Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Writing Wednesdays: My POV on POVs - Whom to Use, and When

So, as you see, we're doing some big work on the blog. New posts, a tag system, more subscription options, all sorts of stuff! But the biggest thing we're adding is Writing Wednesday!

Now, instead of waiting weeks for me to fall out of my novel, I'll have new writing posts going up every Wednesday covering plot, characters, pacing, story structure, and pretty much anything else I've run into as a writer. Have a writing problem you'd like to talk about? Put it in the comments below! Today, by popular request, I'm talking about how I handle POV, so enough business. Let's get started!

Writing Wednesdays: My POV on POVs - Whom to Use, and When

(Note: If you don't know what a POV is, go here for a great breakdown.)

If you've ever read any of my Fantasy (especially my Eli Monpress books), you know I am the queen of multiple POVs. I love them. I love how they let you show the reader different parts of the story at different times to increase tension or give a different point of view. This is why the Paradox books drove me crazy sometimes, because it was in First Person, which felt like being stuck in a canyon. All this amazing stuff was going on in the background, and I couldn't jump over to show it. Let me tell you, it took a lot of narrative acrobatics to figure out how to fit all that stuff in without the luxury of POV switches.

Fortunately for me, third person writing (my favorite style) is all about the POV switch! That said, though, you can't go too crazy. POV switches are a powerful narrative tool, but each perspective you jump to adds a layer of complexity and weight to your novel, and that can get out of hand very quickly. So how do I decide when to jump POVs and when to stay? Or which character gets a POV and which stays to the side?

When I'm deciding on a POV character, my most important considerations are 1) who's got the most interesting viewpoint, and 2) information control. Obviously, you always want to describe a scene through the eyes of the character who's viewpoint is the most exciting for the reader. Think of your scene like a play. Your reader has done you the great honor of going to your show, are you going to stick them in the nosebleed section? Or behind the curtain with the catering? No! You want your reader in the front row, or even on the stage. Whatever POV is the best seat in the house, that's where you want your reader.

But sometimes you can't do this. Sometimes, the character who would otherwise have the most interesting view of a scene is off limits for you narratively because they simply know too much, and if we put the reader in their head, they'll give the whole game away. This is where my second consideration, information control, comes in.

Controlling how much the reader knows is vital to keeping the tension in a story. Your secrets (plot, world, and character) are your big reveals as an author. You can't just have characters blabbing about them and spoiling the surprise. Speaking from personal experience, I had a huge problem with this in my Eli Monpress books, and it's the reason Eli is the POV character in only about 40% of the scenes, despite being the titular character of the series. He simply knew too much about the secrets of the world. He was fine for some scenes, but there were situations in the book where, if I wrote them from his perspective, his natural train of thought as a character would give the whole game away, and all the mystery and tension I'd worked so hard to build up over multiple novels would fall flat. His entire thought process was a spoiler, basically, which made it almost impossible to give him the narrative POV in delicate scenes.

Getting around this problem is one of the main reasons The Legend of Eli Monpress employs such an enormous number of POV characters. In the first book alone, I had Eli, Miranda, Josef, both villains, the king, various spirits, a nameless child, and a rat. Oh, and I also had a scene in omniscient 3rd person where the POV watched two very big power players have a conversation like an invisible camera.

So, as you see, you have a lot of lot of options when it comes to POV. Personally, I'm a huge fan of going wherever I need to go to get the best story, which sometimes means picking some pretty weird POVs. I always try to show events from the most interesting light, and I'm not afraid to use out of the box view points to get there.

That said, though, employing multiple POVs, especially weird ones, can be a risky move. If you do it badly and confuse the reader, they'll put your book down faster you can say Stop!, and then you've lost them forever. Fortunately, it's actually pretty easy to write solid POV switches that won't piss off your readers by following a few simple guidelines.

