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Point of view: how to drive a story from inside a character's head

If you've chosen to tell your story from a God-like point of view, you've made it easy for yourself. You can swoop inside any character's head and tell all. You can show the reader whatever you like: his thoughts, her thoughts, the thoughts of a stranger watching one or both of them, and you can create a rich, dense tapestry of information. You can even address the reader directly, as if both of you are onlookers.

That style of story has fallen out of fashion. More challenging to write, and more suspenseful to read, is the story where we, the reader, have a restricted view. It's like looking through a submarine's periscope and trying to understand what's going on. It's used in the classic detective novel: we have only have information that the detective sees or is told about and we try to solve the puzzle as if we're the detective, too. Most novels in all other genres are also restricted to one person's point of view, either in the first person: 'Miller punched her and she fell before I had time to catch her' or the third person: 'Miller punched her and she fell before Davey had time to catch her.' We, the readers, find that form congenial because we, too, live in a world, one that includes our interior world, that we see and know imperfectly.

Stories are about characters doing things, heading somewhere, either a real place (Oz, Oregon) or an emotional destination (marital bliss, forgiveness) or a situation (peace, justice, the solution of the crime). You have to show the characters acting, and show why they are acting, or else the story isn't a story, it's just one damn thing after another. 'I, Huck Finn, ran away from home and then I did this and then I did that and then I headed west.' But that's not why we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. We read it to share Huck's inner adventure, how he responds to moral and physical tests. We see him change and grow into a moral man by the choices he makes.

So how do you do that? How do you describe the inner mental and moral actions and changes as well as the exterior physical action in a way that tells your reader about why the characters, especially the protagonist, make the choices they do, and what actions spring from those choices? How do you do that when you can only see out of one character's eyes?

Let's talk about the protagonist only for a moment. Your first challenge is how to convey his or her rich interior world to show motive and impulse. How do you show why he makes the decisions he does, why he acts the way he acts? You want the reader to understand him, to be with him each step of the way.

Beginner writers tend to reach for what is called 'interior monologue', and what I call the info-dump. Info-dumps tell us, the readers, everything.

An example, in first person:

Straddled over her body, not daring to look down to see if she was still breathing, I tried to meet Miller's eye. I knew I didn't have the courage to face up to bullies. I was bullied as a child and, every time I ran into the same bullying personality, the same sick fears welling up inside me. I recognised it, yet I was helpless. I wasn't proud of it. I had knuckled under, had humiliated myself, so many times before. And here was Miller, smirking, laughing at me, knowing I didn't have the guts to face him down, even with Jane bruised and unconscious at my feet, and his knuckles red from the impact against her cheek. But something I'd never felt before was stirring, something strange, something that felt like a cold river. Jane was helpless, and it was up to me to act like a man. For once in my life I was called upon to protect my own, and I suddenly found that I had the strength and the will to do it.

Why did the writer give us this info-dump? Because that was the only way he could think of explaining what was going on inside Davey? Because he couldn't think of another way to do it? Because he didn't want to work up a sweat doing real writing? It doesn't matter, because his readers will have given up on him.

The writer could have give us readers another version of the same scene. This time, no internal analysis, but instead a narration – a telling – of what is actually happening:

   "You're a – a m-maniac." I straddled Jane's body, hovering over her. "You're a psycho."
   I could hear the waver in my voice, could feel my skin shivering in waves across my muscles, and saw Miller's smirk deepen. He smelled it on me. A nausea of fear made the night swim with smears of streetlight yellow and neon blue.
   "I don't think I'm gonna to have trouble with you, am I, Davey?" he sneered, pretending to blow across his knuckles, still red from the impact on Jane's cheek.
   "Miller, you haven't had any trouble from me before," I began, the sick little half-smile I always smiled starting to form on my lips, but as I spoke I felt Jane's warmth against my leg, her helplessness. I was the only one standing. Standing by her. Standing up for her. My mouth moved to a shape I'd never felt before, a bared-fang rictus. I took a breath that cooled me like a river of ice. "But this time, yes. You got trouble."

That's the character 'reporting' on what he sees and hears and what he feels. He tells us his physical responses and his emotional responses, not blatantly, but merely touching on them. The writer has to choose what to tell and what doesn't illuminate the scene. Of all the facts he could give us, he has to select only what propels the protagonist to the next action. A good writer selects only just enough. He could keep piling detail on detail, but he doesn't. Just enough.

