This week, I want to take a bit of a break from the characterization conversation we have been having to talk about point of view (POV).
This tip is often glossed over, but I think it’s an important decision that needs to be made when you approach the page—preferably before you start writing.
In The Basic Character Creation Workbook, I talk pretty extensively about the five characters that every story needs. Some writer’s call these archetypes, but I disagree. Archetypes, in my opinion, are far more in depth than these character designations, however here are the ones I feel are essential for a well-rounded story.
Five characters every story needs
1. The Protagonist:
This is your main character and the story is often told from their POV (point of view). They have the most to lose. Your readers are meant to identify with this character the most.
Their journey is the source of your story’s theme and their actions and reactions drive the plot!
They directly oppose the character and they are the primary obstacle between your protagonist and their goal. This can be an actual person or an aspect of your character’s personality.
They are the Robin to your protagonist’s Batman. Loyal and supportive to your protagonist, this character’s goals align very closely with the main character, but they often differ in very important ways that complement each other. In the case of Batman and Robin, Batman has genius level intelligence, is in peak physical and mental condition, is a master at martial arts, and is a master of stealth. While Robin is skilled at non-lethal combat, detective skills, acrobatics, hacking, and is a well-trained tactician. Together they are a formidable team, but Robin—the sidekick—wouldn’t be as formidable without Batman.
Your protagonist learns from or is aided by this character. The Mentor will often accompany the protagonist on their quest or journey and will protect them from any dangers along the way. The mentor’s main purpose is to be a moral compass for the character and keep them on the straight and narrow. Their loyalty can be swayed if the protagonist opposes them in anyway.
5. Love Interest:
The protagonist is in love with this character, but the love interest may or may not be in love with them. This character’s purpose is to be the catalyst that sets the protagonist on their inner and outer journey. They can be supportive or oppositional depending on how committed they are to the protagonist’s goal. Meaning, if they think the goal will serve them, they’re behind it 100%. If it doesn’t, they will try to talk the protagonist out of it. The Love Interest can also be combined with characters 2 through 4.
Point of view
Now that we’ve ironed that out, let me throw you for another loop. These roles you have chosen do not determine point-of-view. Point-of-view (POV) refers to who is telling the story which means, you can tell the story from the mentor’s POV or the antagonist’s POV or all of them alternately! The most important thing to remember is that changing the narrator does not change the role of the character in the story, but it does shift to include that character’s perception and is influenced by their beliefs and experiences. Is this confusing? Let’s talk a little bit about point of view (POV).
There are three (-ish) different types of POV:
- First—I go.
- Second—You go.
- Third (deep/limited and omniscient)—He/She goes (most commonly used).
Which one should you use? That’s a stylistic choice, but I will break them all down for you to make it a bit easier to decide how your characters will tell their story.
Historically, first-person point of view has been considered a big no-no. Most teachers and editors at major publishing houses strongly discourage it. It’s often misnamed as the favorite point of view for newbies. Why? The most common complaint is that writing in first is easy. It’s just you telling a story to the reader. The writing is often labeled as weak and is just the narrator telling the reader about the events in their life. Writers of first-person fiction also tend to write summaries instead of scenes, leaving the reader outside of important events in the character’s story. I’ve read a lot of first-person fiction like this and I understand why readers, editors, and publishers feel that way. Reading a story inside of one character’s head can get extremely boring, which is why I don’t agree with the first sentiment that writing a first-person character is easy because if it’s done well, it’s not easy at all.
Having that said…
I love reading and writing in the first person. In my opinion, first-person point of view packs a powerful intimate punch. If you’re looking to have your reader completely immersed in the character, this is the POV you want to use. It also gives you an immediacy that writing in third doesn’t. Everything in first-person is happening right now. In fact, I have switched from third to first as a plot device to point out the urgency of a scene before. It creates a bond with the reader and believability that this character was not created for their entertainment but a real person. Maybe that’s my own personal observation, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
So how do you use first person point of view to connect with your readers?
