Choosing the Best Point of View

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.


18 thoughts on “Choosing the Best Point of View

  1. Not related to POV, but…

    What would you say are the key things to keep in mind if you are featuring the same lead characters across a series of books? How do you keep them consistent yet fresh each time?

  2. POV and tense are two things that I know I have to work at. In the main, I write in first person, with third person thrown in every so often. Keeping the right pace when doing this gives me food for thought. I can see how it should all look in my head, but getting it down on paper is a much slower process!

  3. “I don’t think this issue applies to first-person narration because the POV is forever locked in the head of the protagonist”

    You’re right, John. But I gotta tell you, I’m seeing more and more novels written in a combination of 1st and 3rd. My latest, THE BLADE, which I just finished, is a combo. It presented an additional challenge because it’s the first time I’ve written in first person. Right now, I’m reading THE PAWN by Steven James. He shifts POV and 1st and 3rd sometimes in the same chapters, using a scene drop to seperate them. Like you said, there are no rules. Whatever works, works.

  4. I try to choose the POV that adds the most tension to the scene. For example, if I’m introducing a scene with a character who is going to be attacked, there’s more tension if that scene is preceded by a short scene from the POV of the stalker. That way, the whole time we’re seeing the scene from the POV of the person who’s about to be attacked, there’s the tension of knowing that this guy is being stalked.

    My pet peeve is the mixing of POVs within the same scene. It’s amazing how many successful authors mix POVs in their scenes. It always throws me out of the story, but maybe that’s because I try to guard against it in my own writing.

  5. A lot of which POV I choose has to do with how much I want the reader to know of a scene. Using your hostage/kidnapper scenario, if I want the reader to know how the plot is unfolding or if the police are approaching or if things are falling apart, I’d use the kidnapper. If I want the reader to know only what the hostage knows and have to wonder what the hell it all means, then I’ll use the hostage.

    And I’m sure we’ve all written a scene that doesn’t work, thought about it for a while, the changed the POV and watched it sing.

  6. Authors monkeying around with POV too much may be hurting the book without realizing it. As Kathryn pointed out, for her a switch mid-scene is jarring. The author may see it as a fast “cut” for suspense or some such, but in reality it’s creating a little “speed bump” that momentarily takes most readers just bit “out” of the experience. They aren’t analyzing this, of course, just feeling it. But enough of those bumps leads to a journey that, at the end, felt like it was less than totally enjoyable. Or less than it might have been.

    So…I would say there are some rules that do work…but you can break any of them IF you know why you’re doing it and what the cost might be.

    I’d tell a prospective piano student to learn the scales first and not try jumping right into jazz.

  7. All great Points of View –

    Joe, I agree with what you said regarding Steven James and his Patrick Bowers series –
    James manages POV the best way I’ve seen – His changes are simple to follow, and integral to the action.

    I agree with Katheryn – nothing throws me out of a story like Head-Hopping –

    Somehow, Steven James pulls this off beautifully with those scene drops and it sets his action on fire.

  8. John –
    I appreciate your point on use of secondary character POV to allow reveal of protagonist (e.g. physical description)
    I find it challenging to introduce initial description of protagonist physical make-up/impression without assuming ‘narrator’ voice . I am instructed that using mirror or other device while in protagonist’s head is viewed negatively by agents/publishers. Any thoughts/tips?
    Can you tell me which of your titles includes your first description of Jonathon?

  9. BK,
    I’m learning this recurring character thing as I go along, so I make no claim to actually knowing the right way from the wrong way. That said, two things come to mind:

    First, I think that one of the things that draws readers to series characters is the familiarity factor. That means that consistency trumps freshness. For Jonathan Grave, that means he is always trustworthy, loyal and tough, always a man of his word.

    I think it’s also important to take a patient, long view of a series character’s development arc. I want to keep readers on edge, but I don’t want to jar them.

  10. Kathryn, I think you hit on one of the prime reasons that some authors need to work from outlines. An outline lets you scope out ahead of time what scenes need to go where.

    Shifting POVs is a bugaboo for me, too.

  11. tjc,I agree that the crutch of having a character walk in front of a mirror as a means to trigger physical description is groan-worthy. Truth be told, I’m not sure that detailed phisical descriptions are worthwhile.

    I don’t know what any of my primary characters look like. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve ever described Jonathan Grave in the five books I’ve written with him as the protag. We know that he has blue eyes, and we know that he has scars from previous wounds–and that he was a “blond Adonis” when he was in college (that, courtesy of a female POV character who saw a yearbook picture of him in NO MERCY). I’ve never mentioned his age, but I’ve received fan letters whose authors clearly think that he is in his early thirties.

    We know that Boxers thinks Jonathan is small, but Boxers makes NFL linemen look cuddly.

    I think it’s better to let readers imagine characters’ looks for themselves.

  12. I like what James Lee Burke does in the Dave Robicheaux novels. The story is always told from Dave’s POV, but when Burke wants to shift the scene away from Dave he does so by making Dave seemingly omniscient, to wit: “But while Clete and I were otherwise occupied, events were unfolding…” That’s not an exact quote but that’s what he does. And magnificently. Always.

  13. I never defined Winter Massey that I know of. I defined other characters’ looks through his eyes.

    I have tried to write first person narrative, but I found it confining.

  14. My current project is in first-person from the perspective of a single character. Writing as if I was tossed into an alien world where I slowly learned about the alien people and their culture, gradually coming to understand them, and in so doing, coming to understand myself, has been a lot of fun. (I tell people the story is my memoir.)

    My next project will have points of view for several different main characters: dragons, aliens, a raven from Earth, and a human. For me, the thrill comes from immersing myself in the person, being, or creature, becoming the character as I write from his or her perspective. How does each see the universe and his or her place in it? The challenge is to make the experience as thrilling for the reader as it is for me.

    Every word I write is an experiment. Every story I tell is another lesson for me in how to tell legends.

  15. Another thought: when switching scenes and starting a new POV, it’s necessary to give the reader a strong indication that the POV has changed. Otherwise, they’ll be reading along and suddenly realize that the POV is different. Using the character’s name up front is one way to do that. Changing locations is also good.

  16. POV is always a challenge. The choice changes to story for better or worse. Sometimes I find when I’ve gone w/the wrong pov, I get jammed. Once I go back and start from the other character’s view, everything flows again.

    Great post, John. Thanks!!

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