Choosing the right POV character

Each book, each character and even each scene requires you to make choices about what POV to use. If you have more than one POV character in a scene—as you will in many of your most pivotal scenes—you have to decide which character should control the scene, or whose eyes your reader gets the scene through. The way you use the POV in a scene and in a whole book affects the way your characters and your story are perceived. It’s important to get it right!

Today we’ll look at one aspect of POV: choosing the right POV character.

Choosing POV Characters

Sometimes it’s very easy to pick who to use as the viewpoint character—they’re our only viewpoint character in the scene. But quite often, we’ll have more than one viewpoint character in a scene and we’ll have to choose between them. Whose scene is this?

First, you must choose which characters need to be viewpoint characters. I will guarantee that 98% of the time, not all of your characters need to be viewpoint characters. And many, many successful books—even series—have been written with a single viewpoint character (and not even one those third-person omniscient setting-the-groundwork-when-the-POV-character-can’t-be-here scenes).

Most of the time, I love to get multiple characters’ takes and perceptions. In general (since I’m writing romance), I need both the hero’s and the heroine’s perspective. I sometimes need another POV character—the villain to add the necessary sense of suspense and urgency to the book, or to make his/her agenda clear. Maybe even a sidekick character’s POV (because he would be privy to information the hero would only be able to receive second-hand—and, thus, boringly).

Once you’ve figured out which characters need POV scenes, now you have to decide which ones get which scenes (when they’re together, of course). There are a few standards I’ve seen for this, and you can use whatever works for you.

The character with the most to lose

This is the general advice: pick the character with the highest stakes in the scene. Your readers will be more emotionally engaged if we’re viewing the scene through the eyes of the person with the highest emotional investment.

The character with the most to convey

I’ve recently found it much easier to settle on a viewpoint character when one of my characters has more information that he or she needs to tell the reader so that the scene will make sense, or to convey a sense of dramatic irony (where the reader knows something the characters don’t).

I love how one of my writing friends, Marnee Bailey, described this difference in talking about one of her works:

I tried to write [the black moment, the pivotal low point in a romance] from my heroine’s point of view, but she was the one who was really hurting in the scene (she already knew she was in love with the hero, she’s just waiting on his thick-headed self to get with the program).  Writing her pain first hand was a little too overdone.  So, I switched and wrote it in my hero’s point of view.

It worked for me (I hope) because my hero acted like a real jerk.   He said some things that, as one of the pirates pointed out, would have been hard to forgive if we hadn’t seen his motivation from his perspective.

Then we watch my heroine’s pain from his POV, where it’s still apparent, but not so hit-you-over-the-head as to be overdramatic (I hope).

At the end, I cried, railing at him for being so stubborn and trying to tell her that it would be alright if she just didn’t give up on him.

Hopefully that’s how my reader feels about it after their read as well.

The character with the most important—or hardest to understand—response to the events of the scene often makes the best POV character.

For another example, also in a black moment, I had both of my POV characters present, the hero and the heroine. Originally, I thought I would use my hero’s POV as he obtained a confession from the bad guy without realizing the heroine was observing him. Having the reader surprised right along with him seemed too good to resist.

But when I got to that scene, I realized that the hero didn’t have all the information we needed to conveyand it was going to be very tough to establish why the heroine was there, when she got there, etc. Basically it was going to be tough to make it believable.

While my heroine’s emotional response was obvious in the context, it was better to have her POV, to set up her watching the confession, to track the events of the scene along with her. The bad guy doing the confessing might have had the most information—and the most to lose—it was the heroine that had the most to show to the reader.

The character we just don’t get

This is similar to the previous, but it goes beyond the events of the scene. If you have a character whose core beliefs are incompatible with your audience’s—whether this character is a hero or a villain—you might need more of their POV to help win the reader over.

This also affects the POV “person” you use. I’ve found that some things—such as character’s beliefs that we wouldn’t agree with—are much less convincing in the impassive reporting of third person than the more impassioned first person. In third person, arguments and thoughts rooted in a belief system we don’t agree with on its face—whether that’s communism or ritualistic human sacrifice—may seem so patently ridiculous that we can’t sympathize with the character.

In first person, if it’s done right, the character doesn’t necessarily convince the reader to agree with him or her, but we can see this is something the character truly believes, and we can at least grant them that.

Choosing the right POV character for a scene can be tricky—in fact, just last week I was working on a short story, and while I knew the basic premise very well, I just couldn’t settle on the right POV: character, person, tense—anything! So I ended up writing the story four ways (I know, I’m crazy) and handing it off to a trusted writing friend who could be impartial. (She gave me great advice!) Sometimes, you just have to try it more than one way, or the wrong way, to understand how to do it right.

What do you think? How do you choose your POV character for each scene?

Photo credits: Conflict Diamonds—Markus Thorsen;
Perspectives, not truth—Alex de Carvalho; If you’re not confused—Brian Talbot

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