Back at the very beginning of the year, I posted a couple of essays here at MW about point of view, one of them dealing with choosing single person POV versus multiple, and the other comparing first and third person voices. Neither of those posts, however, addressed the basic question of why point of view is important to good storytelling. To be honest, I don’t think I addressed that question because I didn’t have a good answer for it. But recently I’ve been addressing POV issues in my discussions with a number of beginning writers, and I think I’ve finally figured it out.
Let me begin by saying that I have a pet peeve when it comes to reading fiction. I find it very distracting when a story is being told from one character’s viewpoint and then suddenly shifts — without some kind of visual clue to the reader — either to another character’s POV or to omniscient voice. There are things about the Harry Potter books that I don’t like, places where I feel that J. K. Rowling has not done a great job. But one thing she does superbly is maintain a consistent voice for her books. We are almost always in Harry’s point of view, and when we’re not she makes it absolutely clear where we are. Her POV never wanders in the middle of a chapter; she never tells her reader something that Harry can’t know. Rather, she allows us to figure things out right along with him, and that’s what makes the books work so well. That’s how point of view should work. We should see the story through the eyes of a character and know only as much as he or she can know at any particular time. If you want to use multiple POV — if you want to tell the story from the perspective of several characters in order to weave together plot lines — great. But make certain that your reader knows exactly when you are shifting from one character to the other.
Why? Because point of view at its best should be the nexus of character and narrative. Point of view is more than a way to tell a story. It is how we imbue our storytelling with emotion. Harry Potter’s voice works because he’s not just telling us the story; he’s sharing his fears, his desires, his teen angst, his loneliness. His voice gives the story its dramatic impact. That’s what point of view is about. Maintaining a consistent point of view is not just a matter of keeping your storytelling clear, though that is important — constantly shifting POV without warning can confuse and frustrate readers. Good use of POV is about remembering whose story you’re telling. Sure Rowling could have shifted from Harry’s POV to Voldemort’s during one of their confrontations in order to tell us what Voldemort was thinking at that moment, or what he knew about what was going to happen. But we weren’t reading Tom Riddle’s story. We were reading Harry’s. The meat of the story is in Harry’s head and heart. That’s where the focus needed to be, and that’s exactly where Rowling left it.
Point of view is what binds character development to plot development; it’s what allows a story and its main character to grow and change and resolve together. When that bond is broken, even briefly, character and narrative both suffer. The storytelling becomes confused; the reader’s identification with your lead character is compromised.
I don’t mean this to sound quite so dogmatic — I know that the MW mantra is “There’s no right way to do any of this.” But I would suggest that you think about point of view not as a rule, but rather as a tool. Used consistently and carefully, it can make storytelling easier, more effective. Used haphazardly and it can undermine much of the good work you’ve done in other aspects of your writing.David B. Coe http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com http://magicalwords.net http://www.DavidBCoe.com