1) Avoid head hopping. 
Seriously, people hate this. When readers gripe about POV, this is usually what they're talking about, and I can totally understand why. Head hopping happens when you shift POV inside a scene without breaking it first or giving the reader some kind of warning. You literally just "hop" into another head. I've read books where the POV was pinging between two characters having a conversation like they were playing tennis, sometimes even within the same paragraph, and it was horrible.

I try to avoid saying never do something in writing, because invariably, the second I say it, I'll read a book where the author pulled that exact thing off in spades. Good writing is entirely about execution, and literally nothing is off limits if you can do it well. THAT SAID, 99.9% of the time, head hopping is a terrible decision that will get you nothing but angry reviews, Not only is jumping back and forth between people's heads super confusing for your audience, it also weakens their personal connection to your characters since it ruins all sense of being inside someone's private thoughts. If you really think you can pull it off, more power to you, but my advice is to stay away.

2) If you're not going back to a POV character, don't give them a name.
I know this seems weird. If we're in someone's head, surely we must need to know who they are, right? But names represent heavy lifting for your audience. Readers feel like they need to remember named characters, which means you have to be careful with them lest your book start feeling like a quiz. Fortunately, very few minor characters actually need names.

For example, let's say you have a scene where a bystander witnesses something important, like a murder. If that character's only job in the book was to be a window for the reader, and they're never coming back except maybe as someone the MC interrogates later, then that character only needs a broad descriptor, like "the fisherwoman" or "the old man in the hat." Something you can give your reader as a quick identifying marker without making them remember yet another name. This sort of shorthand label identification is much easier on your readers, and that, in turn, makes them much more amiable to following your story through multiple POVs.

Of course, you could also just do the witness scene from 3rd person omniscient perspective (ie. the "floating eyeball" or "camera in the sky" perspective) and not worry about characters at all, but 3rd person omniscient is famously one of the hardest writing styles to pull off. It's super easy to mess up and write a movie voiceover of events instead of an actual scene readers will care about. I do employ 3rd omniscient in my novels, but my personal rule is that, if I'm writing more than a few paragraphs, I have to be in someone's head. But, again, this is a personal preference. If you feel you can ace 3rd omniscient, go for it!

3) If you do give a POV character a name, make sure they have at least two POV scenes. 
The logic here is the same as above. If you're going to ask your reader to invest in remembering the name of a POV character, it's a good idea to reward that investment with at least two scenes so they don't feel like they did all that memorization for nothing. The only time I don't follow this rule is when I'm writing POV scenes for very powerful, distant characters that the reader is SUPER EXCITED to learn more about. These POV scenes are rare treats, and if you play them up properly beforehand (and dole them out very infrequently to keep them special), your reader will gobble them up without any extra work on your part.

4) Avoid wild swings in writing style when switching POVs.
Changing your style between POVs is a classic gimmick to create distinct voices for your characters. Like every gimmick, though, it gets tired if you use it too much. This doesn't mean you shouldn't give each character their own distinct voice and personality, obviously, but if you're going to be switching POVs frequently, it's probably a good idea not to do one in a heavy Scottish brogue, one in second person, one in all caps, one in Ye Olde English, and so forth. Just use common sense and think of your reader first and you should be fine.

5) When possible, choose the POV character who knows the least/has the most to lose.
This is more of a trick than a rule, but a great way to feed information to your audience without resorting to an info dump is to choose a POV character who is as ignorant about the scene as the reader is. If you have a scene with two character, and you have a POV choice between a character who knows everything and a character who knows nothing, going with the person who's learning along with the reader is a fantastic, dead easy way to combine exposition with character development.

Likewise, if you want to make sure a scene is super exciting and tense, just tell it from the POV of the character who has the most on the line in the situation (for example, doing an execution scene from the POV of the character being executed). When you put your POV in the head of the character who's got the most to lose in a scene, not only do you get great tension, but that character's anxiety will transfer to the reader, giving you a super intense scene without you really having to do more than set up the stakes.

