Who is the Best Character to Tell the Story?

Point of view (POV) is a course in itself. Seriously. There are so many facets to think about with point of view – and many of them must be decided before you even begin to write your book.

Telling your story from the WRONG POV is very easy to do.

Imagine writing an entire manuscript in the wrong POV? All your scenes, all your narrative, everything that happens won’t work. Your story will lack tension and conflict. The POV character’s goals or motivations will be weak or uninteresting. Your story’s pace will be sluggish and unfocused. The setting, description, and inner story will all be affected because the wrong character is giving us the information–likely information that your reader doesn’t need or care about.

How do we get started on figuring out the best POV for our stories?

My go-to method is to ask yourself two questions:

  • Which character has the most to lose in your story?
  • Which character can give us the most compelling story?

These questions will help guide you toward understanding who your main character(s) is/are. Telling a story from any character’s perspective who doesn’t have their back against the wall does not give you (the author) much to work with in terms of conflict or story goals. This is true of a character who can’t give us the most interesting, most powerful, most compelling version of the story.

We’ve probably all heard “There is more than one side to any story.” This is applicable not just in the real world but in storycrafting, too.

Right now, as a fun writing exercise, test your story from a non-POV character and rewrite any scene he/she is involved in. Make sure you follow scene structure with goal | conflict | disaster | reaction | dilemma | decision

  • How is that scene different now that someone else is telling us what happened?
  • Is it more interesting? Less interesting?
  • Do we learn more critical information through this character’s perspective?
  • Does the reader learn something you don’t want him to know quite yet?

This exercise is actually a wonderful way to help us determine which character is supposed to be telling us what is going on. ALWAYS choose the character who will give us the most interesting take on events as well as who will lose the most along the way.

Did you choose the best character to tell the story? Point of view is an important element to decide on before you write your story. Read this post by Kate Johnston | Author & Story Coach to learn two tricks to figure out how to choose the best POV characters for your stories.

Your POV character needs to be the agent of his/her own story. Such a character has to have wants and needs and ghosts. Such a character needs to go through an arc, or at least be so influential, she propels those around her to change and follow her lead (think Wonder Woman).

All of that means you need to make sure you’re in the head of the right character, the best character to tell the story.

Think about Great Gatsby. The POV character Nick showed us Gatsby and his way of life. Another writer might have assumed that Gatsby should be the one to tell his own story, but Fitzgerald played it smart. He knew that Gatsby would have been an unreliable narrator and would not have told us the most compelling story.

While such narrators have told their stories effectively (Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye), Fitzgerald clearly wanted to reveal the decay of Gatsby’s life. Nick was the best character for the job.

POV RULES

Did you choose the best character to tell the story? Point of view is an important element to decide on before you write your story. Read this post by Kate Johnston | Author & Story Coach to learn some important POV rules in writing a story.

Now, I’m a rule follower I admit, therefore it’s easy to ask what the rules are and I’ll go from there. Authors break rules quite frequently. I can think of two reasons why they get away with rule-breaking:

  • The author already proved she’s a master of the craft and earned the right to break the rules
  • The author did such a great job breaking the rules, no one even noticed or cared.

If you’re not CONFIDENT that you fall into either one of the two categories above, I suggest you follow the rules.

POV rules to get you started:

-The most popular POV choices are first-person and third-person limited.

First-person invites the reader into the head of the “I” narrator.  Third-person invites the reader into the head of the “he/she/it” character.

-If you opt for first-person POV, only use one throughout your book. If the multiple first-person POVs are NOT distinct enough from each other, then it is incredibly difficult to keep track of who is speaking.

-Keep multiple third-person POVs to fewer than five. (You’ll see differing limits on this—just go back to my KEY guideline: if your POV character has everything to lose, then yes, we want that POV. If not? Ditch it.)

-No head-hopping! This is my biggest gripe. I honestly can’t deal with it, and I apologize now if you’re a writer who head-hops from character to character. Head-hopping is an amateurish way to present your story because it confuses your readers.

–> Head-hopping is when a writer jumps between more than one POV in a single scene. If you have multiple points of view, then your best is to write a different scene from each character’s perspective.

