POV Picking and Popping POVs

Copyright questions come up often on the blog, and I happened to hear this astonishing report on the radio. Click to listen and be amazed: http://www.onthemedia.org/2013/mar/08/happy-birthday/.

The title of this post is a tongue-twister. Try saying it ten times fast.

In November two questions came in about POV. In the first, unsocialized homeschooler wrote, I’m writing a novel with a goal to get it published. It’s set in a fantasy land, and it’s in third person. However, each chapter (or half chapter or something–I don’t like writing in chapters until the end of the book) the POV switches. One chapter it will be told in one person’s point of view, the next minute another, while still in third person. How can I make each narration stand out? Both characters have very unique personalities. (Okay, okay, they’re not that unique, but they’re different from each other.) However, whenever I switched POVs, it seems like it could be narrated by the other.

I’m doing something similar in my revision of the book formerly known as Beloved Elodie now known as I-Don’t-Know-What. In my earlier drafts, I switched first-person POV back and forth from my human character Elodie to the dragon Meenore to the ogre Count Jonty Um. But I found that I wasn’t communicating the ogre clearly – he kept seeming unintelligent, which he isn’t. So I switched to third person, but not omniscient. If Elodie is in a scene, the POV belongs to her. Otherwise, it’s either Meenore or Jonty Um, all in third person, and the book is working better.

The narrative voice is the same from chapter to chapter, but the star of each is the POV character. For example, Meenore often challenges Elodie to solve the little puzzles that add up to the big one of the mystery. Usually doesn’t get the solution right away, and she feels under a lot of stress. Here’s an example:

“…Lodie, how did I conclude some calamity had befallen the Oase or the high brunka?”

Elodie felt the familiar pressure of her brain being squeezed. “Er… Masteress, you sang so that someone might hear us. Er… You knew brunkas have especially sharp ears. And a brunka came. Wasn’t that what you expected?” Her coming couldn’t mean anything! “Er… Um…”

Most of this is dialogue with only two sentences in narration. Take this one: Elodie felt the familiar pressure of her brain being squeezed. It’s a plain sentence, no particular personality coming from the narrator. But if the POV character weren’t Elodie, the narrator wouldn’t have said a word about what’s going on in her brain. I don’t mention Meenore’s feelings or the state of ITs brain when IT questions her, although I can guess what they are: pride in her abilities and mischievous pleasure in making her struggle.

Here’s another example, this one from Count Jonty Um’s POV:

A winter hare hopped across the snow to the right of the brunka’s cottage. Master Canute would warn the humans, who would flee the mountain if they could, and they’d drive their herds and flocks along with them. His Lordship clasped his hands and squeezed until they hurt. The wild beasts wouldn’t hear the warning or understand it if they heard. They’d stay here and die in pain and terror.

Again, the language of the narration is straightforward. It’s not the way he would tell it himself, because the ogre mind is different from the human mind. But the narration does reflect his concerns. The other character in this scene, whose thoughts I can’t reveal since I’m not writing from his POV, wouldn’t be thinking about the fate of the animals on this mountain.

So, sounds like you’re doing it right, unsocialized homeschooler. If you’re working in third person, the narrator’s voice should be the same throughout. If you want the voices to change, first person is the way to do it, and you might want to reread my posts on voice.

If you stick with third person, then I suggest you focus on the thoughts and feelings of the POV character in each scene, and be scrupulously careful not to stray in narration into the thoughts and feelings of anyone else. These non-POV guys can say what they’re thinking and feeling in dialogue and they can show it in action, but the narrator should never reveal their inner workings. The narrator who isn’t omniscient is allowed into only one head and heart at a time. Or possibly two heads, if you’re doing it that way, for example if you have a duo working together.

If your characters’ specialness isn’t showing through, you may not be shining your authorial spotlight on their unique ways of reacting to situations, whether or not it’s their POV turn. Meenore, for example, is always clever, and always reveals ITs cleverness in dialogue. Count Jonty Um is always shy and says little and is aloof and dignified. If I keep these traits in mind, each of them will stand out on the page, and Elodie will too by contrast.

So I’d suggest thinking about your characters’ distinguishing characteristics in every scene. If the moment belongs to your POV character, look for ways to bring the other guys in, doing what they do most, reacting as they do.

In the second question, Michelle Dyck wrote, How do you choose which character’s POV to use in a scene when more than one choice could work? I know that a good way to choose the POV is by evaluating which character’s experience in the scene would be the most crucial or interesting, but what if two characters’ POVs are that way? In the scene I’m working on right now, my two MC’s are faced with the same big decision, and although their thought patterns and emotions vary, both of their experiences are quite similar. I’m not sure which to choose.

It’s nice when you can just pick to please yourself!

That’s one option: Which will be the most fun to write? Which interests you the most?

There are other questions, too. Who has the most unexplored corners, which you can most easily investigate in his or her POV? Simply, whose turn is it? Have you been in Jack’s head a lot lately and you need to shift because the reader is getting too accustomed to being in there? Can you tip the balance in the scene so it isn’t quite so equal, and the choice will then become obvious? Can you split the scene? The first part goes to one character; then there’s some kind of natural break, and you shift to the other.

