Character Believability Using POV

It’s a common statement about stories—the conflict is the story. Sure, conflict is the center of a story’s universe, in that it pulls all of the elements together and is the thing around which those elements revolve. And yet it’s what the characters do in response to that conflict that keeps us reading. After all, the audience can’t identify with the conflict itself—they identify with how one or more of the actors reacts to the conflict. If those characters aren’t fully envisioned on the page, there isn’t enough for the reader to latch onto, and writers run the risk of breaking a cardinal rule: The story must be believable.

And not just the story, but the people in the story itself. Rookies build two-dimensional characters. Good writers get readers to buy the people in their novels (or short stories, which is harder because of the smaller scope). I think of point of view (POV) as the universe we’re supposed to believe for the duration of the story. Within this is each character’s perspective. As I said a few weeks ago, each character has their own take on the action in the story, even to the point where narratives may compete with each other. POV needs to stay consistent, or else readers need to see why a shift has occurred. The matchstick girl can’t leap over her own development, after all. Unless a meteorite from space makes her a completely different person, or something.

POV needs to be communicated in every way possible to the readers, but shouldn’t be overwritten. What do I mean by this? We don’t need to describe the pearly gray eyes of our protagonist in narcissistic detail—unless that’s something we should know. Readers are more than capable of filling in the gaps left by thoughtful writers, but what they don’t like are jarring discontinuities. The smooth con man doesn’t sound like a dock worker. Dialogue, physical descriptions, what we see—these are the affirmative elements of POV. What is left out can be equally important. Here’s an example from something I wrote last year:

In 1948 the teacup and saucer came into being, crafted by the Rosina China Company in Staffordshire, England. Yellow flowers drawn with a loose hand, surrounded by a gold edge, the sides of the saucer ever so delicately folding up, reaching for the cup, it was designed with royalty in mind. Only the most delicate of fingers, attached to people who regularly took high tea, were of interest to the cup and saucer, which had themselves presumed their own importance in the world. They were not shy about intimating their station in life to lesser teacups and saucers.

And so it was that they shared their acute horror to each other as they cascaded through airspace, completely unable to brace themselves for a soft landing. The teacup’s last thought was: I’ll try to be the best set of bone china shards anyone ever saw. The saucer merely lamented that it would never again hold its beloved friend and companion.

With their crash onto the concrete, more than 60 years of careful preservation and loving usage by a series of owners came to an abrupt and shattering end.

Sharon leaned out the third floor window, gripping the sill. “I can’t believe you would do that! That belonged to my grandmother!”

Who is the narrator? Which POV is highlighted? Is it Sharon who knows all of this about the teacup and saucer? It’s a switch in POV at the start of the last paragraph, which was my point, and I admit that switching POV can be tricky, messy, and a very bad terrible idea. I wanted to make a statement about lost history and have a little surprise at the start of this short story. And it was a way to introduce some contrast in personality to the argument that came right afterward.

Voice needs to be strong and distinguishable from the other characters, and POV can help accentuate these distinctions:

Colonel Pyncheon, the claimant, as we gather from whatever traits of him are preserved, was characterized by an iron energy of purpose. Matthew Maule, on the other hand, though an obscure man, was stubborn in the defence of what he considered his right; and, for several years, he succeeded in protecting the acre or two of earth, which, with his own toil, he had hewn out of the primeval forest, to be his garden ground and homestead. —The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne

This is a classic third person narrator, who has a differing level of familiarity with the two characters mentioned here. The POV uses a consistent voice in describing men who are unlike each other. And so there is nothing to distract us from conceptualizing who these people are. The voice of the narrator could be entirely different, and it would still keep its integrity. When we see the characters speak, we look for confirmation that the narrator was right about them, or for an explanation of any dissonance. POV should serve as an “outside” witness on the action of the story that helps the believability of the characters as written, not detract from the work or bump the readers out of the story.

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Categories: ponderings


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