The Minds of Others: 6 POV Hacks for Fiction
Point of view (POV) in fiction is often one of the hardest elements for new writers to master, with good reason. Regardless of whether you choose the first person (I), third person (he or she), or second person (you) in any of their various incarnations, there are things that you, the author, know that your protagonist cannot. Things, perhaps, you would like your reader to know.
You can get around the inherent limitations of your chosen POV, in some ways, by having multiple POV characters—or hopping from head to head, as in the omniscient POV. But these fixes are like the many-headed hydra of Greek mythology: for every problem you dispatch, you'll be faced with many more.
That's why I thought I'd share some tricks for getting around the inherent limitations of some of the most common POV choices—some hacks, you might say. Also, fun fact: they're rooted in brain science.
1) First-Person POV Hacks
Lisa Zunshine, author of Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, makes a good case that the primary reason we read fiction is for the pleasure associated with gaining access to the mind of another. In real life, of course, our own mind is the only one we ever fully have access to, so in order to figure out what others are thinking, we have to master a whole lot of tricky business associated with dialogue, body language, and behavior.
How immensely satisfying it is, then, to find ourselves in first person? This is the POV that most deeply enmeshes us in the assumed consciousness of another. We see the world the way the protagonist sees it, experience events the way they do, and, as a consequence, share their hopes and dreams. For all of these reasons, there is no better POV for creating a strong reader-protagonist bond.
There is also no POV that more faithfully reproduces the limitations of our own real-life consciousness—which, frankly, can be a little boring for your reader. After the fun of being someone else wears off, we're going to need to get a handle on what's going on with the other characters if the story is going to achieve the sort of complexity and richness we associate with strong fiction. We're also going to get a sense of what's going on that the protagonist may not be aware of.
So—how can you, the author, help us "see around" the first-person POV?
a) Dialogue and Body Language
If you're going to write a story in first-person, you should probably just accept, right off that bat, that you're going to need a lot of dialogue, as there is no clearer way to convey what's going on with the other people in your story. In so doing, though, make sure you don't fall into on-the-nose dialogue, especially when it comes to sensitive subjects. Body language can often say what the other characters in the story can't or won't. (Also: your reader will generally pick up on these clues even if your protagonist doesn't—because, as it turns out, the neurotypical human brain is really, really good at picking up on the emotional subtext associated with body language.)
What do the other characters in your story do? And what does that say about their thoughts, feelings, and motivations? When you're working in a first-person POV, your reader will be looking closely at the actions of others to find out what's going on with them.
Here's a little anecdote from the real world: Ryan Adams is a critically acclaimed American singer-songwriter who launched his solo career in the aughts; Bryan Adams is a Canadian rock musican who was popular in the 80s. Rumor has it that when someone in the crowd at a Ryan Adams show shouted out, between numbers, "Play Cuts Like a Knife!", the musician in question actually jumped down off the stage to physically assault the confused fan. Suffice to say, we don't need to be in Ryan Adams's head to know how he feels about being mistaken for Bryan Adams. ;-)
It's been said that all first-person narrators are unreliable, as any narrative lens so intimately connected to a character's perspective will inevitably warp the story with their biases, prejudices, and delusions. But there are some writers who know how to work quite deliberately with this aspect of first person, creating clear incongruities between how the narrator sees the world and how the world actually appears to be. (Nabokov is famous for his unreliable narrators, as is Salinger.) Such incongruities have the effect of allowing the author to "talk around" the first-person POV, showing us that the way the narrator sees the world is probably not actually how the world is. (This hack also works with brain science, as the human brain is generally highly attuned to figuring out when other people are lying to us.)
2. Third-Person POV Hacks
Third person is generally agreed to be the most versatile POV. A close third is often nearly as good for establishing a reader-protagonist bond as first person, but it comes with the added bonus of you, the author, being able to observe things about the protagonist and the world of the story that he or she might not. A more distant third-person POV sacrifices some of that reader-protagonist bond but allows the author/narrator to offer more of his or her opinions on the protagonist and the world at large—and a rotating third can give us access to a number of different minds, creating a kaleidoscopic effect.
But a close third can also limit the amount of information your reader receives about the story as a whole, while both a distant third and a rotating third can give us so much information that it becomes increasingly difficult to keep track of what's going on in the story.
So—how to get around the limitations of the three most common third-person POVs?
With a close third-person POV, your protagonist may not be aware of everything that's unfolding in the story, which is all the more reason to send clear signals to the reader that you, the author, do. Where do you start a scene and cut it? What's shown and not shown? What's summarized and what's dramatized? These questions correspond to your framing, and skillful framing is one of clearest means by which to signal to your reader what's going to be important in the story, whether the protagonist knows it or not.
This sort of clear storytelling is even more important when we're working in a distant third-person or a rotating third-person POV, because so much information—from both the protagonist and narrator, in the former, and in the latter, from a whole cast of POV characters—can easily make your poor reader's head swim. When all those various perspectives line up in helping us follow a clear, overarching plot—one that the reader really could not otherwise follow—all that information, rather than seeming confusing, will seem germane to the story. In this way, the plot works as an organizing principle, helping your reader place a large amount of information in a clearly intelligible context.
b) Cause and Effect
This is an element closely related to storytelling but distinct from it as well. You can think of cause and effect as the domino effect—how do the actions of the protagonist affect the events of the plot? How do they affect other people in the story? By creating a clear cause-and-effect, action-and-reaction pattern in your story, you'll make your story easier to follow, regardless of which third-person POV you're using, helping your reader organize the information in the story into a coherent, relatable whole.
With a single third-person POV—as with first person—whether close or distant, you have the problem of how to let the protagonist know what's going on behind the scenes with the other characters (especially when it comes to things the other characters probably wouldn't come right out and say). When you're working with a rotating third, you have the same problem, though the reader herself may already be aware of these things (because she's actually been inside someone else's head).
In both cases, consider one of the oldest tricks in the book, as much beloved of Shakespeare as those who write soap operas: eavesdropping. What tool so neatly lets both a character in your story and the reader herself in on the sordid affair, the plot to embezzle, or the long-buried family secret as the act of overhearing something not intended for her ears? Also, fun fact: the human brain loves keeping track of other people's secrets—and their implications.
There are, undoubtedly, some limitations associated with each POV that I've missed—and some hacks for getting around them as well. Consider sharing your POV in the comments below. ;-)
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