-Stay away from omniscient POV. ‘Nuff said.

 

Do you struggle with finding the perfect POV for your story? What are your methods for figuring out which character should tell the story?

Have a writerly day!

11 thoughts on “Who is the Best Character to Tell the Story?

  1. I critiqued a story the other day where I pointed out the head hopping and the author dismissed that, saying she was in 3rd person omniscient POV. OK, but it didn’t work for me because she only went into one other character’s POV and only once. As a reader, it seemed more of a mistake. What do you think?

    • Oh boy, Jacqui, I am so against head-hopping, I can’t express it enough. What you’re describing is indeed a writer’s mistake and a lit agent or editor would certainly flag it. This writer probably doesn’t understand how to use omniscient POV.

      Omniscient POV is not an allowance for head-hopping, and that’s where many writers get tripped up. If the writer is only in the head of one character once, then I’d ask him/her how this slip into the character’s thoughts impact the story. How is the story different without that perspective? If there is no significant change, then it should be corrected. If there is a significant change (for example, a secret is revealed or new information is relayed), then the writer needs to decide if that info can actually be unveiled without slipping into the character’s thoughts, like through dialogue.

      Jumping in and out for just a single thought is not omniscient POV. True omniscient POV would reveal ALL the pertinent thoughts of all the pertinent characters, not just one.

      Additionally, point of view characters need to have a character arc. They need to show development in one direction or another, or at least, impact those around him/her so that they change. You might want to explain this aspect of POV to the writer and go from there. The other thing to think about, though rare, is that sometimes things like this happens because the writer picked the wrong main character. If the writer is dead-set on keeping this slip in POV, that could be a sign that this particular character should have a bigger role in the story, with a more evolved POV.

      Hopefully those suggestions help!

  2. Thanks for this Kate. My latest WIP (remember Golden?): I’ve got three POVs and they are all 1st person…now I’m wondering if two of them should switch to 3rd POV. EEK?! I don’t know..

    • I sure do remember Golden! I’m glad you’re working on that story again.

      I’m going to assume each of those POVs are of a character who has their own story/plot. They should all affect each other in some way so that they weave together for a whole story, otherwise you’re really just writing three individual stories which won’t work in a novel. 🙂

      Multiple first-person POV is really difficult to pull off IF those voices aren’t distinct enough from each other. You won’t have the benefit of pronouns to help you distinguish male from female, so a boy has got to sound like a boy and never be confused with a girl. And vice-versa. If you have more than one of the same gender, then what details and body language and thoughts are you using to distinguish one character from the other?

      Readers should be able to know from the first sentence who is speaking. You never want them getting midway through a paragraph thinking they’re reading about Joe and realizing they’re reading about Mike.

      One easy trick is to test out your scenes on people who are familiar with your characters. Read the first sentence of every scene or chapter that starts off in a different POV. If they can nail the character each time just based on the first sentence of EVERY POV switch, then you should be fine.

      If it’s still too early for readers to know your story, then another suggestion is to practice writing those POVs in the third-person limited. (Use that writing exercise suggestion in the post) and test all the elements to see how they’re different or if they don’t change at all.

      Really, what is important to keep in mind is to ask yourself if your story NEEDS the three POVs to begin with–esp. if your genre is MG. Some kids have a tough time keeping track of multiple voices and stories. If you believe your story needs three POVs, then you have to ask yourself if they are all distinct and compelling voices, or if one tends to just overpower the others.

      Start there and let me know how it goes! Good luck.

  3. Really interesting Kate. In my novels I’ve used two different POV, and in stories usually just one. It’s interesting that sometimes I find it much easier or pleasurable to write from a particular character’s POV and not so easy from the other.

    • I like having two or three POVs in my novels, too. But I have never tried to write with more than three. Some writers are great at that, but for me, it’s too many balls in the air. I agree with you about some characters making it easier than others. When I find it difficult, then that tells me they aren’t supposed to be given a POV. That works out well.

  4. I am writing a fictional memoir with my character a mermaid who becomes a goddess. Then in book 2 I am working on that she has her children, she gives up her son to the chieftain then I am also writing about she travels to an island because a fire happens. I am going to self publish this journal series.

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