BioBooksAwardsComing NextContactBlogFun StuffHome

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Point of View and Characterization

Point of view (POV), or whose head you're in as you're writing a scene, is crucial to characterization. I'll say right up front that I almost always stick to one POV per scene unless I have an extremely compelling reason to switch. Making it more convenient for me, as the writer, is not a good enough reason. There is only one instance in the books I've finished so far where I made a mid-scene switch. I'll talk more about why I did this later.

There are writers much more adept at explaining POV than I am. If you need to learn the basics, there are a couple of online articles I found that will help. Writing article by Patricia Kay. And Writing article by Robert J. Sawyer. I want to focus more on POV as it shows characterization rather than going through the ABCs of what POV is and how to use it.

POV is how you'll show who your characters are. It's the strongest tool an author has to share the people in their head with the reader. For me, I "hear" my characters--I get them in their words. Maybe it will make sense if I show some opening paragraphs in my heroines' points of view and you can see how different they are from each other.

From The Power of Two:
Cai wished this mission would hurry up and end. Normally, she wasn't so impatient, well, at least not when it came to her job, but today was different. Her gaze slid over to the notes at her elbow. Squinting a little, she tried to decipher the words. It didn't help. Her handwriting was abysmal.
From Temple of Dreams:
She had them. She had them!

Well, kind of. She had one name. Maybe. If it wasn't coincidence. Doctor Charles B. George. Kendall took a deep breath and tried to quiet her trembling hands. She had to stay calm and not call attention to herself. Not now.
From Through a Crimson Veil:
McCabe was hunting, Mika knew it.

And she was hunting the hunter.

The thought amused her and she struggled to rein in her merriment. This was serious business, not a game. She knew her ability to find humor at any given moment had been one of the arguments against using her on this assignment, but when it came right down to it, there had been no one else.
From my as yet unsold paranormal:
Ryne received the assignment just past full dark. She muttered a curse as she yanked on her ankle boots, but it lacked heat. The timing sucked, but what else was new?
Do you see the difference in their personalities? Each clip is short, but the seed of who these women are should be planted.

Cai is earnest, unable to lie even to herself. She immediately qualifies her statement about not being impatient in her own mind because of this. We also know she's excited about something, but that she's working and has to focus on her mission.

In the second example, Kendall is excited as well, and she, too, tries to rein it in, but she isn't as successful as Cai because she's less contained. She tries to tell herself that maybe she has nothing very important, but the trembling of her hands shows a different story. Kendall thinks she's found the guilty man.

The third example hints at Mika's personality. She's lighthearted, fun and she enjoys life. She tries to control her natural exuberance because she has an assignment--an important mission for her people, but she's struggling. It's a pretty safe bet that she's going to slip and start having fun again and that it won't take long.

Last example is Ryne. She's just been given a mission, but she's not excited or having fun. It's her job. The timing is bad, but she's used to this and so doesn't get mad--she's resigned to the assignment messing things up.

All these examples come from the first paragraph of chapter one and the characterization started immediately. Do you always want to open with something that shows character? Not necessarily. It really depends on the story. In the romantic suspense proposal that's been sitting forever, I start with a prologue and action. In this case, it was more important to ground the reader first. Chapter one, however, does plunge immediately into the hero's POV and where he's at mentally. This is one of those judgment calls--a writer has to do what works for her story.

Switching Points of View Within a Scene

I'm not a big fan of headhopping. Some authors do it and do it well--Nora Roberts is a great example of this. She does it masterfully and seamlessly. Unfortunately, not all writers are as adept as Ms Roberts is and they jar their readers out of the story. Never, ever jar your reader. :-)

The other reason I don't like it is that I think, in most cases, it sacrifices characterization. Staying in one character's head in each scene allows an author to go deeper into that character's thoughts and feelings, allows a writer to show more of this person. A lot of authors who ping pong around tend to only show us the surface of their hero and heroine. (Again, Nora Roberts is the exception to the rule. She's a master of deep characterization.)

Now I'll mention the only time I've switched POV mid-scene. It happened in Ravyn's Flight, Chapter 13--the love scene between Stacey and Alex. I'm in Stacey's POV and planned to stay in it, but then Alex decided to be Alex and I knew what he was going to do. So my choice was to stay in Stacey's head and let Alex look like a complete and total jerk or switch POV. I decided to switch POV and show how shaken Alex was by what had happened between them. The switch wasn't for my convenience, but because I needed to "save" Alex in the readers' eyes.

Again it comes down to judgment. Do you have a compelling reason to switch points of view? If not, I recommend staying in one character's head per scene.

But, you say, I just have to show what this character thinks about something that happened!

Do it in the next scene or the next time you're in that character's POV. I did that in The Power of Two. There's a scene in Cai's point of view--Chapter 7 page 124--where Jake reacts to something she inadvertently gives away. There's also his "odd" response--at least in Cai's mind. She doesn't get it. Great time to segue over to Jake's POV and explain? No! Definitely not.

The reader can mostly guess what's happening even without jumping into Jake's thoughts. Cai might not understand, but she sees enough (remember in a character's POV, the reader can't see or hear or sense anything that the character doesn't) that the reader can make a good guess what's going on with Jake.

It isn't until the next time I go into Jake's point of view that I actually share his thoughts about what happened earlier. Where did I do this? Chapter 9, page 152. Yeah, a bunch of other stuff happens in between, but it all builds on the scene in chapter 7. When I finally get back into Jake's head, I show a bigger picture than just that one scene.

I'm not saying this is the only way to do it, I just want to point out that there are other options than headhopping. Or immediately switching scenes and regurgitating what just happened. By the time I get to page 152, I'm not replaying the scene from page 124 from another POV. Instead, I'm sharing Jake's thoughts. Wait, I'm going to cut and paste in. Maybe that will show better than my explaining.

He hoped to never have another night like last night. Yeah, Jake figured he deserved to pay for lusting after Cai, but the tortures of the damned seemed kind of steep. And the universe wasn't through exacting a price from him. Hearing her moving around the bath had his imagination running wild and he swore he could almost feel the slickness of her wet skin under his hands.

Taking a deep breath, he forced his fists to unclench. They had to get out of this room before he lost his mind. He reached for his holster and strapped it on. Instead of focusing on what they needed to do today, all he could remember was the feel of Cai's body beneath his. Or the way she'd fit against him once she'd fallen asleep. Her bare legs tangled with his. Her hair loose and draped over both of them. Shit. Jake closed his eyes and fought for control. He was damn useless in this state.

To help battle the arousal, he forced himself to recall a few other things. Like the fact that she hadn't realized how much she'd overplayed her role yesterday afternoon. He'd honestly forgotten how young she was, at least for a while, but that had driven it home with the force of a stake through the heart. And it made him wonder how much experience she had.

See? He's thinking about what's going on NOW, but what happened earlier is playing into the current situation. So there are ways other than headhopping to get the information across. Do what works, but my advice is to think before switching points of view mid-stream.

Well, I think I'm done, but I'm not sure I was a help to anyone. :-) I'm not much of a teacher. I don't do a lot of thinking about craft and the whys of it. I just sit down and write. I learned by reading a lot of books--over 4000 of them--and by taking a few classes here and there. Mostly by reading, though.

If anyone has a topic in particular you'd like to see covered, feel free to comment or email me through my website or my blog profile. I'm willing to try and tackle most anything. Within reason. :-)

MN Weather Report: 37 degrees. Wind Chill: 29 degrees. Snowing!