POV: the heart of fiction

I often edit or beta read for other writers. One of the most frequent comments I need to make is to instruct the author on how to use point of view. So, I have rejuvenated this post from Bobbing Around Volume 12 Number 8

My point of view (POV) is the reality I live in. While I am awake, and even when I am dreaming, I am aware of thoughts, images, emotions, bodily sensations, and also information arriving about the world around me through my skin, mouth, nose, ears and eyes. I select from this complex barrage to construct my perception of what is: me in an environment.

When this environment includes another person, it is in principle impossible for me to know that person’s reality. A cliche of philosophy is that you and I may both describe an object as red, but there is no way of knowing if your subjective experience of “red” is the same as mine.

Imagination, based on empathy, is the tool we use to manage the world of others. If I see you fall over, I “know how it must feel,” and identify with what you “must be going through.” I can do so because, in the past, I have had similar experiences. So, I construct an internal representation of what I think your reality to be like.

I have never plummeted from a plane with a failed parachute, or won a huge lottery, or been a bank teller held up at gunpoint, or been chased by a sex-starved princess, or suffered sexual abuse from an older brother. All the same, given the experiences I have had, I can construct an imaginary reality so that I can respond as if I was a person in one of these situations.

People who don’t have this skill get nothing out of reading fiction.

This is why POV is the heart of fiction. The reader needs to create a reality in which s/he can experience the emotions of a person in the story. The writer’s task is to make that possible. Anything that gets and keeps the reader in that make-believe reality is good. Any reminder that this is only a story is bad.

Head hopping is when the writer reports the private, inner experiences of more than one person in a scene, switching from one to the other. Some people call this “omniscient POV,” but, name it what you will, it gets in the way of the reader “becoming” any one of the characters. Therefore, it is a bad device to use.

Author lectures, info dumps, are also bad. As a reader, it is not back story or information I need, but BEING there. When the writer tells me stuff, I am reminded that the illusion is only an illusion. The information the reader needs should be subtly plaited into dialogue, action, description, and (as little as possible) musings.

How do we create this temporary make-believe using POV?

A good way is to think of the story as a sequence of scenes. When starting a scene, immediately give the name of the “current witness,” with some inner experience: thought, perception, bodily sensation or the like. Here is an example of such an introduction.

‘Jim felt the usual jolt of pain in his back as he stood, but squared his shoulders. “Get out of here,” he said as firmly as he could, hiding his terror.’

After this, present the rest of the scene from Jim’s POV. That means that you subtly continue weaving in his inside reality, while showing everyone and everything the way he perceives his surroundings. So, we might continue,

‘The bigger of the two fellows sneered, showing yellow teeth. “Ya gonna make me, grandpa?”’

Nothing is said about HIS thoughts and feelings, only his outside appearance.

One frequently seen mistake is something like this:

‘Jim felt the usual jolt of pain in his back as he stood up, but squared his shoulders. His brown eyes blazed at the intruders. “Get out of here,” he said as firmly as he could, hiding his terror.’

“Brown eyes” is what the two others in the scene can see. Jim can’t, unless he is facing a mirror, and even then, he is focusing on the two men, not on his own appearance.

So, the rule is, report what the witness experiences.

This will give you characters who are vividly alive, and a story that will hold the reader’s attention.

About Dr Bob Rich

I am a professional grandfather. My main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which my grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that's now threatening us with extinction, and replacing culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
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2 Responses to POV: the heart of fiction

  1. Oh yeah, POV is an often neglected part of a young writer’s journey into fiction. I probably still commit some POV snafus till this day. Great post here. Thanks for sharing!

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