece I am working on right now features a sociopath manipulating a psychopath to the detriment of the latter and I purposely have to shift POV so that the “psychopathy” of both can be seen through the eyes of each and yet not so much that the reader truly understands either character. A sociopath never lets anyone fully in, but can be manipulative. The POV has to go “sort of” in and then shift before the reader gets too much insight. That is PRECISELY how a sociopath manipulates. Conversely, I have to give the psychopath sufficient POV to let readers into his mind because psychopaths seem like animals. I have to humanize him enough to hook the reader into caring just enough about him to hate him even more. This is by far my most challenging write yet, but my beta readers “get” why the POV is shifting.
    Matthew Darringer

  12. I had to decide early on in my current WIP to NOT give a POV to one of my characters, mainly for the reason you outline here. It would give away some of her mystery, and give the reader too much information too soon. Several times I’ve been tempted to have a scene from her POV just because it would make things easier, but I guess that challenges me to write better – I’ve got to come up with a way of letting the reader know what’s happened without taking the easy way out.

  13. Out-of-the-ordinary characters, particularly “bad” out-of-the-ordinary characters, can be tough to create the right narrative voice for. Sounds like you’ve definitely got your work cut out for you, but it also sounds like you’ve totally got a handle on it.

  14. @storytellergirl: One of the chief reasons writers end up with unnecessary or weak POVs is simply because, as you say, it’s easy. But the more thought and effort we put into the constraints of our POV, the tighter and better our books are likely to be.

  15. Thanks for this! I have three main characters and the most interesting/complex does not have a POV (he’s also in the title). Initially I did this because I was not comfortable getting inside of his head. Now I think focusing on the other characters’ reaction and responses to the things he says/does adds to his overall mystique and probably makes the story more relatable. http://www.illegalwriting.com.

  16. Ultimately, what makes fiction interesting *is* the characters’ reactions to situations.

  17. Hmmm… this one got me thinking…

    In my main WIP, I usually narrate in 3rd-person limited-omniscient, but I occasionally get into a character’s mind to see not just what they’re thinking but how. My most fascinating character happens to be main character Shira; but I do occasionally give her the POV (usually when she’s speaking with her AI “analytical”). But not even she can predict the workings of her intuition precisely because it works on the fly. And there’s some things she never thinks about (and we never get even from her POV) because she trusts herself so completely that thinking about it never becomes necessary, and I find it necessary to look at her through other characters to let my readers know what effects she’s having on them. It would be almost impossibly tricky if I hadn’t lived with this character so long I know her inside and out.

  18. Sometimes it *is* better to get inside mysterious characters’ heads. If their narration offers important insights that would end up being more interesting than the mystique, we’re definitely better giving them POVs.

  19. I’m sort of struggling with this video, only because I’m using the POV of my main character almost all the way through my book because characters meet and leave her not to come back enough for them to narrator everything that is going on. I’m not saying that you said that the main character couldn’t have a POV, it just made me think if I’m going about my book the right way. Thank you for posting these videos, they have helped me so much.

  20. Let me put it this way: 99% of the time, you’re going to want your main character to have the primary POV. What I’m talking here is a specialized instance that’s only going to matter to a very small percentage of stories. So you’ve probably already made exactly the right choice for your story.

  21. What I found in my middle grade novel was that the main character (he was the pov character) became the “straight man” for his sidekick. I almost made this secondary character the pov character, but it was more humorous to keep the MC in that role. I do spend a lot of time deciding whose eyes will be the best to see through.

    Loved your post.

  22. Sometimes we have more leeway to let minor characters cut loose. What you described made me think of the classic TV program The Andy Griffith Show. Andy’s character originally started out as the funny one – until they realized the show would be much better if he played straight to Don Knotts’s Barney Fife. It’s all about finding the approach that lets the story and the characters live up to their potential.

  23. I’ve just changed direction a bit in my current work, giving one of the male characters a POV. Now I’m re-thinking. Great post…and now I have some decisions to make!

  24. POVs are tricky decisions, because for all the pros a POV can bring, it often brings just as many cons. We have to balance them all out and figure out what’s best for the story.

  25. Wow, it´s an excellent advice :O
    I will definitely have this in mind, but I think it is also possible, and fun, to play along with what the character really is and what the other characters see thorugh. Personally, I love doing that 😀
    Hugs,

  26. Oh, definitely. There are so many angles to explore. The one we choose has to come down to what’s best for the story and what, precisely, *we* want to explore in our characters.

  27. True, sometimes it´s just so diffcult *head desk*, but I guess you´re right, it depends on what we explore.
    But it´s still an interesting idea to keep your character misterious o.O BUT, on the other hand,I think it makes it way more diffult to expose the character´s inner motivations

  28. Which is really the key. If you want to expose the character’s inner motivations, then this is probably not going to be the right technique

  29. Yeah, it all comes down to the particular piece. But in some cases it can be the perfect move 🙂

  30. Toni Morrison is absolutely a master of this. I absolutely recommend reading just about anything she writes, but “Love” is one that provides a good example of this.

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