By John Gilstrap
Stories are collections of moments the propel the plot through the eyes of characters. One of the critical decisions that an author has to make dozens of times over the course of a book-length manuscript is to determine which character each moment belongs to. I don’t think this issue applies to first-person narration because the POV is forever locked in the head of the protagonist. For third-person storytelling, though, the decision is paramount.
It’s also a key element of the overall strategy of a book. For example, in my Jonathan Grave books, Jonathan’s is almost always the primary POV for scenes in which he is involved. The exceptions are limited to moments where I want to reveal other characters’ impressions of Jonathan. I never write a scene from the point of view of Boxers, however–Jonathan’s best friend and protector–because his character works better through the eyes of others.
Because these books are a series, I have the luxury of developing my primary characters over a multi-book arc. That’s not the case for the secondary characters–the guest stars, if you will, the people who are the focus of Jonathan’s current adventures. I have to bring these focus-characters to life, make the reader love them (or hate them) and resolve their entire story arc within the confines of the current book. Plus, I have to do all of that without letting the story sag under the weight of obvious characterization. If I don’t plan well, it can become a nightmare.
As an example, whose POV is more compelling during a hostage rescue scene, the hostage or the rescuer? If the bad guy is going to be killed in the shootout, should some of the action be from his point of view, too? If so, then that means I needed to give him some scenes earlier in the story so that I don’t have to introduce his worldview to the reader in the middle of an action scene. (As far as I’m concerned, an action sequence combined with exposition isn’t an action sequence at all–it’s a muddled mess.)
These choices aren’t just limited to chases and shootouts, either. If male and female characters we both care about are meeting for the first time, whose POV is more compelling? If the meeting doesn’t go well, is it better to see the rejection from the point of view of the rejectee or the rejector?
There are of course no right or wrong answers because this writing game has no rules. There’s only what works and what doesn’t, and even that decision is bound only by artistic choice. In my heart of hearts, I think that we all know the difference, but there are few among us who haven’t on occasions stuck with the wrong choice for fifty pages too long.
By John Gilstrap