Choosing the Right POV Character-authortoolbox

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.

This is not the way to start your MS.

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?Choosing correct POV
    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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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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28 thoughts on “Choosing the Right POV Character-authortoolbox”

  1. What a marvelous–and tremendously useful–piece! Am about to sit back with an enormous mug of tea to reread my work in progress–have shifted POV several times in several versions of the story and want to make sure the story holds together in this latest version. Love the action focus and way forward.

  2. Great advice! I recently finished reading a book where there were too many POV characters confusing the story. I wish the author had read this advice by you before publishing.
    “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.”
    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. You make it sound so easy … but I’ve read manuscripts and novels which get this so wrong! George RR Martin can get away with 10+ point of view characters, but he’s the exception, and he’s writing high fantasy. Most genre novels need no more than four, in my reader opinion.

    I often find too many point of view characters is a symptom of a larger problem, like not actually know what the plot is, or getting confused about who the main characters are.

    Yes, I’ll definitely be sharing this post. Again and again and again.

    1. It isn’t always straightforward. Especially if the author must choose between showing an action sequence or showing an emotional response. It all depends of what the book is really about.

  4. Having the right POV makes a huge difference and sometimes it’s not easy to decide which one will bring the most out of the scene without compromising who the character is. Loved the tips. I have 2 POV in my view and often fight with myself not to add one more. I’m not George RR Martin. Lol it gets confusing when there are too many POV.

  5. Thanks so much for the info! The eavesdropping tips are really useful. I wonder, though, how this advice would change for stories told from 1st person peripheral POV, like The Great Gatsby. Nick Carroway is just along for the ride in a lot of instances, but it’s still such a compelling story. However, this type of writing can be difficult to pull off, and in general it’s best to keep to having the main character be protagonist, POV character, etc. Thanks again for sharing!

    1. Absolutely, there are examples in literature where this works, but these were intentional choices. In the case of Gatsby the intention is not portraying the events themselves, but rather the commentary on the decadence and immorality of the characters. This would be impossible if Gatsby was the POV character.
      New writers fall into this trap accidentally because they haven’t yet determined the goals of their story.

  6. Thanks for sharing such a thorough examination of deciding whose story you’re telling. This is one of the most important decisions an author can make, Sometimes we begin in one POV and realize that we really need to be in another POV to make the story work. It’s best to make that decision early.

    Thank you for the tips for figuring out how to get info to your POV character (even third person). In my book Murder on Moonshine Hill, the inn where the characters were staying had very thin walls. In fact, I stayed in that inn and noticed how I could hear everything going on in the room next to mine. That was when I decided to set a murder mystery here. Of course, I couldn’t overuse that technique because my characters soon learned they had to be careful what they said in their rooms.

  7. Choosing POV is one of the most difficult things. My first round of revisions was dedicated to changing the POV in every single chapter… Ugh.

    Excellent post and advice!

  8. So much about this is on point. I especially love “If a character is eavesdropping, make it intentional… don’t have her stumble over a game changer.” Agency is so important to books, and the urge to just drop in plot developments is powerful, especially in first drafts.

    I’m currently writing a 6-POV book similar to Six of Crows, and I love how epic and sweeping it feels. But every chapter, I must choose a POV character, and I always just go with the rule that TWO large things must happen, not just one, and that overhearing others can only be a teensy side plot, if it happens at all.

    1. So many books rely on eavesdropping for important plot development. So many books would come to a screeching halt if characters would ever take the time to check the stalls. Lol

  9. Great post! Some multiple POV stories take me longer to get into. Especially when chapter one is one character and chapter two introduces you to someone new. I do tend to lean toward books with one POV where I am completely focused one person’s story. Thank you so much 🙂

  10. Great advice!

    Personally, I used to write in 1stP because it’s more instinctual to me. I like being in my character’s head and in the driving seat. I’ve been trying to tackle 3rdP recently and it’s not as easy to get close or to even ‘hear’ their voice as 1stP. I need LOTS more practice! I also find it difficult to know WHICH POV is best for which story because like I say, my instinct it always 1st. But this is great advice for me on all POV points in general. Any advice on manipulating POV to its ultimate advantage makes an average story awesome. 🙂

  11. Thank you so much for sharing this information with our Author Toolbox group. I’ve saved the info and also shared the post online. Have a great day!

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