Hello, writers. Last week the subject of POV (point of view) came up in the comments. It's been a while since we've talked about that.
Most fiction nowadays is written from the POV of one character, or sometimes two characters—rarely three, and anything more than three is really unusual. Unusual in the sense of you need to have a really good reason for doing it.
This means that what you can show in your story is severely limited by what your protagonist is physically and mentally capable of perceiving.
Things that your protagonist can't see (eg his/her own face) can't be described, except by such devices as a mirror or another character's comments. (“With a nose like that, I guess you don't need a can opener.”)
As for the things the character is mentally incapable of perceiveing: Avoid terms people never use to describe their own actions or expressions, whether you're writing in the first person or the third person. “I pouted” or “She pouted” won't work for a POV character, because we never perceive ourselves as pouting. We don't sneer, sulk, or whine, either. We never believe we are acting childishly or unkindly. We may be upset, but it's always for an excellent, reasonable reason.
We don’t snarl, but we might, with regret, have to speak sharply. We don’t pontificate, but we do try to explain. We don't sulk, but sometimes we do need to get away from everybody. We might, rarely, whine, but it’s far more likely we’ll merely point out a difficulty. Or complain. I can see us complaining, because sometimes we just have to.
(An exception to the above would be a protagonist who was knowingly putting on an act. Then s/he might say s/he whined or pouted, but would be conscious of doing it deliberately to achieve a desired effect.)
Obviously the phrases I used above might not suit your style or voice, but you can find words that do. The important thing is to remember that POV characters always have a perfectly sensible reason for getting a bit impatient, even if it looks to the other characters like the POV character is cursing and throwing things.
Remember that your protagonist can't see what other characters are thinking or seeing. Leaving the POV character's head is called headhopping, or POV slippage.
Here's an example:
Beulah watched Henry run toward her. She was terrified; was he going to attack her again, as he'd done five years ago? Henry had never been so happy to see anybody in his life.Now, it might seem you could fix the preceding paragraph by simply seeing the scene through Beulah's eyes, like so:
Beulah watched Henry run toward her. She was terrified; was he going to attack her again, as he'd done five years ago? Henry looked as if he had never been so happy to see anybody in his life.The problem is, that's not believable. If Beulah is really terrified, then she's not going to give a hoot what Henry thinks, nor is she going to notice that he looks happy to see her. His expression will instead look negative to her: predatory, perhaps, or vicious.
It may be that Beulah's completely wrong-- not only about Henry's expression, but about what happened five years ago, when he knocked her into the Endless Swamp to save her from a deadly Least Grebe attack. If that's the case, then you-the-writer can approach it in several different ways:
1. Unreliable Narrator. The reader suspects, through info leaked by other characters or by the protagonist herself, that what Beulah thinks happened is not what really happened.
2. The Epiphany or The Mystery Solved. At some point later in the story, Beulah learns what really happened on the Day of the Swamp Attack.
3. We're stuck with Beulah's perception and we never find out whether it's the truth.
Number three is not the cop-out it sounds like. There are a lot of things our reader will just never know the truth about because the protagonist can't perceive the truth. But most of them aren't very important to the story.
I mentioned last week in the comments that in Diana Wynne Jones's classic The Lives of Christopher Chant (which you should read), we're entirely in Christopher's point of view the whole time. Christopher is a lonely little boy with strong magical powers that are being exploited by unscrupulous people. But as he grows older and more aware of the world around him, he finds out what is happening and puts a stop to it.
In a later book, Conrad's Fate, we meet Christopher again. But this time he's a secondary character, seen through the eyes of Conrad, the protagonist. And for the first time we realize that Christopher is pretty insufferable. He can be a real snot. He's vain, arrogant and condescending. Conrad never stops telling us this, and we can clearly see that he's got a point.
There are tiny hints of this in the first book. Once or twice, other characters make comments that suggest they find Christopher a little difficult. Christopher acknowledges to himself that he is “bumptious”. But we don't find out that he's insufferable, because we're trapped in the POV of the person least able to recognize it.
What you gain from confining yourself to the protagonist's viewpoint is suspense. Since we're trapped inside the protagonist's head, we don't know anything s/he doesn't know. Strict adherence to single character viewpoint is part of what made the Harry Potter books so successful. If we could have seen into other characters' thoughts, we would never have had to wonder which side Snape was on.
All of the above comes with the usual caveats that 1. famous writers can do whatever they want and 2. as teh Guru says, you can do whatever you can get away with.
Tonight’s challenge (pick one)
A Callow Youth and his/her Stout Companion have braved swamps, isthmuses, dragons, onions and least grebes to recover the lost Jewel of Togwogmagog. Now they are headed home, with the jewel. Or at least they thought they were. One night in an inn in the busy port city of Port City, the Callow Youth discovers the jewel has gone missing.or, the second choice:
1. Show the youth discovering the jewel is no longer in his pocketses.
2. Rewrite the scenelet from the POV of someone else—innkeeper, stout companion, whoever.
Take any object that's in the room with you right now. Describe it from the point of view of
1. a plumber who's had a bad day
2. a very spoiled teenage boy or girl
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