Monday, April 21, 2014

POV Faux Pas

By Linda Rohrbough

I spend time thinking about Point of View (POV) as a concept in fiction, because this is the one area where even experienced writers make the most mistakes. Let me define what I mean by POV – at a core level POV is how the story is told. I’ll start by saying there’s really two kinds of POV, and two major POV mistakes in popular fiction. Want to guess which POV mistake is mostly likely to keep you from getting published? And want to hear about a way to use POV to get unstuck in a story? Read on.

The first kind of POV has to do with the mechanics of how your fictional world is presented to the reader. What I’m referring to here is what we commonly call first or third person. First person uses the pronoun “I” and the story is usually told in real time. (The story can be told as “this is what I remember,” but I think real time is stronger and more popular with readers.) Third person is a lot more distant and the story can be told in the past as well as the present.

(As an aside, who in their right mind would craft a novel in second person? You have probably heard of someone with an English literature fetish who has done it, but it’s either first or third person in popular fiction.)

First person is the scary POV for me. I haven’t tried it. In first person, the character is telling the reader the story first hand in real time using the pronoun “I.” Where this gets tricky is the reader can only know what the character knows. In this mode, there are all kinds of ways to make a POV faux pas that pulls your reader “out of the bubble,” meaning they get disjointed and lose contact with the world you’ve created for them. (Readers hate that, by the way.)

The most common example is when a character says or thinks another character is afraid. How can the viewpoint character know that? That’s a POV slip. Not that you won’t see this slip in print from an experienced writer. You absolutely will. But technically, you’re not supposed to. However, as long as the reader isn’t pulled out of the bubble, the author can get away with this boo-boo.

The boring fix is to use dialog - the second character says, “I’m scared.” Now your POV character knows because they’ve been told. But this works in a lot of cases.

The interesting way to manage giving the POV character information about other characters is to describe things your POV character observes in the behavior of other characters. This allows the reader, along with the POV character, to conclude the emotional state of another character. Body language is the biggest “tell.”

For example, what are the physical reactions produced in the body by the emotion fear and how do they manifest? Blood runs away from the extremities, so the hands and feet get cold. The teeth chatter in extreme cases. But more often people rub their hands together or on their arms or thighs. The eyelids pull up so someone observing would notice more white around a character’s iris. And yes, I know these examples are cliché. But you get what I mean. When I’m stuck I use Google and type in “physical reaction to fear” (or whatever emotion I’m looking for) and see what comes up. Usually that’s enough to give me a spring board to figure out what I need to do.

What you want is a fresh way to describe this stuff. Readers are pretty sophisticated so unless there’s a reason to use a cliché, I try to avoid it. What I do a lot is watch people everywhere I go. (I had a creative writing professor in college say fiction writers are just glorified gossip columnists. I suspect he was right.)

Of course, what’s even more fun is to let the reader and the POV character conclude something based on observation, which actually turns out to be something else. That’s what readers love - to be tricked but in an honest, clever, interesting way. That’s what I try to go for in my work. And that’s what I think is the pinnacle of achievement in fiction writing.

However, there’s a second meaning for POV - how the character sees the world. This is the most common area where errors are made and this error can keep your work from getting published. It’s critical to have characters with a viewpoint. And that’s the same whether the work is written in first person or third person.

Let me put this another way: the character has an opinion. Hopefully, a strong one. And when that character takes us as readers into their confidence, it draws us into the story. That doesn’t mean the character’s world view is your opinion. It might be. The work (and the fun) is figuring out what this character will think, do, and say in a given situation. What makes fiction interesting is to place characters in situations where they are uncomfortable or even in danger and then have them react to figure a way out.

Of course, the most obvious way to accomplish a character with an opinion is to write in first person. It’s also one of the reasons first person fiction sells so well. The character must have an opinion in first person because there’s no way to write a character that doesn’t have a POV.

I promised you I’d give you a way to use POV to figure a way out when you’re stuck. One of the tricks experienced writers use is to rewrite a scene or a chapter changing the POV. Change the POV from third to first person. Describe the scene from the POV of another character other than the one you originally started with. Maybe retell the scene from the viewpoints of several different characters. Sometimes this works to stir things up so you see the work differently, and that might get you unstuck. Rewriting the scene from different points of view is one of those things you want to have in your bag of tricks for those days when it seems the well has dried up. (You’re welcome.)

That said, we’ve come full-circle in this discussion about the two kinds of POV in popular fiction, the two most common mistakes, and even a way to use POV to get yourself unstuck during a dry spell.
How about you? Have you tried first person? Does it scare you? Got a favorite POV? What is the POV of your main character in the story you’re writing now? These are important questions to ask yourself and I hope they’ve shed some light on your current work in progress.

About the Author: Linda Rohrbough has been writing since 1989, and has more than 5,000 articles and seven books to her credit along with national awards for her fiction and non-fiction. New York Times #1 bestselling author Debbie Macomber said about Linda’s new novel: "This is fast-paced, thrilling, edge-of-the-seat reading. The Prophetess One: At Risk had me flipping the pages and holding my breath." The Prophetess One: At Risk has garnered three national awards: the 2012 International Book Award, the 2011 Global eBook Award, and the 2011 Millennium Star Publishing Award. An iPhone App of her popular “Pitch Your Book” workshop is available in the Apple iTunes store. Visit her website:

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