Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Choosing the Perfect POV: The Writer’s Quest for the Holy Grail

Note: This is the sixth and last in a series of articles on demystifying viewpoint. The originals will appear first as posts on my Spontaneous Combustion blog, then be archived here on my website as downloadable PDFs.

Finding the perfect form of POV for your book is a lot like the legendary quest for the Holy Grail: one wrong choice can spell your doom. Just ask the characters in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Photo by Madder
Photo by Madder of Grail in Valencia, Spain

In that film, Walter Donovan is a rich American businessman so greedy for eternal life that he collaborates with the Nazis in order to track down the Grail. But the immortal knight who has been guarding the chalice for centuries warns, “The true Grail will bring you life; the false grail will take it from you.”

Undeterred, Donovan chooses a glitzy gold cup and drains it in one smug gulp. Moments later, his face caves in, his eyeballs shrivel up, and finally his entire body crumbles to dust as he shrieks in agony and terror.

The knight looks on dispassionately and deadpans, “He chose…poorly.” Oops!

Donovan’s lethal fate is precisely what you want to avoid when deciding which form of POV to use in your book. You certainly don’t want to make a poor choice that can suck the life out of your carefully-crafted story. But how do you choose wisely?

As I’ve suggested in this series on “Demystifying Viewpoint,” one way to understand POV is to think of it this way—which character is wearing the glasses through which readers view all the events of the book?

I’ve written about both single and multiple POV, and confessed that I am something of a single POV Puritan; both as a writer and a reader, I prefer books where the narrative glasses sit firmly on the nose of just one character from beginning to end.

But I tried to give equal time to multiple POV, since so many fine books, both for kids and adults, are written this way—with the viewpoint glasses switching from one character to another as the book unfolds.

I even wrote about omniscient POV: that form of viewpoint where none of the characters in the book is wearing the viewpoint glasses. Instead, the author reserves those for herself, in one guise or another.

But despite mocking myself a little as a Single POV Puritan, I do realize that this is not the best way to write every novel.  It may sound like heresy for me of all people to say this, but some types of books are more effective if readers can experience them through the perspective of multiple characters—or even via the voice of an all-knowing narrator.

So how do you choose which character should wear the viewpoint glasses? How do you decide which form of POV is best for a particular project?

The answer is straightforward: you need to choose the viewpoint technique that will work best to accomplish your literary goals. That’s the fundamental question you need to ask yourself when you first sit down to write. What is your purpose with the book—to scare readers, or to make them laugh? To make them cry or to ignite them with anger? To lead them on a wild adventure, or to make them ponder emotional truths or existential questions? Your choice of viewpoint can help or hinder you in any of those goals.

In a blog article on multiple POV, writer Christine Kohler has written eloquently about her reasons for choosing that technique for her YA historical novel, No Surrender Soldier [Merit Press, Fall 2014]. Her thought process can be a model for any writer struggling to make this pivotal decision. 

“[The book]…is told in two POVs because the WWII soldier, Isamu Seto, is hiding in the jungle. In 1972, when Kiko’s story takes place, no one knows the soldier exists. If I had told the story in a single POV, then it might have still been suspenseful for Kiko to discover the soldier, but I would not have been able to show the reader how and why Seto hid and survived for 28 years in the jungle. Both POVs are in past tense since this is a historical novel.

“However, 15-year-old Kiko’s POV chapters are in first person, whereas Seto’s chapters are in third person. I wrote it this way so the reader could identify with Kiko, and not Seto. The third person puts a bit more psychic distance between the reader and the character.”
Kohler made a daring choice here; it was a risky move to write even part of a novel aimed at YA readers from the POV of an adult—and an adult who is likely to be viewed as a “bad guy” by readers, at least initially. But she had a compelling narrative reason to do so—that’s the key. Then she was careful to mitigate the risks she took by making another wise decision. She kept the sections in her Japanese soldier’s point of view in third person in order to give readers a “safe zone.” Using third person means that young readers don’t have to get that close to Seto if they don’t want to; they can still cling to young Kiko as their proxy in the book.

Genre: Note also that Kohler is writing a historical saga, one that spans three decades. A saga can be historical, covering a broad range of time; geographical, covering a sweeping event that happens in many places at once, such as a war, natural catastrophe, or the zombie apocalypse; or speculative, by which I mean a fantasy or sci fi book that builds an entirely new world [or universe] for readers. As much as it pains a single POV Puritan like myself to say this, such sagas might be too limited, too narrow in their scope, if told from the viewpoint of just one character. Such books work best with either multiple POV or omniscient narration. This way readers can get the full impact of the big event by viewing it through the lenses of several different viewpoint characters, or an all-knowing one.

