We have another post inspired by questions people have asked me. Last time, we talked about how to find the right balance of characters, not too few and not too many. Today we’re continuing the discussion about characters, specifically character point of view (POV). (And once again, this post turned out really long, so I’m going to save the question about character descriptions for next week.)
This post is yet more evidence for why I love my readers. *smile* Not only did they give me a topic to write about, but in the comments of Tuesday’s post, they also forced me to better explain a concept that ties into today’s post.
So there’s some overlap between these posts because many writing concepts affect each other, like literary puzzle pieces. If we have issues in one area, we’re likely weakening our writing in other areas too. On the other hand, when we fix those problems, we’re likely making our writing stronger across the board as well. Yay!
Who Gets the Point of View?
“How does one figure out which POVs to use and when? … How can I balance it out so that each character has their share of the novel without revealing too much or ruining the suspense?”
Another great question! See why I was so excited about this topic. *smile*
Okay, let’s take those questions one at a time. I’m going to first tackle the second part because it ties into Tuesday’s post so well.
Do We Need to Balance POV Scenes?
Ebony’s question starts with the assumption that we need to balance the number of POV scenes for our different main characters. Sometimes that assumption is true and sometimes it’s not. The answer depends on the genre and the characters.
Remember Tuesday’s discussion of how we can have major characters with POV scenes who are not protagonists? I pointed out that for most stories, no matter how many important characters we have, we’re likely to have one true protagonist:
“Certain genres like romance default to two. However, even in that case, one protagonist is usually primary. So if we have more than one protagonist, we want to answer the “whose story is this?” question.”
As I mentioned, we can make that determination by figuring out which character drives the story. This might mean that their arc is stronger or their goals are more directly tied to the plot and overall story than the other. Or as I later pointed out in the comments, I’ve seen cases where multiple protagonists share ownership, as one owns the external arc and one owns the internal arc.
Also in the comments, I gave a few more tips for figuring out our true protagonist(s) by elaborating on the concepts of ownership and stakes / consequences:
“We might be able to tell which protagonist “owns” the story by figuring out which character “owns” the final conflict. The climax of the story is the point of the story, so whichever character is central to that conflict is closer to the point of the story goals. … It’s central to her life and goals…”
“We’re talking about who has the most at stake to overcome the antagonistic forces. … For an internal arc, usually the person who changes the most (because they had the most consequences to avoid (stakes) forcing them to change) would be the one “driving” that part of the story. By “drive,” we’re using the term the way we do with the phrase “narrative drive.” Like, who’s keeping the story progressing because the consequences force them to not give up.”
Why do I bring all that up? Because while we should balance the number of scenes of our protagonists to some extent, we do not need to balance the number of scenes of our major-but-not-protagonist characters.
This is why it’s important to know who our true protagonist(s) is. In addition to ensuring that our story is focused enough on the main storyline and not getting too bogged down in tangents, we also want to know whether we need to give them a balanced number of scenes.
If we try to give roughly equal numbers of scenes to all our POV characters, regardless of whether they’re a protagonist or not, we’re likely to end up with a lot of scenes that distract from our core story. That will steal focus from the story we’re trying to tell.
On the other hand, if we really do have multiple protagonists, such as in romance, where it’s common to have a dual protagonist story, we usually do want to give roughly equal numbers of scenes to both protagonists. But if we find that a struggle, we want to ask ourselves if the missing character is truly a protagonist or not. And if we feel they should be a protagonist (like for a romance), maybe we need to look at further developing their arc, goals, and stakes.
How Do We Balance the Number of POV Scenes?
Okay, once we know we have two or more POV characters who really are protagonists, we should roughly balance their numbers of POV scenes, right? How do we do that?
In my experience as a romance author who regularly needs to do this with my stories, I’ve found three measurements helpful for checking balance:
- number of scenes
- overall word count
- number of consecutive non-POV scenes
Number of Scenes
For my romance stories, the scenes typically go back and forth between the hero and the heroine. There are a few exceptions with two heroine scenes in a row or vice versa, but this general back-and-forth approach keeps the number roughly balanced without too much effort. The number doesn’t need to be an exact match, but if one protagonist has 25 scenes and the other has 10, that’s probably indicative of a problem with the story structure, stakes, or arc.
Overall Word Count
One thing that makes me not as worried when I break that he-said-she-said pattern is if, say, the second heroine scene in a row is relatively short. For example, I wouldn’t be concerned if the heroine has two scenes in a row, but one is very short, and then the hero’s scene after that is very long. In other words, word count can help the balance so we don’t have to worry about exceptions to #1.
Number of Consecutive Non-POV Scenes
On the other hand, I do worry if I have too many scenes in a row with the same protagonist. For example, if we have two protagonists and one has five scenes in a row, that can lead readers to feel disconnected from the “missing” character. In some genres, this might not be a big deal.
