WHOSE HEAD AM I IN???
What does point of view mean? If you’re a writer you have probably at some point in your life seen your editor question your POV. Simply put, this is the perspective from which the story is currently being told. A large trend these days is to tell stories from the third person-limited point of view. This means the story is written as though being observed by an outside party, but with the added ability of the narrator to tell the thoughts and feelings of the main characters, usually two per story, and one at a time. Good-sized chunks of the story are told through the eyes, or point of view, of each of the main characters. The chunks don’t have to alternate, and sometimes they don’t, but generally each character’s points of view should end up approximately equal at the end of the book for a more balanced read.
The focus of POV for each chunk is usually chosen for which character will show the scene in the strongest light. Who is going to have the greatest impact on that particular part of the story being told? Which character has the most investment in that scene? For instance, if a woman is waiting to see if she’s pregnant, that scene will probably be hers. However, if her husband is waiting with her and he’s got a significant stake in the outcome, for instance if he has a fertility-robbing type of cancer, or if he knows he has Parkinson disease (which is a genetically transmitted disorder, which he could pass to the child), his stake might be slightly higher and the emotional impact greater if the scene were shown through his eyes. Or if the writer wants to keep his thoughts about these things secret, it would be shown through the heroine’s eyes with no explanation given about any negative reaction (that builds tension and is a whole other subject to post).
Once the POV is chosen, it should be an easy thing to simply tell the story from that character’s perspective, right? Not so much as you might think. For some reason, we writers like flashing eyes, whiskey-honey voices, luscious red lips, and sexy swaying walks. All of these are fine if the character relating these can actually see, hear, feel, and THINK about them.
However, when we are being shown the story through the heroine’s eyes and she says something to the hero using her best sexy voice, he may hear it as a whiskey-honey voice, but she wouldn’t necessarily think of it — or describe it — in those terms. Reading and writing from a specific point of view means we must think like that character. Would you see your own eyes flash in anger? Assuming you don’t chronically look at your reflection when you’re mad at the hero, probably not. Would you think of the way you talk as sounding like honey? Even if you knew you had just put on your best blazing red lipstick, would you think of your own lips as luscious and red?
Successfully writing in from one POV or the other, without hopping to the next head mid-scene is a matter of paying strict attention to what the character would logically see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and think. If we are in “her” head, it’s highly unlikely that she will know how entrancing “he” finds the wind lifting a tendril of her hair (unless he speaks the thought out loud). From her POV, the tendril isn’t some sexy reminder of how soft her hair is or how glorious it looks when it spills about her shoulders; it is an irritating piece of hair that keeps getting caught on her hoop earring. When we are in “his” head, he isn’t going to be thinking in terms of his flexing muscles or the way his behind fills out his jeans. He’s going to grunt when he picks up something heavy and wonder if the jeans are going to hold or split up the middle when he bends over to lift the tire onto the car.
One way I’ve found to keep the POV straight is to put myself into the character as I’m writing. Inside the POV, the character sees (everything but himself), feels, smells, tastes, hears, thinks (but in a specific way ABOUT him/herself), acts, reacts, and speaks. The non-POV character can only be shown acting or reacting, and speaking. By remembering the limits of the scene’s secondary character, we can police our work and edit out things the POV character in that scene cannot possibly know or see, etc.
The trick is to realize that even one tiny word can signal a POV shift into the other character’s head. Think about the following several lines and try to figure out if they are being shown from the main pov or could be the secondary character.
1. “I’m the medical examiner. I’ll nail you to the wall.” She snapped her latex glove into place with a knowing smile.
Her POV or someone else’s?
2. She secured her hair with a pony tail, gasping at the pinch from the elastic band on her fingers.
Hers? Or from the outside?
3. He ran a hand through his sun-kissed hair.
His? Or not?
4. It was obvious she didn’t believe him, and he wondered why he kept trying.
His or hers?
What do you think? Go ahead and answer in the comments below.
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