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October 23, 2014

Ask Jami: Whose Point of View Should We Use?

Two boys looking through binoculars with text: Whose Point of View Should We Use?

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?

Ebony asked:

“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:

  1. number of scenes
  2. overall word count
  3. 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?

Personally, I use Scrivener (Windows and Mac) for drafting. Scrivener’s “meta data” fields can be set to whatever we want. In my Scrivener template, I set the Label field to flag for POV.

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 scences.

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?

Join Jami in her upcoming workshop:
Get ready for NaNo by learning how to do just enough story development to write faster with “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.”

Photo credit: fluffbreat

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30 Comments on "Ask Jami: Whose Point of View Should We Use?"

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Loni Townsend

Great post, as always. I find my primary hero does dominate in the word count. Out of four POVs, he has half of the book’s total word count. But I do try to mix it up, so that he doesn’t have too many POV chapters one right after another.

Do you think that changing the POV is a dangerous tactic? I mean, after changing the POV, it might seem like a good place to stop for the night–as in put the book down.

Carradee

In my in-progress Chronicles of Marsdenfel (the one where book 5 is going to be set 20 years before book 1), the first person, present tense narrator of each book could usually be considered not the protagonist. They have a strong internal arc and influence the major events, but they sometimes aren’t even present for the main turning points.

I’ve dabbled at converting the first book to third person, past tense, and I want to do that for the series, someday—having both the first person, present tense version AND the third person, past tense one. It’s interesting to see how it changes the tone and the mood…and I wouldn’t be surprised if I someday write the version that’s from the PoV of the main guy of each book, even if it’s only in a series of shorter stories.

For instance, book 4’s climax involves the FMC discovering what the MMC has organized and put into place behind her back, using her allies. (Him: “Child’s play, really, but I thought you might like an island.”) I suspect that will end up producing a series of shorter stories that feature him making those arrangements behind her back.

But the overall story being told by the series is a case in point how a person’s internal decisions can have far-reaching external consequences. So the current style of the stories fits the overall goal. Just won’t be all that visible until I have more of that overall goal written. 🙂

Robin
Robin

I have two main protagonists, and mostly alternate between these two POVs (Their marriage/relationship is central to the theme of the story.) I’ve noticed a recent pattern where the scene is written from one POV, and the sequel shows the other – so there is a chance, either in the moment, or in reflection afterward, for the reader to see both points of view. IT wasn’t terribly deliberate, it just has started to fall out that way. I like the comments about length of scene (word count) vs number of POV scenes… I think I’ve done some of that, too, where I might have two short scene’s from her POV, followed by one longer scene from his POV.
Thanks for this post! 🙂

Giulia Torre

Thanks Jami for your post and the blog. I’ve also benefited from one of your webinars.
I have found that I shift POV between the hero and the heroine within scene. I try to be clear through narrative etc, and use paragraphs to delineate POV shifts.
Any tips or pitfalls to avoid on POV shifts within scenes?

Julie Glover

This is so on point for me right now. My YA novel has two POVs — best friends. Unfortunately, when I finished the draft, I realized one girl had a way bigger word count in the novel than the other. And that’s not how I wanted it to play out. So I had to go back and see where I was shortchanging the one girl. It’s more balanced now, but it still isn’t even because that girl has a very terse voice and the other is more meandering with her thoughts. I’m hoping the difference in word count isn’t an issue, because I think I’ve covered both of them well.

Thanks for this great post!

Ebony
Ebony

Thank you so much for answering my question, Jami! This definitely clears up a few things for me. I think I have a pretty good idea who my primary protagonist is, but I felt as though I needed some more balance between her POV scenes and the other 3 characters’ scenes. Perhaps it’s because I may need to flesh them out a bit more(emotional arcs, plot arcs, backstories, etc) before being able to adjust their word counts and make the novel ‘work’.
Thanks again for the post, Jami!

Kim

Great post once again! This one is so timely for me!

I have three POV characters and I was just thinking about how to balance two of them a little more. One is my protagonist and she gets more scenes than anyone, but the two others might need some more consideration from me. Sometimes I use them to give the reader information about my protagonist that she is not supposed to have or they need to be somewhere she can’t be. Sometimes I use them to just get out of my main POV for a little while and open things up!