Balance. The key to doing it well is to make sure you’re not drowning your reader in exposition. What’s exposition? Exposition is used to introduce background information about events, settings or characters. Basically, if your novel is heavy on the exposition you’re telling me everything that is happening to the character instead of letting me read along as it happens to them. Avoiding this info dump is exceedingly difficult when you’re writing in the first person because you don’t have another character’s head you can jump into to give the reader a different perspective, but if you keep these next few points in mind it should make things easier.
First, get your character’s talking.
This will not be the last time I say that dialogue is the key to eliminating telling language. In fact, I will say it so many times that it will become second nature to you. Well, I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m speaking into existence. Get out of your character’s heads and MAKE THEM TALK TO EACH OTHER IN REAL TIME. Relaying important conversations via summary and exposition is boring and it leaves the reader feeling left out of the action.
Which brings me to my next point…
First person narrators tend to fall into the trap of telling the reader about things that are happening instead of walking them through it. I’m not saying you have to give me a live action play-by-play of everything your character eats, what they do in their day, or the number of times they brush their hair (unless it’s important to the narrative). I’m saying that I want to see your character move through this world that you have created. Put them in motion!
Scenes tend to be another pitfall for writers when they choose a first-person narrator.
I know what you’re thinking…of course, I’m writing scenes! But if you’re writing in first- person, chances are you are not. What you’re doing is giving your reader a recitation of events. It’s not a scene unless something happens; some sort of action, some sort of conversation that is important to the plot. Scenes show your character interacting with their setting or the other people in their world. Now, that’s not to say that there is no place in your novel for a summary of events. But if it’s something major, happening in “the now” to your character, that deserves a scene, not a summary. Scenes give the reader of a deeper understanding of a character’s feelings and reactions.
This is probably the least popular POV to write. It is most often used in do-it-yourself tutorials and choose-your-own-adventure novels. There are times when second person POV occurs naturally and should be used. This POV also shares a lot of literary similarities with first-person point of view, but still offers its own unique perspective.
Second-person can be a very powerful point of view. It instantly makes the reader part of the story and calls them to action in a way that first and third persons do not. It intensifies all the emotions in your writing because you attribute them to the reader instead of the character. They experience the story as if it’s their own.
Second person dialogue can be tricky. Similar to writing in first-person, it’s very easy to lapse into a dense and exhausting narrative full of telling language. All of that telling can create distance and you lose the potency of this point of view. The most effective way to eliminate that is to pair it with first person, POV.
Ex: It’s the middle of the night or maybe the wee hours of the morning and you are at my door pressing the bell impatiently. It’s late and I’m slightly grumpy having been disturbed from a deep sleep. I open the door. The night is balmy, a light breeze blows ruffling your gorgeous hair.
You’ll say, “I know it’s late.” Then with a hesitant smile you’ll ask, “May I come in?”
I step aside and you step across the threshold, brushing against me gently as you pass.
In this passage, you’re aware that you (the reader) are not the narrator. There is someone else telling the story and addressing another character.
Third-person is the favored and most common point of view used in storytelling. Newbie writer’s often choose first person POV when they are writing their first novel, unaware of how limited it can be. The inclination to choose first is most often driven by the desire to create intimacy between the character and the reader. If that is your aim, third person deep is similar to first person and can do the job nicely. But unlike first person, third person deep still allows room for the more objectivity. The first person narrator is unreliable in a way because they can only tell the story from their point of view. And just like real life, they can exaggerate or downplay their experiences or misinterpret the actions of other characters. If done right, the end result is so subtle that the reader barely notices it. In comparison, third person is usually used to tell a story from two or more points of view, exposing all perspectives and giving a larger interpretation of the story.
Of all the ways to tell a story, third person is the most flexible. If your story or character development stalls, you can easily switch to another character. Or even if you are using third to tell the story from one character’s perspective you an step outside of that character for a wider or omniscient point of view. Third person omniscient allows the reader to experience the plot and action of the story without being influenced by the character. That flexibility can definitely give you more freedom, but you have to remain aware that stepping outside of the character too often can create a distance between them and the reader.
Choosing the right point of view can make or break your novel. I hope that this will help you decide who tells your story and how they will do it!