POV or How I Stopped Worrying About Myself and Started Using an Effective Persona
How often do beginning and even experienced writers get red penciled for a POV change in the middle of something they are writing? Okay, I can raise my hand along with the rest of you. POV or point of view lapses are not uncommon. Usually, those mistakes are minor, say changing from one character’s perspective to another on the same page when you are writing in third person limited (I’ll explain that later). The more grievous error would be switching from first person to third person, or utilizing second person when you meant to use third person objective. So does any of this make sense? Let’s take a deep breath and review some of the basics of creating an effective persona for your story.
Persona, as I am defining it here, is your storyteller. In other words, who tells your story to your reader, or, as that persona is more commonly called, your narrator. Here’s something to remember: the author and the narrator are not the same. The author distances himself from the story by creating the persona of a narrator. Think about this a moment because it’s an important concept. You, the author, create someone to tell your story. That someone is not you, the author (unless, perhaps, you’re writing an autobiography, and even then, the narrator is distanced from the character of the autobiography by time). Your choice of a narrator, or persona, will make a dramatic influence upon how you tell your story. If you’re following this so far, then you’re way ahead of the game, and way ahead of where I was when I first started writing. Next, let’s look at some of the more commonly used narrators or points of view along with some of their strengths and weaknesses.
First Person or the “I” Point of View
Probably the most popular and most commonly used persona for writers is the one that intimately links the narrator and the main character of the story. This is called first person. One important point to take into consideration if you’ve decided to tell your story in first person is verb tense. Are you going to tell your story in present or past tense? What difference does it make, you might ask. Well, if you’re using past tense, then you are re-creating the story through the character’s eyes and experiences. In other words, the story has already happened, and the “I” narrator is simply retelling it. That means the narrator and the main character (“I” of the story) are different. How so? The narrator has already experienced the series of events that has occurred, so he/she has prior knowledge. It means that persona can influence how the story is to be retold. This can make for some fascinating stories, especially if the narrator is not a reliable one (untrustworthy because the narrator may be a liar, perhaps naïve, or even insane). An example of this kind of story telling occurs in Edgar Allan Poe’s, The Tell-Tale Heart. In the story, the narrator explains to the reader why he chose to kill a man and dismember him. If you take the events literally, then you see the motivations of a killer being revealed. However, if you interpret the story as one being told by a madman, then perhaps there was no beating heart underneath the floorboard and this character should be locked up in an asylum. An unreliable narrator can add spice to your story because the reader is never quite sure what to believe. However, if the story is told in present tense, then the action unfolds before the reader’s eyes; it is happening right now. Using present tense means there is a closer connection between the narrator and the “I” persona of the story. This doesn’t preclude the idea that the narrator is insane or unreliable. It just means the reader is viewing the action of the story as it is taking place.
Why is the first person point of view so popular? There are a number of reasons for this, including the most obvious: it’s easier to write using first person. The author creates a character that he/she can identify with closely and tells the story from that perspective. The reader understands the emotions, motivations, idiosyncrasies of that character because the “I” tells us those things. It brings the reader into a closer, more intimate, relationship with the character. This emotional bond between reader and character is what often sells stories. As humans, our brains connect more with emotion than with logic, so it is only natural for us to want to be connected emotionally with the character telling the story.
So what’s the problem with first person? If readers like it so much, why aren’t all stories told this way? Good question. What if you want a character that is more mysterious, more difficult to understand? Do you want to expose everything about the character to the reader? Maybe some stories are more interesting if there is mystery about the main character (think, The Great Gatsby). Here’s another problem with first person: the narrator must always be where the action is. There is no cutting away to another scene happening somewhere else or to another character unless that character is right there with the “I.” See the problem? The narrator has to continually be where the critical action occurs. This can limit the scope of the story. And what about what other characters are thinking? Nope. The narrator can guess what those other characters are thinking, but can’t know, and neither can the reader. In addition, descriptions of the “I” character have to come in sneaky ways (many of which are clichés): mirrors, reflections in the water, other characters describing that person through dialogue, well, you get the idea.