Choosing your POV Character (And a Note on Voice)

Happy August! While many adults welcome the returning school year (and shipping their children back off to school), I have the great fortune (misfortune?) of welcoming over 500 college students back into the residence hall.

Translation? Life is about to get super busy around here. So if I'm a bit absent from the blog this month, my apologies. I'll return as soon as I have all my students settled into their new rooms.

But today, I have a fun blog post for you. It's all about choosing your POV character (whether you're writing a dual narrative or from multiple POVs) with a short--but hopefully helpful!--discussion about voice.

Since I've yet to write a book with a large cast of POV characters, I'm going to take this from the perspective of a dual narrative. Adjust as necessary for your own books. And of course, the standard disclaimer applies, that there's no one right way to write and if my method makes your head spin, feel free to ignore it.

Now, with that out of the way, let's talk about the two main version of dual narrative stories:

  1. Two POVs with separate story lines
  2. Two POVs of a shared story (often seen in romance, where we get the POV of both lovers)

If your story follows Option One (as 99% of AST did), you'll want to try to keep the stories balanced in terms of page time, plot importance, and character development. So, if you've got a dual narrative, try to split your scenes/chapters roughly 50/50. If you have three POV characters, give them a rough 33/33/34 split.

If you're working an Option Two type story, you have some additional considerations to keep in mind. In addition to keeping a roughly balanced story (whatever that means for your situation), you'll also need to decide which MC to use to show different scenes of the same story.

If your MCs are not currently in the same scene: go with the POV where the most interesting thing is happening. This may seem obvious, but it bears mentioning. If you have on MC searching for a hidden key on a space ship, you should probably be showing us that scene, rather the other MC who's taking a snooze. You also don't need to show what both MCs are doing in any given moment. If our sleeping MC snoozes the night away while the other is busy fighting bad guys, you can ignore Sleepy until he's awake and doing something interesting.

If your MCs are in a scene together: This is where things get tricky. Whose head do you want to be in when they're both in the room together? Consider asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Who knows the least?
  2. Who has the most to lose?

While there are other questions you can ask, these two are usually sufficient for me to decide whose POV I need to be in for any particular scene. These were the exact questions I had to ask myself for the last few chapters of AST.

Those are also the questions I asked myself when choosing my POV for THE TRIAL. While the character who's actually on trial for murder has a ton to lose, she's also privy to all the information about the crime. And how boring would that be? It would feel super annoying for her to hold back that information for the sake of the plot/tension. So she was automatically out. (Though her thoughts do appear in a few letter-style sections.)

There are plenty of people who don't know what's going on in this book, but the one who ultimately has the most to lose is the brother of the victim, who was also romantically linked to the accused. Once I realized how he both had a lot to lose and knew so little about what happened, I knew he'd be the perfect lens through which to view this story. And so far it's working nicely (though, revision can always change things).

And finally, a note about VOICE

When you're working with more than one POV, voice becomes a critical piece of your stories success or failure. A good general test is to take a few random sentences or paragraphs from the MS and determine whether you can tell which POV it is (without relying on the character's name to tell you). If you can't tell, your readers won't be able to tell.

So, to close off this post, here are some tips to really hone in on your voice:

  • When revising, separate your stories by POV. By revising them separately, you may have better luck latching onto their unique voices (I know it helped me a lot).
  • Filter their scenes through their worldview.

That second point is critical. Voice is all about filtering. Based on that character's history and worldview, through what lens does she see the world?

Author Sarah J. Maas does a fantastic job of that in THRONE OF GLASS. Her main character, assassin Celeana, sees the world in a very particular way. When she sees a man, she doesn't just notice his brown hair and amber eyes. She notices how far his hands are from his weapons. She calculates how fast she could snap his neck and whether there'd still be time to escape before his guards descend upon her. She sees the world always as an assassin. And that is what filtering is all about.

If your different voices are giving you trouble, consider what lens each character has. Your rich kid may notice whether her peers are wearing designer jeans while your loner may be annoyed by all the happy faces and take particular note of the places he can escape to solitude.

So when in doubt with voice: FILTER!

You tell me: how do you keep different POVs separate and distinct? How do you decide which character should tell which scenes?