POV or: Whose Head Am I In Anyway?

by Cynthia VanRooy

Fiction writing is about people. Romance fiction is about two people in particular, your hero and heroine. The story is told from their point of view, so understanding and effectively using point of view is basic to romance writing. Given that fact, I thought point of view would be a good place to launch this column.

POV (or Point Of View) can sound technical to a new writer, but it simply refers to the character whose perspective the story events are told through. Readers see, hear, feel and experience events as that character would—and only those things that character would experience. In a romance this is usually the hero or heroine, with possible occasional side trips into the POV of a secondary character.

In other words, if you’re in the heroine’s POV you’re not going to mention her creamy skin or silky hair unless she’s looking at herself in a mirror—and is an incredibly vain person. You’re seeing the world through her eyes, so you see only what she would see. Describe the hero’s coffee brown eyes and broad shoulders. That’s what your heroine sees.

In the short scene below from my book Blue Skies, our couple is at a formal dinner dance. It’s written from the heroine’s POV. There’s a slight problem. Can you find it?

She felt a small flash of annoyance. "What have you got against dancing?"

"Nothing. Let’s do it." He drew her back into his arms and stepped out as the music began again.

A tiny line appeared between her brows at the resignation she heard in his voice, but at least he was holding her.

Got it? It’s the tiny line between her brows. She wouldn’t be able to see this. The hero could, but . . . we’re not in his POV. I didn’t write this, it’s something the copy-editor inserted. I about went ballistic when I saw it, but c’est la vie. This one is a simple fix. Replacing 'a tiny line appeared between her brows' with 'she frowned with concern' brings the POV fluctuation back into line.

POV congruency also means that you, the writer, describe those things a particular character would experience in a vocabulary that character would use. You’re in his or her thoughts. If your character is a high school dropout, you wouldn’t use language more appropriate to a Ph.D. An unfortunate example of this mistake turned up in the first scene of an unpublished (it still is) manuscript I was asked to critique. In the scene, the only two characters are a belly-scratching, beer-guzzling, good-old-boy deer hunter and his dog. They are alone in the back country, the hunter leaning against the fender of his truck congratulating himself on the buck he has just illegally bagged. Suddenly there is the observation of dust motes dancing like ballerinas in the beam of sunlight slanting through the trees.

Huh? Who is supposed to be having these thoughts—the good old boy or his dog? In an effort to sound literary, the writer managed only to sound silly. Being disciplined about POV will help you avoid embarrassing lapses, like this one, into purple prose.

Some new writers think they must change POV every time a different character speaks. Not only is this not necessary, it’s not even desirable. However, writers fall into one of two POV camps. There are the purists who prefer to write in one character’s POV for the duration of a scene, and sluts who change POV so often the reader’s head spins. I started out a slut, head hopping so frequently my characters had no chance to become individuals. I gradually developed into a purist because I discovered I wrote more powerful books that way.

If you’re in the heroine’s POV and the hero is angry, you don’t need to leap into his perspective to show the reader this. Have your heroine recognize the hero’s anger through his expression, body language, and manner of speaking. Granted, this is a little trickier than just saying, John was furious, but handling the tricky stuff well is what makes better writers better. The following paragraph in the hero’s POV is also from Blue Skies. Note that the scene never waivers from this POV. The heroine has just said something unfairly insulting to the hero.

"I don’t deserve that remark, Gina." He watched her wrestle with her conscience, saw the guilt come and go on her face. Her gaze veered away from his, and he waited to see if she had the guts to acknowledge the truth of his words.

At her continued silence, his mouth twisted in disgust.

Yada, yada, yada (I’m sparing you unnecessary story detail.)

He got as far as the kitchen door when Gina stopped him.

"Wait."

He turned impatiently She stood in the middle of the room gnawing on her bottom lip, her fingers knotting and unknotting in front of her, then dropped her chin. "I’m sorry," she said quietly.

"For . . .?"

She raised her head, and the pain in her eyes was so real he almost let her off the hook.

How does Gina feel in this scene? Guilty, ashamed, regretful?

How do you know? You were never in her head to hear her think. You know by what the hero observes about her body language and manner, the look in her eyes.

You can stay in the same character’s POV for an entire chapter and yet the reader can be perfectly aware of how every other character in that chapter feels. Through your point of view character, you will be able to convey the emotions and thoughts of all your other characters if you can pinpoint the physical actions that give away those thoughts and feelings.

Become a student of body language. Watch television with a notebook and pen, and make note of how the performers portray sadness, surprise, happiness, and anger. Have you ever been in the mall and seen two people arguing? You couldn’t hear them, but you knew what was going on, didn’t you? Analyze why.

You aren’t committed to staying in one character’s head for the whole book. That would be frustrating and boring for you and the reader both. Just don’t change POV randomly.

Why not? What’s wrong with changing?

I’m glad you asked. When a reader becomes emotionally engaged in a book, he or she enters into the story. The writer has hypnotized the reader into participating in the illusion of the fictional world. The reader understands the book world isn’t real, but in order to fully enjoy the story, he or she chooses to temporarily pretend otherwise, or to suspend their disbelief, as this state is referred to in book-writing circles. (See, you just learned something else.)

Every time you shift the reader from one character to another, they are jarred out of their suspension of disbelief and reminded they aren’t actually living in the fictional world you’ve created; they’re only reading a story. Do that often enough and they’ll stop reading your story. Scene changes or new chapters are the best and least disruptive places to change POV.

Settling into a character’s head and staying there awhile will also prevent you from writing generic heroes and heroines. Deep POV gives the reader a chance to really identify with a character, something you aim for as an author. Even Nora Roberts, famous for her frequent changes in POV, lets the reader stay in one character long enough to become thoroughly hooked.

Here’s a quick way to check how well you’re staying true to your characters’ POV. In your current WIP (work in progress) use pink and blue highlighters—all right, I’m a sexist—to highlight things in a couple of your scenes that are unique to your hero or heroine’s POV. You should have nice, long runs of one color or the other. If your pages look more like checkerboards, you’ll know you have some work to do!

Copyright © 2005

Cynthia VanRooy is an award-winning author of ten romance novels. Her latest, Friday’s Temptation and the hardcover, large-print edition of Blue Skies are slated for a November 2005 release--and the tips ebooklet The Secrets To Query Letters That Work; Getting Your Manuscript Out of the Slush Pile and onto the Editor's Desk.

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