You’ve been quarrying into your characters’ depths until you know them as well as you know yourself or better. What’s the best way now to give your writing a professional sheen and bypass several experimental drafts while you tell their story?
Let’s enjoy a scribble together
Think of an important moment in your main character’s story. An encounter, a fight or battle, a crucial discovery.
Take a few minutes to scribble-chat your way around your character at that moment on your page or screen until that character is sharing thoughts and feelings with you, the character’s place in the scene is crowding your imagination and the writing flows freely.
Now, sit back for a moment and consider the mental jumble we all carry through every day of our lives. It’s usually a mixture of:
Our physical comfort – are we too hot or cold, our clothing too tight or loose, are we hungry, thirsty, in need of the loo or a rest?
Our wider context – have we just been sacked, fallen in love, won money, bought a car, fallen ill, wakened up?
Our mood – are we feeling excited, content, angry, fed up, exuberant, needful?
Our agenda – there is always a range of things we want at any given moment, from world peace to a burger. Which is the most pressing? Which has gone on for longest? Can you distinguish urgent and important?
Now let’s go back to your character’s big moment. Concentrate on just before it happens and let your character tell you about their mental jumble. Their worry list, how they feel, what they want and need. Blend your writing into a monologue where your character talks in their own voice for at least 10 minutes. Write quickly and freely, let the character’s voice take you.
Congratulations. You have just written with a clear, strong single point of view (POV). And you’ve got something to edit. The more you do of this exercise, the more you’ll do it in every draft first time. It takes you where your reader wants to be.
POV is simple really. Ask yourself, ‘Whose head are we in?’ at a given moment in the story. Whose eyes are we looking through?
That’s all there is to it.
Drama on a screen or theatre stage shows us a selection of characters acting out their stories in front of us. Actors and script writers work hard to help us feel what those characters are going through and it can feel real in the way being in a room with other people is real. But do we really know what they feel, think, plan, need at the deepest level? Characters do tell each other, yes, and sometimes they even move out of the action into a monologue given direct to the audience. But they could be, and often are, lying to us. (I’m thinking of Alfie or Iago in Othello.) How do we know what’s genuinely going on inside?
Poems and non-fiction can pull this off sometimes too but, if you ask me, fiction is far and away best at it. This single ingredient in powerful novels has changed the world.
Why all the POV fuss?
Sometimes when POV is ‘taught’ to fiction writers, the thing strays into spreadsheets and Graeco-Roman labels of almost medical complexity. We can end up more confused than when we started and that gets in the way of our writing flow.
Two things are going on what’s usually described as POV. They are linked – all storytelling is – but there’s nothing to lose in treating them separately and everything to gain.
The two elements are these:
- Whose head are we in as we read this story? and
- Are you as author choosing to let your characters tell the story in their own voices (as I or we: 1st person) or are they telling it through you as she, he, it or they (known as 3rd person)? This is what grammarians mean when they talk about point of view, hence the overlap.
One of the big leaps into writing to a professional standard is clear use of ‘Whose head are we in’ so let’s leave the discussion of 1st, 2nd and 3rd person for another day.
What are our POV alternatives?
You can stay in the point of view of a single character for your whole story, or you can guide your readers through several viewpoints in turn. It’s up to you. The important thing is to decide and stick to it.
Advantages of one character’s POV:
- Your story has a better chance of being immediate, clear and gripping.
- If you’re used to the scribble-chats we do here with characters, then writing internal thoughts, hopes and dreams comes easily.
- Your character describes and judges others, which can be fun.
- You can show the character’s voice, tone and accent without being restricted to dialogue, although a thick accent or dialect for a whole book can be off-putting.
- It gets you as writer out of the way.
- Your character could be honest with the reader or could be an ‘unreliable narrator’ who bit by bit allows their self-deception to creep out and take the reader by surprise.
Disadvantages of a single POV:
- Your character has to be engaging or the reader won’t stay with you.
- You do need to know that character very deeply to be convincing.
- You’re restricted to the knowledge, perspective and experience of that one character. There are ways to get information onto your page other than through that a single viewpoint (news reports, found letters, misdirected or wrongly cc’d emails etc., nosey informers about another’s behaviour, facebook, overhearing, searching another’s phone for texts etc., finding journals, bank or other statements, mistakes eg. the wrong flat) but it takes some thinking about.
- How do you describe your character externally? The truth is, you don’t have to. Readers are surprisingly happy to make it up for themselves. It’s more engaging anyway to describe how people feel about themselves from the inside and in other people’s reactions. If you really do want the reader to see your character, please avoid the mirror scene in the first chapter, it’s been done to death.
Which single character do I choose?
We will come to that another day. Meanwhile imagine The Great Gatsby told to us by Gatsby himself instead of his slightly shy cousin, Nick. Or Brideshead Revisited told by Cordelia, the youngest member of the Marchmain family. Or The Wolf Wilder told by the boy soldier, Alexei, instead of by Feo herself. Or Pride and Prejudice told as Lydia’s story. Any of these versions could have worked brilliantly too.
The advantages of writing from the point of view of several characters are:
- Information comes from several sources, layering and building the suspense and mystery.
- Readers identify easily with several characters.
- We all have different truths – it feels real.
- You avoid shoe-horning in information that a single viewpoint character could not know.
- You can use dramatic irony more easily, where the reader knows more than a character.
- It gives the reader a breadth of experience in terms of location, experience and company.
Disadvantages of several POVs:
First, it’s important to make it absolutely clear to the reader who we are with from time to time. We write from the top of our concentration and emotional reserves. Readers often read to relax. They might be in noisy places like family kitchens or train carriages. They may be feeling less than well or enjoying your book at the end of a workday.
Clarity is vital. It’s a big part of your reader’s sense of your authority as a writer: if you lose their confidence, they might well put your book down with a vague sense of dissatisfaction and forget to pick it up again. It’s not just about being kind to tired readers. It’s about strong storytelling.
Many writers give characters a chapter each at a time, e.g.: Junk by Melvyn Burgess, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas and A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin. The character’s name makes a good, clear chapter heading. In the first three or four lines the character’s voice, situation and thought patterns should make it obvious.
The second disadvantage of handling several POVs is the temptation to switch viewpoint within sections. Many fledgling writers swivel in and out of the minds of several characters within a paragraph, even within a single sentence. That can give a panoramic view, if it’s what you’re after, but it risks dizzying your reader, interrupting immersion in your story. It can also distract you as author from plumbing down to the levels of emotional honesty your readers want.
That said, I’ve just turned up a POV subtlety in a book called Longbourn by Jo Baker. It’s a wonderful example of a success by a first-time author – hurray! – and she uses POV to bring her lovers together. Copyright law forbids me to quote at length but on page 208 of my copy, we experience the scene first through Sarah: ‘She could feel his hand on the back of her neck.’ Then six lines later: ‘For a long moment she didn’t move or speak. Then he felt it against his chest: she shook her head.’ Knitting the two viewpoints like this has the magical effect of lifting us away from one character’s mind to see the two of them and their hug. At the same time we experience their closeness, heart to heart, alongside them.
- Don’t be afraid to go in close beside your character and stay there.
- Stay as close as you can to one character at a time. It’s more satisfying for your reader and easier for you to write.
- By being aware of how you use POV, you can avoid dizzying pitfalls and use it to create magical effects.