Everything you always wanted to know about POV

Everything you Always Wanted to Know about Point of View

by Kathy Carmichael

First published in 1997.

Copyright © 2007, 2008, 2009 Kathy Lynch Carmichael. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in print or on the Internet without the prior written approval of Kathy.

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This month, my question went out to various members of the Mid America Romance Authors (MARA) chapter. The question is: Do you use secondary character point of view (POV)? Why or why not?

Answered by Val Daniels (aka Alfie Thompson) who learned everything she could about POV to sell traditional romance to Harlequin Romance (which prefers heroine POV only). [Note: At the time this article was originally published this was true, but this is no longer the case.] Currently on the stands, Sweet Valentine from Harlequin Romance, is told strictly in the hero and heroine’s POV.

I decide whether to use secondary character POV based on the length of book I’m writing and on the story I want to tell. Though there isn’t a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ POV to use, there is ‘best’ POV for the story I’m telling. I use the following questions to help me decide:

  • Whose viewpoint makes my fictional world seem most real? EX: In Between Dusk and Dawn, the villain’s POV showed his motivation in choosing the heroine as his next victim. Without his POV the plot wouldn’t have been believable or logical.
  • Whose story is it anyway? Which character will the reader root the hardest for?You want the reader to pull for your main character to make the right choices. The more intimate the reader becomes with the character (reader identification) the more she cares for what happens to that character. The more character viewpoints you use, the less the reader has a chance to get ‘intimate’ with any one or two. (That’s why length of story is so important in deciding how many viewpoint characters to use.) And do you really want your readers to feel close to the bag person at the grocery store?
  • Which character(s) will best convey what you, the author, want to say?Whatever your theme/premise, your viewpoint characters can’t be people who’ve already learned it. You’ll preach (tell) instead of showing your main character learning the lesson and using it to come to terms with the conflict.
  • Which viewpoint(s) will keep the reader turning pages? Make the story most compelling?Too many viewpoint characters may unwittingly lessen the tension or suspense. Limited POV helps keep the suspense alive because the reader can only know what the viewpoint characters know. Secondary characters’ POV is especially good in plot oriented books because it lets the reader see many things he couldn’t in a more restricted point of view. But if a viewpoint character knows something you don’t let the reader in on, the reader may feel cheated when they get to the end—if they get to the end. So do you want to keep secrets? Who from?

Answered by Matt Scherrer, member of MARA:

I would love to get an occasional POV from a secondary character as long as it adds some real meaning to the story or if it can entertain the reader, involve her, or really add a new twist. I tend to want to read something new and different. I doubt that I am in the mainstream, however. Actually, I’m seldom in the mainstream. I wanted to include a scene with the POV of a coon hound!! Sigh!

Sally Steward who writes as Sally Carleen for Silhouette and Robinson writes:

To me, the POV character is the one who’s telling me (as either a reader or a writer) his or her story. In the shorter books, especially as short as Silhouette Romances, there isn’t time for any story except the hero’s and the heroine’s. These books are pretty much straight line stories.

In a longer book, however, I do enjoy and think we need secondary POV characters. Although a romance novel, no matter how long, will always focus on the story between the hero and heroine, longer novels allow writers to bring out secondary story lines that feed into this primary story, and these secondary story lines are best told by the person to whom the story belongs. That person could be a stalker, an old lover, a child…depending on the nature of the subplots in the book.

I do not like to get into the POV of characters other than primary and secondary. If I don’t know the character, if he isn’t important, if he has no story to tell, I don’t want to waste my time with his thoughts.

Sandy Marshall, MARA member since 1989, worked on the Board as Critique Chairman and as Hospitality Chairman. She says:

I do not use secondary character POV in my books, but I’m unpublished and I’m trying to learn my craft. I think if you know what you’re doing and if the editor will let you get away with a secondary character POV, it would be okay. A lot depends on the type of book you’re writing.

Leesa Whitson spends most of her time listening to the inanimate objects around her house screaming for attention. It should be clarified that the laundry is classified as inanimate. She has this to say:

Personally, I use about every POV, until of course, my critique group gets a hold of it and reminds me I should be limiting it somewhat. :>) (I have not taken an inanimate object’s POV yet, though. I have to draw the line somewhere.)

Answered by Cheryl St. John who has the following books currently available: Badlands Bride, Harlequin Historical, Aug. 96, A Husband By Any Other Name, Silhouette I.M. Dec.96 and The Truth About Toby, Silhouette I.M. Sept. 97:

I use a secondary character’s POV if it is critical to the story and if the word length permits. (There’s more room in a historical or a long contemporary than in a short contemporary.) If the character is just a sidekick of the protagonist, then his or her thoughts can be conveyed effectively through dialogue. If the character (often a villain) knows something that the protagonist doesn’t know, then his or her POV is a wonderful tool to foreshadow or create tension.

Carla Bracale writing as Carla Cassidy has the following books soon to be available: Feb. Yours Truly – Pop Goes The Question, in March begins a three book series, Cheyenne Nights from Harlequin Intrique…first book: Sunset Promise. She’s currently working on her 45th book to be published.

I enjoy using the POV of secondary characters, although don’t do it often in category writing. However, I have written books using this POV for specific purposes such as adding tension in suspense books. It’s fun to delve into the villian’s POV and counter the peaceful events taking place in the hero and heroine’s life with a portend of the evil to come. Secondary character POV is useful when the author wants to impart some information that can’t come from the hero or heroine. However, a writer has to be careful about using this out of laziness, making it an easy way to impart information without giving the secondary character an important place in the plot and development of the story.

In category, delving into too many heads keeps the reader distant from the hero and heroine, where the true focus needs to be. In category books I try to be something of a POV purist. Still, I’m working on a book now where I’m using the POV of a nine-year-old boy who’s been kidnapped His POV adds emotional impact, a bit of plot movement, and additional characterization that is necessary to make this particular project work.

Each project dictates if there will be secondary character pov. And the most important thing a writer can do is follow her heart and do what she thinks makes the manuscript the best it can be.