Why POV Matters: Power Over Perspective
A while back I wrote a blog post about my favorite movie tag line. The movie was “Absence of Malice” starring Paul Newman and Sally Field:
“Suppose you picked up this morning’s newspaper and your life was a front page headline . . . And everything they said was accurate . . . But none of it was true.”
That struck a chord with me, to the point that all of my fiction writing circles the essence of it—that things can be accurate without being true. It highlights the fact that our perspective of a thing is what determines its reality for us.
I’ve written about the importance of perspective before, and while I could say that words have power, that isn’t exactly a newsflash. What I’ll say instead is that perspective has power, and as a writer, that means the almighty point of view (POV).
For a fiction writer, determining POV is important. It sets the tone for the book. It also gives the author power over reader perspective. As a reader, I don’t give POV much thought unless the author’s choice doesn’t work for me. If you’re reading this now and you’re not a writer, it might never have occurred to you that the authors of the books you love often give lengthy thought to which POV will best serve their story. Sometimes we’ll begin in one POV, realize it’s the wrong one, and start over in another POV. I know authors who write their first draft of a book in first person to steep themselves in their character’s perceptions, and then rewrite the whole book in another POV.
When new writers talk POV it’s usually in the context of getting their heads around the different literary forms: first, second, third/objective, third/limited, and third/omniscient. It’s confusing, to say the least, and easy, especially for a new writer, to move from one to the other without even realizing it. (This .pdf from Mesa Public Schools explains the differences well and succinctly: http://www.mpsaz.org/rmre/grades/grade5/homework_help/files/point_of_view.pdf)
For my romance novels, I write in third person limited omniscient. This allows me to show my reader the romance from the perspective of both the hero and heroine, but not within the same scene. If you’ve read my books then you know I switch character POV from chapter to chapter, and often with scene changes. It allows me to employ that tagline I love—something can be accurate without being true—and gives my reader a broader picture. In most cases—though not all—I want readers to know what the hero and heroine don’t, because I believe it ups the emotional stakes, and readers want to see how things will play out when a character discovers how his/her perception was wrong. Romances can be tricky, because there isn’t always an archetypal villain. Sometimes the villain is a character’s skewed perspective or an impossible circumstance. It isn’t a breeze to write that, where the villain isn’t flesh and blood.
In my novel Love to Believe, the heroine, Rebecca, finds a sexy blonde in the hero’s house. The facts as Rebecca sees them are accurate: Sean is living with another woman. He never allowed Rebecca to spend the night, but it’s clear the blonde has done just that. So, just from that small description, you know Rebecca’s perception of the scene, what she draws from that knowledge. And here’s the point: She’s not wrong. The facts as she knows them are 100% accurate…but not true. There is living with someone and living with someone. A person of the opposite sex can spend the night or spend the night. The ostensible truth depends entirely on POV.
In terms of altering a reader’s world view through POV, there are novels that have that power. Fellow author/blogger Sioux Roslawski recently gifted me with two great novels: Freeman by Leonard Pitts, Jr. and The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. In the former, we see the post-Civil War South through the eyes of a former slave, a man who fled to the North before the war, became educated, and returns to the South after the war in search of his wife (so many amazing layers of perception in this novel—put it on your to-read list). In the latter, the pre-Civil War South is shown through the eyes of two young girls/women: a slave and her reluctant owner. The rich tapestry woven by both of these novels offers myriad perspectives worth exploring. And quite aside from that, both novels are brilliant, the writing stellar. I highly recommend these. (Thanks, Sioux!)
It is interesting to explore the different perspectives in books. As an author, I study the use of POV in books that I read, sometimes imagine how the tone of the book would change had the author used a different POV. If you feel like stretching your writing muscles, choose a scene from a book by your favorite author, rewrite it using a different POV, and watch how things change. Give it a try. It’s a challenge, but it also provides a deeper understanding of the power of POV.
One of best quotes I’ve ever seen about writing and the importance of character perspective was floating around Facebook. Here you go:
The thing about POV is that it allows us to walk in other shoes. The perspective we draw from that is often the thing that resonates and becomes the reason we love a particular book.
When I was a teenager, my cousin JoJo and I teamed up with our guitars and voices. Jamming with her is one of my fondest memories. We harmonized, and sang everything from Godspell tunes to Blowin’ in the Wind. One of our faves was Walk a Mile in My Shoes by Joe South. JoJo lived with us in New England for a few months, and she and I would huddle in the downstairs family room and make lots of music. My mother, upstairs, heard the muffled version of that song and came downstairs to inquire, because she heard the lyrics “guacamole my shoes,” proving yet again, Buttercup, that perspective is everything. 🙂 If an author does his/her job well with the right POV, you will indeed walk a mile in the characters’ shoes. And maybe that’s the difference between a good book and a great one. What do you think?
If you’ve never heard the song, here you go. If you know the lyrics, crank it up and sing along. I’m offering up the original Joe South version, but Elvis covered this, so his might be the one you remember.
When it comes to POV do you have a preference, either for reading or writing? Can you think of a literary example of my favorite movie tagline? What author do you love that allows you to “walk a mile” in his/her characters’ shoes?
As always, thanks for hanging out with me! See you next time. Have a great week!
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