Even though she has a love interest, I have never wanted to give him a POV scene. I only want him to exist on the page as she sees him and feels about him.

Matthew Brown

It might sound like a gimmick, but in my book Edge of the World, the POV changes frequently, each shift announced by the name of the character who is then telling the story. Sometimes the characters even interrupt each other. For the most part it is the story’s main characters Nick and Herman who switch back and forth, but several other characters have their chance. One of them doesn’t even have a name, his small contribution just reads Desk Clerk before he starts in.

People who have read it say that it makes it feel as though the book is speaking directly to them.

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[…] were all related. All three readers had questions about characters, specifically about numbers, point of view, and […]

Killion Slade

Thanks Jami! Another wonderful post 🙂 A trick I have learned is this – if ever I have a doubt as to whose POV the scene needs to be in – I will write the scene twice from both points of view to learn who had the most emotional value and the higher stakes to lose. [Yes – it’s more work] but often times I will learn which POV was better than previously conceived.

There are times when I am doing a scene construction worksheet where I’m listing each character GMC that I learn more about what each person is striving to get out of the scene before I ever set word to paper. This can easily sway a POV as well or at least the elements and non-verbal body language I want to include.

I’m anxious to apply the template to my Scrivener and check out the blue/pink patterns. I also have different POV chapters which include the Antag – so I’m think I might color those yellow to see where that arc balance flows as well. Do you ever color code for sub-plots which carry over in a series? I have been playing around with 4D Outline and I find it is an interesting tool to ensure you aren’t forgetting to address a certain set of characters for too long as you state.

Keep on a Rockin’ it! 😀

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[…] If you write your story from the point of view (POV) of several characters, here is a wonderful post by Jami Gold about which POVs we should use when and how to switch between them without confusing your reader – Ask Jami: Whose Point of View Should We Use? […]

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[…] of my readers. Last week we covered the issues of how many characters our story should have and how to decide which character’s point of view to use in each […]

Glynis Jolly

It wasn’t until I had written a couple of chapters in my first novel project that I started wondering how I would be able to tell the whole story using just one POV. I came to the conclusion that more often than not, it can’t be done. It was then that I started using different POVs. I would think that the majority, even if only by one scene, should be with the protagonist. Even if there are two, one has to be the leader. I, also, feel that the antagonist, in many cases needs at least one scene too, probably more.

Izzie Robertsch
Izzie Robertsch

Excuse me if I’m taking up time and space, but I have a question. I’m currently writing a novel called ‘Friendship to Last” and I tend to have a weird way of writing POV. The PIV just sorta goes with the flow and just happens. Like this:
“But worst of all, thought Petri, were his eyes. His eyes even though darkened with sadness burned with a raging blue fire. The bluish coloured feline sidestepped somewhat to make space between him and the perturbed drake. Miss Penelope’s death had really taken a toll on the unanimously voted leader. Heliotep slunk along through the grass. He was tired and depressed and just wanted to die.”
And I’m not sure it’s entirely right. And words of wisdom?

Laura Wilson-Anderson
Laura Wilson-Anderson
Hi! I’ve been trying to find the last post I commented on… never try that on your phone, lol. This one brought up an interesting point for me, though. My book alternates mostly through four POVs. The antagonist and the MC’s mother get a few scenes as well, when needed. But near the end, I have one scene from the POV of a minor character (well, in this book he’s minor), rather than either main character. I did it for two reasons. One, a main character dies in the scene, so I couldn’t have it from his POV. Two, I needed the psychic distance from the other MC. You see her reaction from the minor character’s pov. Three, the reality where all of this was happening was kept iffy throughout the book – was it real, was it a dream – and so I never had any pov characters in that world until this scene, when I had this character and another. That was supposed to be the “tell” that yes, it was real. Instead, I got a critique that the person didn’t know the character well enough (having never been in his pov before) to care how he saw things, and I should have had the scene from the dead man’s pov. SIGH. I couldn’t have kept the scene going past his death if I had done that… ??? How do you keep psychic distance and spring a reveal that characters are real, not a dream, if you are… Read more »
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