Whose Story Is It Anyway?

Welcome to my final post on writing awesome characters. If you’ve missed any of my earlier posts, I’ve talked about creating strong protagonists, antagonists, and side characters; developing your characters so they become real people to your readers; and finally killing your characters. I want to finish up with characters by discussing point of view. Point of view could be its own series of posts in and of itself (and maybe I’ll get to that later), but here I’d like to talk about it as it relates to your characters.

 

To give a very basic overview, point of view is literally the viewpoint from which you are telling the story. The most common points of view are first person and third person limited. In first person point of view, the story is told directly from the point of view of one of the characters, usually the protagonist. To describe it another way, the point of view character is telling the story as it unfolds around them. First person point of view uses the pronoun “I”: Today I went to the store and bought kumquats. Third person limited, however, is not told directly from the point of view of the character, but instead the story is told about the character, narrating their actions, thoughts, and feelings from the third person. It uses the character’s name or the pronouns “he” or “she”: Today Jameyanne went to the store and bought kumquats. You can also have third person omniscient (where the reader sees the thoughts and feelings of all the characters) and third person objective (the story is told objectively with no thoughts or feelings for anyone). Even rarer types of point of view are second person (Today you went to the store and bought kumquats) and first person plural (Today we went to the store and bought kumquats. All the kumquats.) Complicating matters even more is the idea of the narrator of the story (especially in third person scenarios) having thoughts and feelings of their own unrelated to the characters’ thoughts and feelings. You can also have multiple points of view in a story, and there are myriad ways to do that. In my small child magician novel, for example, I have three points of view: my young magician (in first person), her mother (third person), and her father (third person).

 

But I don’t want to get into the specific nitty gritty details of all these types of points of view. I’m talking about your characters and their stories, because once you have your plot and your characters, you need to decide how you’re going to tell the story. A key part of that is deciding your point of view. Who’s telling this story? And whose story is it anyway?

 

In almost all cases, your protagonist is the answer to both questions. There are other options, certainly, but there’s a good reason why this is the most common approach. If it’s your protagonist’s story, then your protagonist is the character you want the reader to connect with most, and the easiest way to get a reader to fall in love with a character is to give a direct window into the inner workings of that character’s mind.

 

But let’s not just leave it there. What if it’s not just the protagonist’s story? What if it’s many people’s stories? Or what if, as you developed all your important characters, you’ve planned out lots of character arcs, and you want to show them?

 

One option is multiple points of view, but there are dangers to that. I’d say, when there get to be more than four or five point of view characters, the story can feel confused. I felt this way, for example, when I recently read Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel for the first time. While I was pretty sure who the protagonist was, I couldn’t be sure it was actually her story because there were so many points of view. This isn’t to say that lots of points of view can’t be done. By the end of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series, there are at least nine point of view characters running around, and that worked for me, but at the same time, she built up to that, adding a couple point of view characters each book. And while this works for me, it might not work for everyone.

 

Something else to be conscious of if you plan to work with multiple points of view is what the protagonist knows versus what the reader knows. Not only can it get confusing, but when other characters know important information—and the reader knows they know—but the protagonist doesn’t know, it can lead to the reader being frustrated either because the protagonist appears stupid or because the characters aren’t communicating with each other. I find this particularly true when one of the point of view characters is the villain. I get really, really annoyed when the villain goes and reveals his plans, and then I know them, but the protagonist is still angsting about not knowing what the villain is up to. A huge part of this for me comes back to the question of whose story it is. If it’s the protagonist’s story, I want to follow the protagonist along her journey, to make discoveries when she does and to feel what she is feeling, not before. Call it simplistic, but that’s the most enjoyable reading experience for me.

 

Finally, it’s crucial to consider the length of the story you’re telling. With multiple points of view, you’re implying that each POV character has a story of their own to tell, their own path through the plot. However, if you’re writing a 5000 word short story, chances are good that the scope of that story is too narrow to focus on more than one character. If you’re writing a novella or novel, on the other hand, you have more room to explore other characters’ journeys through their perspectives if you so choose.

 

I’m not saying don’t use multiple points of view—I do it myself. But there are things to be careful of when you decide to do it. If you decide not to use multiple points of view, you can still have character arcs for multiple characters. As long as your protagonist doesn’t completely live in a bubble, they’ll notice the people around them changing (they don’t even have to say anything explicitly), and your readers will notice it too. Basically, this boils down to showing the other characters’ journeys externally, as they are observed by your point of view character.

 

Point of view and character overlap in complicated ways. There are so many types of point of view to choose from, with their own advantages, disadvantages, and pitfalls to watch out for. but when I’m deciding what to use, it comes down to the two questions: Whose story is it? And who’s telling the story? And of course, why? (Sorry, that was more than two questions.) These questions are not just about the technical aspects of point of view. They are about digging into your characters and the heart of your story.

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