Both of these tricks are great ways to make your POVs do double duty in your novels. By being smart in your POV choices, you can turn what would otherwise be weighty narrative work (exposition, character introduction, world building) into a natural extension of the POV character's own internal learning and struggles. It's some serious author magic when it comes together. Highly recommended!

6) Save the omniscient POVs for special occasions.
I went over this briefly a few points up, but it bares mention again. Omniscient third person is a POV where you're not in anyone's head. The scene is presented as though we are an invisible eyeball, passively watching events unfold below. It's a great tactic if you want to show something huge that the characters would otherwise be unable to observe, like a fissure opening up beneath the Earth's crust, or a meeting between two gods who rule the universe.

Unfortunately, the very passive, impersonal nature that makes omniscient narration so great for showing big things makes it terrible at showing everything else. There's no investment, no character, and therefore, no engagement. It's a highly detached viewpoint, and that means your reader is detached as well, which can be really bad if pushed for long periods of time. Used wisely and sparingly, though, 3rd person omniscient is a great tool for showing your reader something the characters can't see/don't know, which is a tool every author needs in their arsenal.

And that's how I choose POV!
I know all the above seems like a lot, but as one multi-POV addict to another, I've found following these guidelines allows me to employ an enormous range of alternating viewpoints without overloading my reader. As with everything in writing, POV is all about execution, but if you're clever and keep your reader in mind, you can get away with a stupidly enormous number of POVs without ever having a complaint.

And with that, we come to the end. I really hope you enjoyed the first of what (fingers crossed) will be many Writing Wednesdays! Again, if you have a question or a writing topic you'd like me to go into, please post it below. As always, thank you for reading, and happy writing!

- Rachel 


Eliza Savage said...

Thanks for this post! Multiple 3rd person is my favorite POV choice. It's great to see a logical method spelled out clearly instead of just having to rely on intuition.

Question: How do you decide between 1st and 3rd person POV?

Tami Moore said...

I love how you included the bit about information withholding when choosing a PoV. When I was writing my webserial, I had a ton of freedom with which character had PoV for an installment, and I found out early on that some characters just aren't any fun even though they're doing interesting things.

Rachel Aaron said...

@Eliza Glad you enjoyed it!

Choosing between 1st and 3rd is mostly an issue of voice/tone and story focus for me. Devi's story was all about her and the 1st person voice really made the book personal, so that's what I went with. For my ensemble cast books (Eli, Dragons, etc), though, 3rd was the only logical choice since I had so many voices.

@Tami I'm all about information control in my books! So much of writing is knowing when to play your big cards and when to hold them :)

Winona Cross said...

Have to make sure special folder for these Wednesday blogs. I'd like to learn more about the mechanics and ingredients for a good short story. And, how to choose what to write next when the current project is winding down or stalling.

Rachel Aaron said...

@Winona I'm a terrible short story writer, so I'm afraid your first question is out of my ballpark, but your second one is definitely something I've dealt with. Added to the list, thanks!

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olivialiubooks said...

Thanks so much for writing this post! My WIP has 3 POVs and I'm working out the kinks of such a structure and your post has been so helpful! I do have one question. I change my style between POVs, something you advise against and I'm worried about how to (and if I can) make this work.

In my WIP, one POV narrates in 1st person past tense, one in 3rd person past tense, and one in 1st person present tense. But because I have legitimate reasons for this (ex: one character has no concept of time and, thus, of the past, so it's literally impossible for her to narrate in anything but present tense), I really want to keep my story in this format, if possible.

You say "literally nothing is off limits if you can do it well" so how can wild swings in writing style when switching POVs be successfully accomplished without it being too jarring for the reader?

Unknown said...

Someone will hate it no matter what, someone will manage to completely fail to notice, and hopefully most readers will give you the benefit of the doubt and as long as it feels natural then it can work. It really is all about making it not jarring for the reader, which is about feel. With such drastic changes, it may be best to limit POV switches to chapter breaks so readers have a chance to gather themselves between changes. Also, get some test readers to provide feedback about whether you're "doing it well" if you're having a hard time seeing for yourself one way or another.