However, in a romance, the story works best if readers are connected to both protagonists. (It’s hard to root for a couple to get together if we don’t care enough about one of them to think they deserve the other.) So we usually don’t want readers to lose their connection to one of the protagonists for too long.
Great! How Do We Track Those POV Measurements?
I label my hero’s scenes blue and my heroine’s scenes pink with that meta-data field, and this flag allows me to see at a glance how well I’ve balanced their scenes. I can check the back-and-forth in the Binder list (do most of my scenes follow a pink-blue-pink-blue pattern?). I can make sure I’ve avoided too many consecutive single POV scenes (how many pink scenes do I have in a row?).
I can even do a Search on POV (from the drop down search menu) and enter a character name to bring up all of one POV’s scenes. Select all those scenes in the Binder menu on the left, and the status bar on the bottom of the window will display the total word count for all those scenes so we can compare one POV’s word count to another. Ta-da! Easy. *smile*
If others have non-Scrivener tips for easy ways to keep track of POV scenes, feel free to share them in the comments. For me, Scrivener just makes this so easy that I can’t think of anything else that would compare.
But Whose POV Should We Use?
We now know that we only need to worry about balancing the number of POV scenes if we’re talking about multiple protagonists, and we know what “balance” means and how we can measure it. So that brings us back to the first part of the question: whose POV should we use for any one scene if we have multiple POVs in our story?
Just like how one protagonist might be primary in our story, one character might “own” a scene because they’re the central focus. The scene might be about their goals or actions. But sometimes, the answer is not so obvious.
There’s a lot of advice about this question, but I find most of the tips both too complicated and too simplistic. For me, because I write by the seat of my pants, I’m used to following the lead of my muse, so I usually “just know” whose POV a scene should be in (hence the “too complicated” label). But I also know that approach doesn’t always work (not even for me), and yet most advice gives a single guideline, which might not be best either (hence the “too simplistic” label).
So let’s see if we can break this question down further…
Guidelines for Deciding Whose POV to Use
We’d usually show the scene from the character’s POV that falls into one or more of these situations:
- Higher Stakes: Which character has more at stake in the scene? Which one has more to lose or gain? Which one has more energy or passion about the events in the scene because the consequences mean more to them?
- Higher Emotion: Which character has more emotional change in the scene? Which character has stronger emotions? Which one is falling the furthest or has the epiphany?
- Which character has less obvious motivations or goals and readers would benefit from the insight of their POV?
- Which character knows the least (or not too much) about something we want to keep hidden?
- Which character knows the most about something we want to make clear?
- Which character can act as a reader stand-in for learning lots of information (like worldbuilding rules) in a gradual or natural way?
- Which character’s experience will be most compelling to readers? (Keep them immersed.)
- Which character’s experience will be most relatable to readers? (Keep them interested.)
- Which character’s experience will best maintain or increase story tension? (Keep them turning pages.)
- Which character’s experience will best provide enlightenment for the story’s theme? (Think of stories like The Great Gatsby, where the central character is not the POV character.)
If you’re familiar with beat sheets or turning points, you probably recognized how some of those questions coincide with the turning points of our story, such as epiphanies, black moments, etc. For our turning point scenes, we want to maximize the emotional impact for the reader, so it’s important to choose the right character for those scenes.
But in some turning point scenes, multiple characters might be going through upheaval at the same time. For those scenes, we might want to take a couple of minutes before drafting and think about the stakes and emotions for each POV of the scene’s main characters.
We can think about the motivations and what will be revealed with one character over another. And then we can think about which character’s situation feels more resonant to us. Hopefully those answers would help us make a choice.
From those questions above, you can also probably tell that high stakes and high emotion (the first two multi-part questions) are the most important considerations. But I included the other questions because sometimes we might really want to use a different character than those answers would lead us to, and the standard advice might make us doubt our decision. So I wanted to show why the exceptions might not be the wrong choice.
Sometimes it is most important for readers to understand motivations. Or sometimes it is most important to hide or reveal information. Or sometimes it is most important to keep the reader’s experience in mind.
The point is making sure we’ve thought it through enough that we have a reason, especially when our gut doesn’t give us an answer or when our instinct leads us away from the obvious answer. And the good news is that we don’t have to get this right in the first draft either.
After we finish our first draft, we might discover that a character was going through more internal upheaval in a scene than we thought or maybe their actions were more central to the plot than we realized. Revisions are the perfect place to do a sanity check on our POV choices because we can always fix it in rewrites. *smile*
If you use multiple POVs in your story, how much do you worry about balancing the number of scenes between them? Do you have other insights into how to keep POVs balanced? Do you ever struggle with knowing whose POV to use? How do you decide? Can you think of other reasons we might not want to go with the character with the highest stakes or emotions?
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