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A Matter of Perspective

We need to have the talk.

It’s time for us to define the relationship between your readers and your characters. I’m talking about point of view. Who gets point of view in your story, and how, is an important decision that you shouldn’t take lightly.

For the purposes of time, I have to assume that you know at least a little about point of view. If you don’t, there are a lot of great books out there that can teach you about this crucial tool in the writer’s toolbox. Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, part of the Elements of Fiction Writing series, is a great start.

As I was saying, writing is a romance between your characters and your readers. Your readers will form relationships with your point-of-view (POV) characters. And, just like any relationship, you have to think about who gets that privilege.

Believe me, this is a hard discussion after you’ve already written your book. I know full well what it feels like to look at a story and realize that you’ve handled point of view all wrong. One character was boring but necessary; another was interesting but ultimately unnecessary. I had to grit my teeth and rewrite, first relegating the unnecessary POV character to the status of supporting cast, then giving the boring character more incentive to be active. It was a terrible decision, but it was vital to the book.

Whichever characters are most active or have the most interesting perspectives should make your POV short list. But how do you narrow it down from there? Should you focus on only one person’s thoughts throughout your book? Should you move among two or three people? Or should you have a crowd whose thoughts you dip into, first in one place, then in another? Whichever option you choose will have definite consequences for your book.

If you only have one POV character, your reader is essentially monogamous while she reads your book. She gets to know one character extremely well and comes to see who he really is. On the other hand, she will always wonder what it would be like to be that close with the other people in your novel. She will wonder what really drives them.

If the development of a single character is the most important thing in your book, or if your focus is on the events surrounding a single person, then make that person alone the POV character. Don’t bother with having other points of view if their motivations don’t warrant that attention.

On the other hand, your book may have two or three or four POV characters. Your reader has a more open relationship with them. She gets to move from one to the other and back again, exploring each and coming to see who they are. Your reader will never be as intimate with any of them as she would be if she spent the entire book with only one, but she gets to experience the thoughts and motivations of very different people.

If the developments of a few different characters are equally important in your book, or if your book is about a society or idea that is complex and requires a few different perspectives to truly understand, then you should have a few different POV characters to show what you need to show.

There is no good reason to have more than four points of view. Even four is pushing it, but I recognize that sometimes it can be necessary provided that you have the confidence and ability to do it well. The more points of view you have in your story, the harder it is to write, and the less attached your reader becomes to any of your characters. Your reader becomes a lady of the evening, accepting freely any character who offers himself to her. That’s nasty and degrading. Don’t make your readers go through it. They might put down your book just from the shame.

After you decide who gets the privilege of point of view, you next have to decide how. You may remember from your high school or college English courses that there are two basic types of point of view. First person is the most intensive. Your story is written as though your main character were actually writing it.

First-person point of view is frankly more common than it needs to be. It’s hard to do very well. To succeed with a first-person story, you need to be as good an actor as you are a writer. You have to have a nuanced understanding of how the events in this person’s life have influenced everything he does, says, thinks, believes, or thinks he believes.

I’m tempted to forbid anyone from ever writing in first person unless they have at least 30 hours of psychology coursework from an accredited university. And yet everybody and their gerbil has attempted it at least once. If you want an example of first person done well, I recommend the Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz. Koontz does an excellent job of making you really believe that someone else wrote his books.

And if you’re going to throw caution to the wind and try it, let me tell you this: Never—you need to look me in the eye when I’m talking to you—ever write a first-person book with multiple point-of-view characters. If your book is in first-person, you get one point of view. That’s it.

Most books are written in third-person point of view. This is where you as the storyteller are a step removed from your characters. Instead of I and me, it’s he and she.

Third person is what most authors use almost exclusively, and it’s the one I recommend, especially if this is your first or second book. While you’re not as involved in the character’s thoughts as you might be with first person, it doesn’t limit you very much, and it allows you to explore other points of view.

And really, all the best books are written in third person.

Now take a look at your story and make the decision that lasts a lifetime. If you haven’t started writing it yet, all the better. If you’ve already written your book, or you’re in the process of writing it, that choice is much harder. It’s hard to confront this kind of mistake in your writing—good grief, it’s bereavement. It’s divorce.

But it’s better to rewrite your story than to publish it now from the wrong perspective. It can make or break your book. Even if you’re confident you’ve chosen the right point-of-view character(s), I recommend a thorough reread just to see if there’s anything else you can do with them. You can shape their points of view to emphasize things they would emphasize or to hide things that they wouldn’t notice. You can introduce misunderstandings between them and create irony in the story. There are a lot of fun things you can do with point of view that allow you to comment on how different people can perceive the same events or even the same dialogue.

Give your work your full attention. You’ll reap the rewards of a happy relationship later on.

This article took six read-throughs.

Thomas Beard is a writer and editor with the Consortium. Every Wednesday he shares an article about revision, rewriting, and story structure.

Watch for his debut epic fantasy, The Orphan Queen.

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