Here's that scene again, pared down:

   I straddled her body. "You – you're a--a m-maniac. A psycho."
   "Yeah, and you're gonna give me trouble, right, Davey?" Miller pretended to blow on knuckles still red from Jane's cheek, then raised lazy hands. "Sure."
   I felt my sickly grin widen to a rictus of hate. I stepped clear, found I was staring across my own fists. "This time, yes."
   He swung, but I was already inside his reach, my arm like iced leather, strong and hard, slamming the smile off his face.

Three scenes told three different ways. The first is an info-dump. 175 words where almost nothing happens, and almost nothing is explained. The writer could have summarised: 'I'd always been a coward but something crossed over in me', but no, we get that long-winded info-dump. The second is shorter and the reader learns much more: the setting, the atmosphere, what Davey is feeling and doing, and why. The style is good for a literary novel, a more atmospheric adventure story, or even a romance. The third scene is terser still. Its pared-down style is good for a thriller. The first is dull and lifeless, the other two are real narratives. They combine action, observation and feeling to bring the scene alive.

That's how a good writer tells us about Davey from Davey's periscope on life. He could keep the spotlight on Davey, with the other characters remaining two-dimensional cutouts (Jane-the-love-interest, Miller-the-bad-guy) or he could bring them alive, too. But he has to stay within Davey's point of view. We, the readers, can't know more or see more than what Davey knows or sees. What happens if he isn't very smart, or isn't very observant?

This problem was solved a long time ago. Read The Canterbury Tales for an example. Your character is a video camera, taking in all sound and action, and you, the writer, can select from only those sounds and actions to tell us what illuminates the thoughts and motivations of the other characters. It is the writer's perception that shapes his choices of what to tell us.

You may have had the experience of a colleague telling you about a scene:

And when I sat down I realised I hadn't got any sugar so I asked him to bring me some, and then I'd forgotten napkins and he brought me some and then, when I asked him for a stir-stick, he said in this real snarky voice "This is a self-service restaurant, lady" and I just couldn't believe it! Talk about rude."

They've told you the world according to them, but you, the perceptive writer, have made your own judgements: that the attendant's patience finally snapped, that your colleague is lazy and self-centred and not too bright, and that you can learn more about an incident than the person telling it realises. Your colleague doesn't know what she's revealed about herself and about the attendant, but you do. And if this were a scene in your story, we, your readers, would know, too.

Let's get back to Davey. With a couple of punches driven by rage and determination, Davey has brought Miller to his knees. Jane stirs and comes to consciousness. Let's up the stakes and carry on the story in third person, although still knowing and seeing only what Davey can know and see:

   He tried to lift her, but his hands were already swelling and darkening with bruises. "Jane, honey, Jane, let me help you."
   She sat and rested her forehead against his chest. He almost put his arms around her, but she shivered as if sliding back into herself and stiffened. "Miller – !"
   "He's gone. He ran." Davey tried to keep the pride from his voice, but Jane's look of surprise did that for him.
   "You fought Miller?" Her hand went to her head.
   "Are you still dizzy?"
   "I'm fine. You really fought him?"
   "He was going to keep hurting you, Jane."
   "Well...I guess I'm glad you invited yourself along."
   He felt a little smaller around his edges. "You know why I did. I never trusted him. I told you so."
   "Yeah, that he wasn't right for me." She shifted away. "Help me up, will you? You're a bit of a surprise, Davey. Oh, careful, I'm losing my shoe. I'm good now." She grabbed his arm. "Or maybe not. Will you take me home?"
   The new feeling came back. It was warm and sure, like the grip on an axe handle or a sword. "You're safe with me."
   "You know, I might just be."

The whole episode shows changes within the two characters and has pushed the plot along. Davey has found his manhood, Jane has accepted that Davey isn't the weakling she thought he was, and they've taken a step towards that future they know nothing about, but towards which the writer has just taken them by one scene. And it's been done through Davey's sensory perceptions. We don't get any information other than what he sees, hears, thinks and feels, but we now can see Jane as her own separate self, as a real person.

The 'unreliable narrator' is simply a story told from the point of view of someone who really doesn't get it, or who is deliberately lying to us. In the latter case, of course, he is really lying to himself, or about himself: he is trying to make us believe something that will show him in a different light. But it is still him as our video camera, and it is still the writer who is choosing, from the abundant possibilities, the important details of that video to show us.

Once you have decided on which point of view you'll be using, you have to stay faithful to it, because only in that way will you be staying faithful to your protagonist as a real, living person, with all the imperfect observations and understandings a real person makes. That protagonist will, in turn, make all the other characters real people. Real people choose, decide, act, and that makes a narrative, and that makes a novel.

Copyright Caro Clarke - www.caroclarke.com