Your story must be about the POV character. This might seem like some facepalm advice, but choosing the right character isn’t always straightforward. Too often authors sacrifice character goals and development for the sake of moving the plot forward, often by resorting to lazy clichés. Don’t let that happen to your story. Choose the correct POV.
Good writing won’t fix POV character mistakes
This week’s shredding had a solid beginning. There was a brief moment of scene setting, just long enough for me to get grounded in the world, and then the conflict began right away. I could clearly see what the character wanted, though his true motivation lay intriguingly hidden. He was a bit of a bad-boy and the overall tone felt vengeful. By the end of the excerpt, I was invested in this character.
Too bad it wasn’t the main character.
Through the entire first scene, the POV character did nothing except watch the main action from the sidelines. He had nothing at stake in the main action and only popped in every few paragraphs to remind the reader that he was, in fact, still there. Rather than feeling like I was in the story, I felt like I was at home watching the whole thing on TV through the camera of the MC
All the immediacy of the first person POV was lost because the story was not about the POV character.
The first few pages are critical. They must introduce the primary character, establish normal, reveal his/her goal and introduce the first conflict. They cannot do this if the focus of these pages is not on the POV character.
Evaluating your scene for correct POV
Ask the POV character:
- What is the character’s goal/stakes at the beginning of the scene?
The POV character must have a goal/stakes at the beginning of the scene. This comes back to conflict. What does your main character want and what stands in his/her way If you cannot identify a conflict for your character, then the scene may not be necessary to the book.
If it is a sequel to a previous scene, then the POV character must have the highest emotional stakes. This may not necessarily be the same POV character as the previous scene. Make sure your character choice will have the most impact on the reader.
- What does the character do to further that goal?
POV character should have agency in the scene. That means the character must do something (or actively choose not to if that choice impacts the story.) She can fail, or the results can make things worse, but POV characters should be the character who had the most ability to affect the outcome. Are there exceptions? Yes, but just having your POV character watch the real action from the sidelines doesn’t make the most compelling copy.
- What is the complication/obstacle/new information?
How do the character’s actions move the story ahead? Did the POV character’s actions have the most impact? This impact does not necessarily need to be the most physical impact. Depending on the story, emotional impact may resonate more with readers.
- How does that change things?
Make sure the new information impacts your POV character the most. Even if that means moving the action off camera. You might be tempted to show John’s terrifying last moments hanging off the edge of the cliff, but it’s really Julie’s experience of watching her husband fall that spurs her to sell the land and leave her family’s ranch behind.In some scenes, the most critical impact doesn’t come until the implications of the events are processed by a character. In this case, the POV character might not have the most at stake until he/she makes the critical realization. Be sure to craft your scene around the POV character’s emotional journey, since this is the aspect that moves the story forward.
After you’ve answered these questions, repeat the process for any secondary characters in the scene.
If another storyline is more interesting than your MC’s, you are writing the scene from the wrong POV.
What to do about it
If you are writing in multiple viewpoints, no problem, just switch to the more interesting POV. But first person POV or limited third the problem becomes more complicated.
Marie Lu resorted to multiple POV’s in her sequel The Rose Society. Otherwise, she would not have been able to tell the complete story. Diana Gabaldon also introduced a second POV in her third installment of the Outlander saga. In these examples adding a new POV was critical for telling the entire story.
Before adding a second POV decide the scale of the story you want to tell.
If you are telling an epic saga about WWII, switching POV’s might add to the scale of the story. But if the focus is one person’s journey through that war, adding POV’s will only confuse the story’s purpose.
Avoiding the eavesdropping problem in a single POV
Sometimes the limitations of first-person traps a writer into revealing important information through a device. There are plenty of clichés for getting an MC critical information: unconscious but can somehow still hear, peeking through the keyhole, stumbling across a forgotten diary, or an attic full of old letters. The trick to making these scenes work is keeping the focus on your MC and making sure your reader has a reason to want to learn this information.
Tips for eavesdropping
- Keep the conversation between non-POV characters brief. No one can stand outside someone’s door for 8 pages and not get caught.
If a character is eavesdropping, make it intentional. In other words, don’t have her stumble over a game changer because she happened to be in the hallway at that moment. Have her intentionally snooping around. Add to the tension by making the consequences for being caught severe.
- Don’t force your readers to TV watch the main action through your MC’s eyes as a mechanism to inform the reader. This is the MC’s story. The MC must have something at stake in the events.
- Keep the focus of the scene on the MC. The longer the MC has her ear to the door, the less effective the scene gets. Give the MC a small piece of critical information, then move the focus internally as she deals with the implications of the new information and how it changes the original goal/belief.
Your POV character must have the highest stakes
During your editing process evaluate the goals of every scene and make sure your POV character is the focus of the narration. Use scene goals to evaluate which character has the most at stake and restructure the action around your main character. Don’t let secondary characters become more interesting than your MC, otherwise, your readers will wonder who the story is really about.
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