Choosing Perspectives in Writing

Sorry for the brief hiatus, I was traveling and getting the most of the last of summer.

To my mind, characters are everything in writing. That’s why choosing your POV characters in your work is a crucial point. So let’s discuss it!

Why this Person? Why this Story?

This is the most important question to answer for any artistic venture: Why and why now?

It can be any answer that makes sense to you, but you need an answer. That’s why before I say anything else, remember the why.

What is this person’s story? Are they protagonist? How do they function within the structure of the plot? Why are you telling this person’s story to begin with?

Answer those questions for yourself and you’re off to a great start.

Characters and their Perspectives are Tools

This is the second most important thing to remember for me. It’s not good enough to say “Well, this is a cool character and I want them in there.” For one thing “cool” or any other vague adjective isn’t a specific enough reason. The more specific the reason the better. Instead of trying to think on terms of vague adjectives ask yourself: How does this character function in the plot? What do they do? How do they change?

So consider what character perspectives are best suited for telling the story you want to tell. How do they drive the story forward? How do they make your point? How do they reflect your theme? And so on.

While your happy bard might be an awesome character, if this is a story about something else entirely, like royal secrets and assassins, it may not be the right fit. Could you make it work? Absolutely. But again, consider it carefully before throwing it in there.

Characters are people and you should develop them as people, but in a story they also serve another purpose in that they are there to tell this story and move it forward. Your character can be the most awesome character ever, but if they do nothing to serve the story or your purposes, they may not belong there.

The Reader in Mind

Keeping the reader in mind when you choose you make your choices is crucial. Remember this is about telling a story TO someone. With every stroke of the pen (or keystroke, if you will) you are giving the reader information about something.

What do you want the reader to know? What do you want to keep hidden, secret, or shrouded in mystery? Perspectives and POVs are the perfect place for working out these decisions. If you want your mysterious assassin character to stay mysterious, telling the story from their perspective may not be the best route. The stronger choice might be to have another character observing them from their own perspective.

The Problem With Secret Keeping

A lot of authors have amazing non-POV characters. They’re entertaining, mysterious, fun, and very interesting. The problem comes in when you have a whole cast of these characters that they overshadow the protagonist, leaving the protagonist to feel flat and boring as opposed to the others.

So you see it’s somewhat of a balancing act. There are loads of ways to solve this, but the key seems to be to make your protagonist(s) more interesting. Just because we the readers are in their head doesn’t mean we have to know everything about them. leaving a little to the imagination for POV characters can be extremely compelling. Give them a deep, dark secret, a less than noble goal, or some less than noble traits, etc.

The second part of this is to make your “flat” character so stuff. The interesting side characters may be fascinating, but they are not the main driving force of the story. The characters should be making the story happen, the story should not be happening to them. There can be external forces, but all in all, the protagonist should do things that further the action.

Give them an arc, start to finish. Show the reader how the protagonist changes. This is what brings them to life.

Your POV characters, especially protagonists, should be making chocies that have an impact on the plot. They should be active, which brings me to:

Passive vs. Active Characters/Protagonists

Passive characters are ones where the story seems to happen to them. They are pushed about the story by outside forces, and not by their own actions. The plot happens around them and they are just along for the ride.

An active character drives the story. They make choices that directly influence where the story is going next. In general, it’s the stronger choice to make the active characters POV characters.

So, unless you have a reason, avoid making your POV characters too passive. This is a problem with a lot of “window to the world” characters who observe the action instead of driving it. It’s like they’re watching the movie version of the story and telling the reader what’s going on instead of actually being in the movie.

Passive character can be helpful, but they may not be great protagonist material. They often have no stake in the game, no consequential goals, no reason to do anything.

If you have a character who is kind of just watching the action instead of partaking, the quick fix is to go with another character as the POV instead. Otherwise, you can add depth and complexity to your passive characters. Give them goals, give them reasons to be there and take action.

Remember: A story is not a spectators’ sport for your characters.

Multiple POVs

Remember, every POV you add is going to add layers of complexity and it’s going to be more to juggle. The more characters you are going to have to give arcs and develop. You might even have more than one protagonist.

You need to consider the scope of your story before deciding on POVs.

The easiest way to determine this is location. If there is action going on in multiple locations, different factions, and the like then having multiple POVs is helpful. There can be a lot of other factors too, but like I said, I feel this is the easiest.

Multiple POVs is also a good way to show time passing as you jump between them. It’s a good way to explore the world you’re creating. It’s a good way to show the multiple “sides” of the plot and show the many motivations and complexities of characters and plot(s).

The thing is, you need to justify it within context of the work. The POVs need reasons to be there. They need to be doing something, discovering stuff, learning stuff. They need to be furthering their own arc and developing. Also it will likely lengthen your story, and you’ll have to delegate how much time needs to spent with which character so as not to drag everything out too long.

Multiple POVs is powerful, refreshing, and interesting, but don’t bite off more than you can chew or give yourself too much to juggle.

The characters also need to be starkly different. Different backgrounds, goals, motivations, etc. They need to make their own choices that are different from each other. They need to sound different in the writing. Otherwise it becomes very much a POV of generic narrators as opposed to actual character perspectives. A spoiled prince is going to tell the story differently than your lowly beggar girl character.

Decided who this story is about. Is this one person’s story? Is this the story of many different people/entities? Use only the POVs you need. It could be one, it could be ten, but use only what you absolutely need.

Parting Words

Choosing which characters to tell the story is crucial, but that’s part of the excitement of telling a story. Ask yourself the right questions for you and choose well. You’ll make something great.

Writing Prompt:

Write from the perspective of a character in your story you’ve never chosen as a POV before. It could be a chapter, it could be its own short story. Whatever works best for you!

Ask yourself:

  • Why did I choose this character?
  • Who are they? Why are they there?
  • What are they doing at this point in the story ?
  • What changed? What is new information?
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