POV: How I Stopped Worrying About Myself and Started Using an Effective Persona
How often do beginning and even experienced writers get red-penciled for a POV change in the middle of something they are writing? Okay, I can raise my hand along with the rest of you. POV or point of view lapses are not uncommon. Usually, those mistakes are minor, say changing from one character’s perspective to another on the same page when you are writing in third person limited (I’ll explain that later). The more grievous error would be switching from first person to third person, or utilizing second person when you meant to use third person objective. So does any of this make sense? Let’s take a deep breath and review some of the basics of creating an effective persona for your story.
Persona, as I am defining it here, is your storyteller. In other words, who tells your story to your reader, or, as that persona is more commonly called, your narrator. Here’s something to remember: the author and the narrator are not the same. The author distances himself from the story by creating the persona of a narrator. Think about this a moment because it’s an important concept. You, the author, create someone to tell your story. That someone is not you, the author (unless, perhaps, you’re writing an autobiography, and even then, the narrator is distanced from the character of the autobiography by time). Your choice of a narrator, or persona, will make a dramatic influence upon how you tell your story. If you’re following this so far, then you’re way ahead of the game, and way ahead of where I was when I first started writing. Next, let’s look at some of the more commonly used narrators or points of view along with some of their strengths and weaknesses.
First Person or the “I” Point of View
Probably the most popular and most commonly used persona for writers is the one that intimately links the narrator and the main character of the story. This is called first person. One important point to take into consideration if you’ve decided to tell your story in first person is verb tense. Are you going to tell your story in present or past tense? What difference does it make, you might ask. Well, if you’re using past tense, then you are re-creating the story through the character’s eyes and experiences. In other words, the story has already happened, and the “I” narrator is simply retelling it. That means the narrator and the main character (“I” of the story) are different. How so? The narrator has already experienced the series of events that has occurred, so he/she has prior knowledge. It means that persona can influence how the story is to be retold. This can make for some fascinating stories, especially if the narrator is not a reliable one (untrustworthy because the narrator may be a liar, perhaps naïve, or even insane).
An example of this kind of story telling occurs in Edgar Allan Poe’s, The Tell-Tale Heart. In the story, the narrator explains to the reader why he chose to kill a man and dismember him. If you take the events literally, then you see the motivations of a killer being revealed. However, if you interpret the story as one being told by a madman, then perhaps there was no beating heart underneath the floorboard and this character should be locked up in an asylum.
An unreliable narrator can add spice to your story because the reader is never quite sure what to believe. However, if the story is told in present tense, then the action unfolds before the reader’s eyes; it is happening right now. Using present tense means there is a closer connection between the narrator and the “I” persona of the story. This doesn’t preclude the idea that the narrator is insane or unreliable. It just means the reader is viewing the action of the story as it is taking place.
Why is the first person point of view so popular?
There are a number of reasons for this, including the most obvious: it’s easier to write using first person. The author creates a character that he/she can identify with closely and tells the story from that perspective. The reader understands the emotions, motivations, idiosyncrasies of that character because the “I” tells us those things. It brings the reader into a closer, more intimate, relationship with the character. This emotional bond between reader and character is what often sells stories. As humans, our brains connect more with emotion than with logic, so it is only natural for us to want to be connected emotionally with the character telling the story.
So what’s the problem with first person?
If readers like it so much, why aren’t all stories told this way? Good question. What if you want a character that is more mysterious, more difficult to understand? Do you want to expose everything about the character to the reader? Maybe some stories are more interesting if there is mystery about the main character (think, The Great Gatsby). Here’s another problem with first person: the narrator must always be where the action is. There is no cutting away to another scene happening somewhere else or to another character unless that character is right there with the “I.” See the problem? The narrator has to continually be where the critical action occurs. This can limit the scope of the story. And what about what other characters are thinking? Nope. The narrator can guess what those other characters are thinking, but can’t know, and neither can the reader. In addition, descriptions of the “I” character have to come in sneaky ways (many of which are clichés): mirrors, reflections in the water, other characters describing that person through dialogue, well, you get the idea.
Another thing to consider if you plan on using first person: do you tell your story using first person major character (the main character of the story as in The Tell-Tale Heart) or minor character (Nick Caraway is the narrator of the novel, The Great Gatsby, but Gatsby, not Nick, is the main character of the novel). The minor character can describe the main character better (physical, emotional, mental attributes), but always has to be around the main character because that’s the main character and the plot revolves around the main character, not the minor character.
So before you leap into first person, be sure you are doing it for the right reasons: you want the reader to make a stronger emotional connection with the character, you want to create an unreliable narrator to keep the reader guessing, or because you can relate to the character easier that way, making it easier for you to write the story.