Here are two prompts:

• Your story moves from the home of one of your three characters to a museum to a row boat in the middle of a lake. The three have a common enemy, which can be anything, a former friend, a wizard, an assassin, Frankenstein, a virus, whatever you choose. And the three have different strengths and different weaknesses – different personalities. Write a scene in each location. Try it two ways, in third person alternating POVs and in first person alternating POVs. If you like you can add a fourth scene, from the POV of the antagonist if it’s a character, which you would also write in third person and in first.

• Return to the rowboat scene. One of your three characters has drowned. The remaining characters have to decide what to do next. Try it from the first-person POV of one and then the other. Then switch to third person. You are allowed to row them to dry land if the row boat is too confining.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I'm a master at this. No actually, I'm not. I should say I've had a lot of practice with this. My current book is written in third person omniscient, alternating among – are you ready for this? – seven POV's. I really appreciate this post because now I have a better idea of what I might be doing right and what I'm doing wrong. Thank you, Gail!

  2. Hi, Mrs. Levine! I've been reading your blog for several months now, and I always look forward to a new post. I really enjoy your writing; FAIREST is one of my all-time favorite books.
    This is something I'm working with right now too, though my main difficulty is that one of my POV characters is a guy. I've read your post on gender perspective, which I think is really good.
    I have a question for athena14Lee, if you're still on the site, about a comment you made in the post "Your Way" from July 14, 2010. I'm writing a research paper about J.R.R. Tolkien, and your quote from Tom Shippey seems like it would be relevant for my paper. Do you remember which book it was in? I have J.R.R. TOLKIEN: AUTHOR OF THE CENTURY; is it in that one? Thanks.
    And thank you Mrs. Levine for all your great advice on writing!!!

  3. Thank you, Mrs. Levine! I really appreciate that you take the time to answer our questions.
    I've already worked past the scene I asked about, but I will soon go back to it, armed with your advice, and see if I should change anything.

  4. Hello
    Thank you for this post.
    Writing in different POVs, to me, seems like a difficult task. I have never tried it though I plan to attempt to in the near future. When writing a POV of different people are they always reflecting the same time frame. A couple years back I had read this book with four plus different POVs, but I belive that the time frames were not always the same.
    I was wondering, in writing a mystery story, and having a bunch of events finally come together and make sense in the end, does that take pre-planning? Or does the clues along the way flow with a trail of thought? While I was writing a shorter story of my own, I wanted an insignificant piece of information that the characters bypass to end up becoming a great clue/ piece of information later on. Though I am not sure if I should plot this insignificant event, or use a previous 'non-planned' piece and use it later on. Any advice?

    • I think that a mystery is just…well, a mystery. I know I would plan it out, but that's just me, because I tried to write one at one point and I forgot to put in the clues at the right places, but I don't necessarily think you need to. In a mystery I like to be surprised, so do most people, I think, so, put in clues that are recognized as clues by the MC and then put in a whole lot of tiny seem-to-be-totally-irrelevant clues so that the end is surprising, but believable. Lets say an important clue, lets make it a revolver, is found. The mystery revolves round that revolver, but also around the handkerchief, the lipstick tube and the pencil that was found on the windowsill. People will be expecting the revolver, but when the hanky, lipstick and pencil end up in the mystery, they will be surprised, but not the "WHERE ON THE FACE OF PLANET EATH DID THAT COME FROM?!?!?!?" surprised. Good luck. I hope this helped.

    • It's up to the writer and what the story needs in terms of time frames. The POVs can be hundreds of years apart or separated by just five minutes. As for planning, everyone does it differently, so there's no right way. I'm not much of a planner, which works well sometimes, but sometimes I get lost.

  5. Great post–and well-timed, too! I was drowning in POV problems today.
    I actually just read a book called "Ruby Red", written in first person. However, the first and last chapters of each book in the series is written in 3rd person limited from the POV of an unknown character. Through the first person POV of the rest of the story the reader gets hints and clues as to who the unknown character is and how they play into the story. I thought it was a cool idea to have the POV's play off of eachother 🙂

    • I think you should use whichever one feels easiest and most natural to you. I know, it sounds lame, but if it feels right to you, it will probably seem right to the reader.

    • I agree with writeforfun. An additional consideration, which is up to you to decide, is if you want the voice to be consistent or to vary. With first person you get variety, with third consistency.

    • I know that these have been mentioned before, but I would recommend Rick Riordan's books if you would like to see different types of multiple POVSs. In the Kane Chronicles he uses two 1st person POVs, in the Heroes of Olympus series he uses 3 or 4 3rd limited POVs per book.

  6. Hi, I was wondering what you think about transformations…Such as a boy getting turned into a girl, or a frog. Is that too weird, or fun? I love writing transformations, but don't know how they can fit in my books. I'm really good at writing them, but think they might be a little too weird. What do you think about that, and if I wrote a book that was just a collection of shrot stories based on these, do you think it'd be good?

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