I’ve said that character is the most important element of fiction. Some editors disagree, and will say plot or point of view is more important. I’ve given my reasons for why I feel as I do about character. Here’s why I put viewpoint before plot on my list.
Viewpoint, or POV, is closely linked to character, regardless of which viewpoint style you choose. Viewpoint is the channel through which the reader experiences the story, so I understand why some editors put it first. But you can’t have viewpoint without character, even if the only “character” is a bodiless narrator.
Therefore, we’re going to tackle point of view before we look at plot.
I’ve already written several posts about point of view, so I’ll try not to repeat myself.
Now whole books have been written about POV, and you bet I’m going to Amazon-affiliate link a few. It would take me ages to say all there is to say on the subject one blog post at a time. Besides, the ladies who wrote these books are all way smarter than me. So read them.
Now let’s look at the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist.
☐ The chosen point of view characters are appropriate.
Often the choice of POV character will be obvious. It’s the hero or heroine, or both. You can also mix in the villain if you want to. Generally, you want to choose the character who changes most or who has the most to lose. By doing so, you allow the reader to vicariously experience the epiphanies and crises of the protagonists or antagonists.
Point of view is determined mainly by character—which ones you want the reader to bond with—and secondarily by story. If there’s part of the story your hero isn’t around for, you have to decide whether to choose a character who is in that scene to carry the POV for a while, or whether to skip that scene and have the hero learn the outcome later.
Genre is also a consideration in choosing the appropriate viewpoint character. In a romance, readers usually want to see both the hero and heroine’s side of the story. In a mystery, the viewpoint will usually be only with the detective, but in a thriller, it might also be with the villain. Know what’s usual for your genre, but don’t be hidebound by it.
Sometimes the most appropriate character isn’t necessarily the one who changes or loses. You certainly can pick someone else. For example, in The Great Gatsby, the point of view character, Nick Carraway, meets neither of those criteria. The same can often be said of the detective in a mystery novel. In those cases, the POV character is not the one who has the greatest insight or faces the greatest trauma. They’re the ones who are in a position to share information with the reader—and just the right information, without giving away too much early on. If The Great Gatsby were written from either Jay Gatsby or Daisy Buchanan’s point of view, the mystery behind it would be lost.
Managing the number of viewpoint characters is also important. It is possible to have an epic story in which a dozen characters trade off carrying the POV, but it’s not recommended. The fewer POV characters you have, the better the reader will bond with each of them. So as you edit, consider whether scenes from the POV of secondary characters can be rewritten to be in the POV of one of the primary characters. Try to avoid having a character who only carries the POV for one scene, unless that scene is right at the beginning or at the very end. You might get away with a one-off POV character at a crucial turning point, but only if there’s really no one else around.
I am not one to put arbitrary numbers on such things, but I find that when the number of POV characters rises above five, things start to get shaky. But as with everything else, it all depends on story.
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