When one first embarks on a career as a professional novelologist, there’s plenty of advice to wade through. Most of it’s basic stuff and worth listening to, but even when barely starting out, a writer must consider what so many of these ideas really mean. One of the most oft-repeated is the DREADED P.O.V.!
If you aren’t familiar with point of view, it’s a simple idea that most scenes should be written from the perspective of one character. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it’s a good way to approach a scene when you’re first starting out. And it is one that most people don’t really understand.
I blame the phrase Point of View. It has View right in there. As such, many beginning (and even seasoned) writers make the mistake of assuming this is as simple as bolting a virtual camera behind the eyes of one character and only describing what they can directly see, hear, think, or feel. At its most extreme, some writers won’t even describe their P.O.V. character smiling because “How could the character see themselves smiling?” This hyper-rigorous version of P.O.V. is wrong. Worse, it’s completely missing the point, often turning our P.O.V. character into a recording device, removing much of their interaction with the scene and story.
So if P.O.V. isn’t about that, what is it about?
P.O.V. is a reminder that nearly every scene has an emotional intent, and that emotional intent should relate to your P.O.V. character. This assumes there is one P.O.V. character, which need not be true, but is a good rule to stick to when writing at first. One character will be the audience avatar and that character’s interpretation should shape how the audience experiences the scene. And people, believe it or not, don’t record experiences as a series of events, but as emotional highs and lows, of interesting moments and dilemmas. Heck, even aliens and robots and vampires should probably do that if you’re presenting a scene from their P.O.V.
By framing a story, a scene, a moment, even simply a sentence as an experience, writing becomes more vivid and interesting. And by knowing the emotional investment and particular perceptions of whatever P.O.V character you’re using, you can instill a scene with personality and vividness. A fly caught in a web is an entirely different scene depending on whether it’s the fly’s perspective or the spider’s.
It often comes down to emotional intention, a phrase I find myself employing more and more often. What is this scene meant to make me feel, and which is the best character to instill that feeling? That’s P.O.V. in a nutshell. It’s emotional manipulation via the best tool (i.e. character) for the job. This is also why it’s often best to limit yourself to one P.O.V when you start writing. It’s not impossible to write the struggle of a fly in a web from both the spider and the fly’s perspective, but it isn’t easy to juggle the different moods, especially the further they are from each other.
This is why characters are so important to nearly all fiction. The characters are there to give us perspective, and without it, a reader can often feel adrift. A piece of advice I’ll often give in a scene that doesn’t work is to ask, “What am I supposed to be feeling here?” Often, the writer isn’t sure, perhaps never asking the question themselves. Nearly any scene can be written from any perspective (though some combos are definitely more challenging than others), but the perspective is what makes the scene come to life.
That’s the power of P.O.V., and it isn’t found by firmly looking out from your P.O.V. character’s eyeballs. It’s found by asking yourself what they feel, how they would react, and how they would interpret what is happening. When a dragon soars over their village, an ordinary peasant and a brave knight are likely to view it in entirely different ways, and that’s why it’s so important to know who is our P.O.V. character and why you’ve chosen them to have such an important point of view.
None of this means anything if you don’t understand your character, which is the real source of P.O.V. When John McClain finds himself trapped in a building full of terrorists, his reaction is different than Linda from Accounts Receivable. You need to know why. And it’s not just extreme examples either. How would Character X respond to flirtation versus Character Y? Does Character A roll with the punches while Character B is constantly worked up by the smallest things? And so on.
Which brings me to my final point. Quirks are not necessarily character. Giving your P.O.V. an obsession with Power Rangers isn’t always instilling them with personality or internal life. Having a character be fastidious doesn’t automatically make them interesting enough to hang around with. That’s the second aspect of P.O.V. It’s not about quirks, but about the basic relatable emotions we all have. We all love, hate, laugh, annoy, and get annoyed. I don’t need to have Barry’s love of model ship building to feel his frustration when his favorite ship in a bottle is smashed to pieces. I don’t need to be a young girl on the verge of puberty to relate to her struggles. Or an alien warrior. Or a fly squirming in a web. I just need the emotional experience presented in such a way that I get what they’re going through. It’s hard, but it’s not that hard.
So the next time you hear P.O.V. bandied about as if it is a mechanical ruleset that worries whether a character an see the back of their head or not, remember that it’s both simpler and more complicated than that. At the basic level, give me a character who is experiencing something and allow your audience to experience that.
It isn’t always easy, but it makes all the difference in the world.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,