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What is Point of View?

First off, let’s start with the wide open question of “what do you mean by Point of View?” As I sit here trying to post an answer to this question, I am suddenly realizing that it’s not quite so clear as I assumed.

A beginning writer or reader may not even be aware of this term, and it’s no shame to not know. But it is a shame to not try and understand. So I will do my best to offer some answers to clarify this question.

The way I figure, there are really two ways you can interpret “what is POV?” (POV=point of view)

You can approach it as which character is telling the story, or which personal pronoun is being used in telling the story.

Clear as mud, right? I’ll be tackling the first in this post, and the latter in next week’s post.

Whose Story is This Anyway?

Say you have two main characters, one is the hero, another the villain. Each is their own, unique person and thus each person will experience the same exact event in a slightly (or very) different way–usually in the way that most flatters him- or herself.

If you tell the story from the hero’s viewpoint, you’ll probably get a story that makes the hero sympathetic and the villain evil. If you tell the story from the villain’s viewpoint, you’ll probably get a very different story making the villain appear sympathetic, and the hero as evil. In the latter example, you may end up with the “villain” making himself into the “hero,” perhaps in such a way to completely fool the reader.

But who do you want the reader to love? Who do you want the reader to agree with?

This is why it is so important to know whose story you are telling. What is the story you want to tell? Is a story of the no-name person fighting big government’s changes? Or is it the story of the government trying to do what’s right for the people–even if the people don’t support the forces behind their motives?

If you were to tell the story above of No-Name fighting the government, it would come off as the government being the villain, simply because No-Name has an issue with the government that he is trying to overcome (whether or not he’s correct doesn’t matter much).

Now let’s say, for the sake of argument that this is an issue most people could get on board with, such as wanting to live his life without governmental interference. He wants to work the job he’s worked for twenty years in the coal mine (perfectly legal), and eventually retire and enjoy the rest of his years with his family and grandchildren, etc. (again, perfectly legal). Unfortunately, he finds the government is interfering with his desires by trying to eliminate his job. He’s convinced that someone up high doesn’t like him or his co-workers or maybe his boss, and nothing seems to stop that person from interfering with poor No-Name’s well being. Now, No-Name must fight for his rights, and fight against what he sees as unfair persecution.

But let’s look at this from the other’s viewpoint: the government’s. Perhaps the government sees No-Name as one of many people who follow the laws as currently written. But the government knows that the current laws are harming the people in the long run, and they want to take all the coal-mining jobs away in order to make improvements to society as a whole.

Who is wrong? Maybe that would depend on further circumstances, maybe it wouldn’t.

Who do you agree with? Sympathize with? This is the more interesting, more loaded question. Because, chances are, whoever is telling the story is who you will sympathize with.

Multiple POVs

Now let’s throw a kink into this party. What if you hear the story from both sides at once?

Dual POV, or Multiple POVs, is a common approach to novels these days. Usually, it is two or three characters telling the story, but sometimes, there can be a cast of a dozen or more (I tend to avoid those books, personally). The more characters telling the story, the more complicated it becomes, and the more the story is about the overarching theme or big picture than the individuals themselves.

Sometimes, these characters’ stories don’t immediately overlap, or overlap in some subtle way that may not be apparent to a casual reader. Sometimes, they don’t appear to overlap at all.

But usually, these two or three characters are in close contact with one another, and often times romantically involved with one another or they are best friends or family. However, both characters are usually following the same plot line, yet each character may have subplots which enhance the story.

So why use multiple POV?

Well, the simplest reason is because it offers the reader more information. How much tension is added in a romance if we see both characters’ viewpoints? We know as the reader, that they both are in love with each other, but the characters themselves are convinced that the other person hates them. Think of reading Pride and Prejudice from both Elizabeth and Darcy’s POVs. Or The Hunger Games from both Katniss and Peeta’s POVs. How would that change those stories?

If you use only one character to tell a story, sometimes you may not be able to tell the entire story. Depending upon your plot, your character may not be present at a critical scene which presents plot-changing information. So what do you do? What if your reader needs to know that information? Well, you can always use a second point of view to reveal it. Only be careful that any character you use as a POV character is significant enough to the plot to warrant the jump into their mind. Every time you shift POVs, you risk your reader putting down the book by asking them to accept a second character’s thoughts and storyline.

What Other Way of Explaining “POV” is There?

Personal Pronouns

When I first think of POV, I think not of who is telling the story, but which pronoun is used to tell the story: I, he/she, or you.

There’s nothing wrong with this interpretation, but as I explained above, there is so much more to point of view than simply which pronoun you use in telling the story.

Each pronoun has strengths and weaknesses for the author (and reader). But, since this post is getting so long, I’m going to end it here, picking up again next week with a deeper explanation of the personal pronoun side of things.