On the other hand, it might work better to stick with the single POV of your detective if you are writing a mystery, where you want readers to compete with the hero in a race to solve the crime, based on clues that only your detective-protagonist knows.

Single POV can also work well in a book where you want to scare readers, such as a horror or ghost story. In books like this, it’s the unknown that ratchets up the level of fear, so the limited knowledge of a single POV character can be highly effective.

A romance, on the other hand, might be more intriguing if you tell it in the dual POV of both parties in the relationship. [Although this use of POV is common in adult romances, in YA romance a single POV is often used instead.]

• Audience: Consider your target audience as well. A more complex use of viewpoint—such as rotating through several different POV characters in the course of a novel—can well with older YA readers, but could possibly fall flat with middle graders. Multiple POV can confuse or put off younger readers, who aren’t as experienced with literary techniques and may respond better to a simpler, more direct approach.

I learned this the hard way with a middle grade ghost story that I’m working on. In the first draft, I had seven—count ‘em, SEVEN!—viewpoint characters. I was convinced I had the writing chops to pull this off; can you say over-confident and delusional? I was 150 pages into the manuscript before I finally realized that one of my characters had staged a mutiny. A quirky little guy whom I had originally thought was just a minor character turned out to be my real hero, so I had to rewrite the entire blasted book. [The fact that the revision turned out to flow so naturally was my clue that I was doing the right thing; I should have listened to my inner Puritan and stuck with single POV in the first place.]

• Reader relationship to hero: Perhaps most importantly, consider your protagonist. What kind of relationship do you want readers to have with your hero or heroine? The more strongly you want your readers to identify with your hero, the more likely it is that you’ll want to use single POV, whether in first or limited third person: perhaps even in Deep POV.

On the other hand, if you are writing a book where the main character is an anti-hero, or even a villain, using first-person narration or a tight single third-person POV might be too claustrophobic for readers. Who wants to be stuck in the head of a sadistic bully for an entire book? When you don’t expect readers to like your protagonist, you may want to hold them at a distance by using a more distant form of third person POV, or even omniscient. Or you can minimize the amount of time readers have to spend with your unlikeable protagonist by switching off periodically to other, more sympathetic characters using multiple POV.

• Literary goals: Finally, don’t forget to consider how the form of POV you choose can help you achieve your other literary goals for the book. Maybe you are writing a story where much of the dramatic impact at the climax comes from a twist that you have cagily been hiding up your sleeve for the entire plot. Your choice of POV is absolutely critical here, because you need to control the information that readers have in order to keep the twist hidden. This is a time where omniscient POV would almost certainly be the wrong choice: the narrator’s all-encompassing knowledge would make it very difficult for you to avoid lying to readers–which isn’t playing fair with them—and yet not reveal too much too soon. Try multiple POV for this kind of book where the twist is vital, so that you can use each POV character to dispense carefully-controlled snippets of information.

Books with a twist also work well in single POV, especially with a kind of viewpoint character called an unreliable narrator. Edgar Allen Poe is brilliant at this, as is the Golden Age mystery novelist Agatha Christie in the classic The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Another masterful example of the unreliable narrator is Louise in Katherine Paterson’s Newbery-winning Jacob Have I Loved. Louise narrates the entire book in first person, and without spoiling the twist, let’s just say that she is wearing green-tinted glasses through the entire novel. Her perspective of events is definitely biased, in a way that misleads readers as to the motivations of other characters, yet without ever lying to them.

As you can see, there is a lot to consider when you start a new project and need to decide how you are going to tell your story. You need to think about your genre, your target audience, and the relationship you want readers to have with your main character.

But most of all, you need to have a clear understanding of what your story goals are. When you know what dramatic effects you want to create, what emotional reactions you want to engender, and what themes you want to explore, then you can choose the right pair of POV glasses from your literary optical shop, so that readers will see what you want them to see.

Thank you for joining me in what has turned into a bit of a saga itself: it took me nearly two years to complete all six articles in the series. My hope is that buried somewhere in this torrent of words is advice that can help you make your stories shine.

As the Grail knight said, “Choose wisely” when deciding what POV technique to use in order to bring life to your book.

[© 2015 This article is subject to copyright. Please do not use or reproduce without express written permission from the author.]