A few weeks ago, we were driving down the road. She was reading aloud to me from her work in progress—a fantasy that featured a blind person as the main character. Here’s a snippet of that conversation:
Daughter reading: “As the minivan approached the curb, we all turned to look, and John’s face clouded with disgust.”
“Stop,” I said. “Stop right there. Isn’t the main character blind?”
“Yeah,” she said, as if it should be obvious. She’d already told me so.
“Okay, so how did she know it was a minivan approaching? How did she know everybody turned to look? How did she know what John’s face looked like?”
Long pause…Then, from the passenger seat. “Dammit.”
This exchange triggered a fascinating conversation about points of view and author intrusion. My daughter had infused her character with a point of view that was not specific to her character’s visual impairment, but rather to every sighted character in every book she’d ever read. This disconnect caused reader/listener confusion and a lack of trust.
“How can you rewrite it?” I asked.
A few minutes later she came back with:
“Everyone groaned when a vehicle pulled up to the curb beside us, but John was the loudest. I didn’t understand what was wrong until I heard a panel door slide open with a soft swish that turned into a grating noise and ended with a distinct clunk. I’d know this minivan anywhere, and I knew John would need my support. I grabbed his hand and hung on tight.”
Lesson Learned: Understand your Character’s Lens
If you are writing in first person singular, or third person limited, your POV reveals a single character’s experiences in, and relationship with, the world and everything in it. Unless you’re writing your memoir, this person is not you. The problem is, so much of our personal experiences naturally infuse our writing.
For example, I spend a lot of time on Lake Superior. Despite a healthy fear for its dangerous propensities, I often drive my car onto a ferryboat and cross a channel. I have done it so often and for so long that I might notice things like one of the main ferries being out of commission, or that there is a new crew for the summer. But these details are not what a fictional character might notice, particularly if they are making the journey for the first time.
Imagine fictional Stephanie, Javier, and Omar—all of whom have a similar respect for the dangerous propensities of the lake. Stephanie is an engineer; Javier is a water color artist; Omar is a Broadway producer. Here’s how they might each describe the experience of crossing the channel:
- Stephanie: I’d done my research. I knew the specs. The ferry weighed one hundred tons. The crossing was two-point-five miles. Lake Superior was over thirteen hundred feet deep, not to mention the temperature: thirty-nine degrees if I got down a couple feet below the surface. My head told me to stay logical, though my heart raced.
- Javier: The water was the darkest shade of blue, nearly black, but laced with tinsel as the sun threaded through it. Occasional splashes of a deep sage green. For my own peace of mind, I focused on the beauty and refused to think about the cold, forcing myself so deep into a state of Zen that the colors ran together, and I didn’t notice the crew member who’d stopped to take my ticket.
- Omar: I spotted the captain standing up in the bridge, looking down at his crew as they ran from one end of the ferry to the other, pulling ropes, and directing cars, someone else taking tickets. Each member playing his part that, alone, got us nowhere but together created a well-rehearsed performance that earned my confidence that we’d cross in safety. On with the show.
If your character’s observations stay consistent with who they are (and not with who you are) throughout the novel, you will create an intimacy between the reader and your character. That character will seem “believable” to them, and the reader will trust that the character is giving them the straight scoop. You can use this trust to interesting results.
For example, in the Harry Potter series, written almost entirely in third person limited, we see the world through Harry’s eyes. What Harry likes (e.g., Quidditch), we like. What Harry hates (e.g., Snape), we hate. Because of the reader-character intimacy, we trust Harry and we acquiesce to his personal biases, which sometimes lead us astray. Without spoiling things for the one person out there who hasn’t read these books, Harry’s limited POV on the world is what causes (imho) one of the most emotional reveals in modern literature.
Here are some questions to think about when considering how your POV character might look at the world. Obviously it’s a limited list, but use it to brainstorm your own questions.
- Are they detail-oriented or a “big picture” person?
- Are they vain? Maybe they need glasses but refuse to wear them, thus affecting their observations.
- Are they a multi-tasker or a one-track mind kind of person? Are their observations compartmentalized or tangled?
- Do they have a disability that affects perceptions, e.g., autism, visual or hearing impairment, or paranoia.
- Does their physical stature affect their observations? Maybe they’re short and very conscious of everyone’s armpits and nose hairs; tall and privy to the condition of everyone’s scalps?
In short, while the impulse may be to describe the world the way you see it, you must take a step back and make a conscious effort to look at the world the way your character would see it. This takes effort and a constant re-checking of yourself because it’s far too easy to slip back into your own head.
After all, you’ve been living there for a very long time.
What are some POV questions you ask yourself about how your character might see the world around them?