Do you like to read stories narrated by someone you don’t know about or care for? Do you like to read scenes that are muffled and hard to follow? Do you like to read books that you finish with a resounding: HUH?
I’m guessing not? Yeah, me either.
In this lesson, we’re going to discuss how to make a POV (point of view) memorable. In my experience, there are two sides to the coin of “memorable”… a POV that is memorable is:
There’s a classic book I’m reading in an English Literature class right now titled A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (a great novel!) The story and characters are great. But there’s something about this book that makes it hard to read the first time through. I want you to take note of this and think about it, okay? What I’m about to say is very important. Why? Context.
This book is hard to read because there are about a dozen different characters who each have POVs – all of which are introduced at the very beginning (hanging in there with me? Good). This simultaneously makes the book intriguing and difficult to follow. But furthermore, this book (from the 1960s) – which takes place in Kenya (and thus has unique names/locations not typically known by Americans) – has a whole lot of flash-backs, a whole bunch of information, and a whole lot of history thrown at you from the get-go. Now, there are two things I want you to ask yourself: first, do multiple POVs automatically make a book hard to read? (My answer: nope!) Multiple POVs can be harder to follow, but not necessarily difficult to understand. Okay, so second: does the foreign book with a completely different cultural context make a book difficult to read? (My opinion: it effects the story, definitely). In A Grain of Wheat, many readers (especially readers of the 21st century) don’t have the patience to sift through details, make character profiles to understand everyone, etc. Ahhh, now we get to it. This book is great for a college level literature course. But for an average American (stress on American) luxury reader? Mmmmmm… Probably not. Remember: context matters. In your story, are you writing to a college-level audience of literature majors? Or are you writing for the general market?
There are a lot of stories that are harder to read than “most”… dude, have you ever sifted through Shakespeare? Yeah, me too. Hamlet can be hard to understand if you’ve never read anything in “Olde English” and/or know nothing about the plot/characters. The fact is: cultures change. Times change. Literature changes.
For this reason, we urge you to strive for clarity in your writing. Write for your audience. Your stories need to be relevant to the times; your facts need to be accurate (according to the era; did penicillin exist in the 4th century?); and your narrative needs to be clear enough so that your readers will understand. One of the biggest ways to do this? Strive for clarity in your POVs. Why? Well, simply speaking… how you write the POVs will sum up the entire “experience” of the story. (No pressure). Without a character relaying a story (even if that character is you), there would be no story – no experience.
So. Here are our best tips for clarity in a novel regarding POVs:
- You MUST make this character unique! (See section below).
- Use precise, specific language. If you’re confused about something, your readers will be, too. You need to see, smell, taste, feel, hear, and experience your novel. Every word you publish should be chosen with great care and consideration.
- Don’t over-use POV. POV is not usually a tool that can be used like a socket wrench with an endless supply of heads than you can swap out and change at any moment. No, POV is usually a tool more like a tank of helium. It’s got what it’s got; but when what it’s got is gone… Okay. So: we’re talking about clarity – maybe I should be clearer. *smirk* Let me put it another way: POV is effective when it’s deliberately used within reason. Using too many POVs in a single story can be confusing for a reader. MOST of the time, using one POV is the most effective way to portray a story. (Two POVs is the current “norm” for stories with a hero and significant villain and/or for a romance, in which the two POVs are the hero and heroine). In my experienced opinion: using one POV keeps the plot-line limited to what a single character can see, feel, hear, taste, experience, etc. This, in turn, makes the story “more” relatable. That’s not to say that using more than one POV is always less effective. In A Grain of Wheat, the author purposefully used so many unique POVs because it reflected the confusion, emotion, and tone of the situation of the story (much like the film, Vantage Point, starring Dennis Quaid and Sigourney Weaver). However: keep in mind that there were two classes of 30+ literature majors at my college who concurred that A Grain of Wheat – with it’s almost-hectic approach to POV – was hard to follow when a reader doesn’t know anything about the story/characters. Bottom line: you should know how many POVs will be effective in your novel. My gut is to always urge writers: less is more.
- Consider your genre. You may be thinking: genre? That’s right! Genre. (For more on genre, check out lessons #33 and #75). How does genre effect your POV? Let’s consider science-fiction for a minute. Science-fiction is a combination of the non-fictional and the fictional (science + fiction = science-fiction). How does this effect the characters? Well, someone in the book needs to know about science-y stuff. Space ships, physics, medicine, biology, etc. If this is your main character: how is this knowledge of science effecting the POV? How would this character speak/think? How would this character consider situations? If this is not your main character: how does this character effect your main character – who has this POV? Is this science-knowledgeable person a side-kick? Or a nemesis? Or a love interest? How does that effect the main character’s perspective (think: action)?
- Consider your plot. Your main character(s) needs to move the plot forward. This is his/her primary goal in life (errrrrr, in the story). How is the POV moving the plot forward?
Now for some tips on making a POV unique:
- Give your character some quirks that are recognizable via POV (in other words, don’t simply tell us about quirks via dialogue or description; give us clues as to the unique attributes of the character in the narrative. Does this character think in blunt sentences? Does this character notice little – or only the major – details? Does this character have a good sense of self-worth, or does he/she think little of him/herself?)
- Choose a specific character archetype and build on that. Have you ever seen the TV show, NCIS? This is my favorite show. Why? Because of the characters. Each character is incredibly unique. However, each of these characters adhere to a typical character archetype – that is, a “type” of persona. They are made UNIQUE by the writers. To do the characters justice (and give possibly the best example there is), let me show you what I mean:
- Gibbs: Archetype = The Boss. He’s a man of few words; he has a death glare that could stop a serial killer from sneaking a cookie out of the cookie jar; when he smacks the back of someone’s head, they feel both reprimanded and loved. (I could go on and on…)
- Abby: Archetype = The Backbone. She’s the glue that holds the team together (emotionally and mentally); she loves butterflies, gives hugs freely, helps homeless people, goes to church, and is the “only person alive who could commit murder without leaving any forensic evidence” (of course, she would never do that – she loves people too much); though she wears black makeup, sleeps in a coffin, wears spiked dog collars, etc. she declares several times that she is “not Goth!” (Like, duuuh).
- Tony: Archetype = The Flirt. He’s lovable, handsome, and… well, flirtatious; he has a heart of gold and – though he teases his team members beyond reckoning – he will bend over backwards (and take bullets for) his team members (AKA his family); he is the ultimate source of film info and usually quotes a classic film at least once per episode.
- etc. I wish I had time to do a character profile on each of the NCIS characters. Jimmy, Tim, Ducky, Ziva, Kate, Bishop, Torres, Quinn…but alas, there isn’t time. (But check out Lesson #87 for some fun exercises!)
What are your characters’ archetypes?
How are you writing clear POVs?
Let us know in the comments below!
With pen to paper,
Kayla R. Woodhouse