Third Person or the “He/She” Point of View
Everything that’s not first person pov falls under the general category of third person. That includes third person omniscient, third person limited, third person objective and all their sub categories. Third person means your character is no longer an “I” (I did this and I did that), but a “he” or “she” (Harry did this, or Harriet did that).
When you want to create a character persona in the third person, you move away from the more intimate relationship between reader and narrator offered in first person. You put a bit more distance between the two, and that can be good or bad. Remember: everything you do should be for a reason in writing, so let’s look at the reasons you should or should not select a third person pov for your story.
Next to writing in first person, using third person omniscient is probably the most common form of narration. The word omniscient means “all knowing or seeing.” This simply is a method of allowing the narrator to peek into everyone’s head and tell the reader what he or she is thinking. It’s an artificial device to help the reader understand what various characters’ motivations are.
For example: Marge knew she was going to be in trouble for hacking into Norm’s computer, but she just had to see for herself what the big secret was all about. Now on the very next page you might see: Norm couldn’t wait for Marge to be alone with his computer. He even left it open to make it easier for her to find what she thought she would find. Both Marge and Norm have had their thoughts revealed to us, the readers. This makes it easier for the reader to understand the characters’ actions and relate to their personalities.
Thus, the reader can view the perspective of the protagonist as well as the antagonist. Creating a great villain means understanding why that character is a villain in the first place.
Another advantage of using an omniscient perspective is that any character can be described fully without having to resort to mirrors or other reflective devices. Problems? Omniscient is, as I said, an artificial device, and, as such, requires the willing suspension of disbelief. If the author delves into people’s heads too frequently, it becomes less and less believable and even somewhat irritating. The thoughts, emotions, motivations of the characters should be revealed with caution. As in cooking, add too much of anything and it can make the result hard to digest.
The counter to omniscient is third person objective.
In this challenging point of view, none of the characters’ thoughts are revealed. Instead, the reader must try to understand the motivations of the characters through their actions or through what they say. The narrator must be strictly objective in the telling of the story, so it’s similar to a camera being strapped to the narrator’s head and allowing the reader to see what is happening without any additional commentary. Perhaps the best author to use this technique was an obscure writer by the name of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway wanted the reader to ferret out why a character did or did not do something based upon his/her actions in the story and not by the narrator spoon-feeding reasons and motivations to the readers. That obviously puts more pressure on readers to make their own judgments regarding the characters’ intentions. This is a good technique to attempt if you are over zealous in giving too much information to your readers. As I say, it’s challenging, but it can also be very rewarding when done right.
The last point of view I want to cover here is third person limited.
This narration falls somewhere in between all of the others that have been mentioned. As with first person, third person limited allows the reader to view the thoughts of one character, usually, but not always, the main character. Unlike omniscient, no other character’s thoughts are revealed, only the one character’s. This sets up an intimate relationship with the reader because the reader can relate to this one character, his/her thoughts, feelings, motivations, etc. However, the narrator can also step back from this one character and describe the action that’s going on elsewhere in the story. The narrator can physically describe all the other characters in the story. He or she just can’t delve into their thoughts. The drawback? As with first person, readers are usually limited in their perspectives of where the action is taking place and why other characters do what they do. And because it utilizes a third person narrator, there is less subjectivity and a bit more objectivity involved with the character. Still, if you’re looking for a point of view that gives you the most freedom in creating a well rounded character without the artificiality of an omniscient perspective, then third person limited is the one for you.
In the end, deciding what point of view to use is a little like buying a car. Do you want one that says, “I’m rich, and I can buy whatever I want,” or one that says, “I care about the environment, so I’ll buy an eco-friendly vehicle,” or one that says, “I love to travel places.” You need to have point of view be useful to you and your story telling, and that’s why your story will be even better if you think about what to use before you write, so you don’t have to rewrite the whole story in a different pov in a rewrite. As an author, you will create a persona to tell your story. Just make sure it’s the one that can tell it better than any other one you might have created.
Rick Stepp-Bolling is a retired professor of writing from Mt San Antonio College. Currently, he is the Education Director of the Coffee House Writers Group, a golfer and a full-time writer. He has two books published: SMOKE AND MIRRORS (a book of poetry) and AUTOCIDE (a collection of short stories). He has finished a fantasy trilogy, PATCH MAN series, and is looking for a publisher. Rick lives in San Dimas with his wife, Francie, and their family of over a hundred animals. You can learn more about him on AMAZON, GOODREADS and FACEBOOK.