Posted On January 27, 2011 by Print This Post

The Art and Soul of POV by Toni McGee Causey

Ready to expand your writing horizons with Point of View? Toni McGee Causey (squee!) of Bobbie Faye fame is here to tell us how to get the most out of Point of View in this two part series. Today, Toni will answer general POV questions, tomorrow post two-three lines of your current work for Toni to critique.

Toni McGee Causey - The Art and Soul of POVIt’s a sad fact: you—a writer—have very little time to grab a reader and do it so well, they’re compelled to keep reading. You might have as much as five pages for that first reader (the agent, or the editor), but it’s even more brutal in a bookstore. Most readers who browse, who get enticed enough to pick up the book (as a result of the title / name / or cover which pulls them in) and read the back copy (often not written by the writer) don’t even bother to open the book—their mind is often made up based on things outside the author’s control. Few authors can mandate what their covers look like, and few have title approval. A higher percentage contributes to the back cover copy, but that’s still edited to fit the space and often tweaked by people in marketing who’ve never even read the book. The one thing a writer does control is the writing, and if a browser bothers to pick up the book in the bookstore or click on an excerpt on the web, then you, as the author, have precious little time to grab their attention.

One of the first tools we have at our disposal is POV: point of view. Now, that might seem obvious, and it might seem like a surface choice. Do you write in first person? Or third? Close third or more distant third? Omniscient? Or maybe even second person? (Please don’t.) (Just my personal bugaboo.)

Those are weighty decisions that affect almost everything else you will do in the book. There are pros and cons to each, when you’re considering your story. (We’ll talk about those in a moment.) But there’s another entire facet to POV that a lot of people fail to utilize to the potential they have at hand, and that is that POV also stands for persistence of vision. In pure physiological terms, persistence of vision is defined as:

“The phenomenon where the retina retains an image for a brief split-second after the image was actually seen, and lends itself to animation by fostering the illusion of motion when we view images in closely-timed sequence to one another. We don’t notice the fractional skips between images because that persistence fills in the momentary gap to make the motion seem seamless.”

Now, technically, that specific theory is a little outdated (they have proven there are other physiological mechanisms at work to help our eye understand film as it progresses frame-by-frame), but we don’t need all of that for our purposes here. Just keep in mind the fact that there is a tendency of the eye—or our inner perceptual ability—to hang onto images in sequence which then builds a larger image, an impression of movement, an impression of reality.

This is how we build characters: image by image until we have created a series of images associated with that character. The images we choose to utilize when showing that character need, therefore, to be consistent with that character’s point of view, and that’s going to be affected by that character’s background, job, economic situation, personal histories, health, etc. – the soul of the character needs to bleed through every word choice you make while in their point of view.

Here’s what I mean by that: whether you’ve chosen first, second, third or omniscient point of view, you have to show us the character, without always telling us about the character. One of the things I see many writers—even long established writers—do that is robbing their work of impact is that they tell me a great deal about the characters as the characters show up in the scene. What that does is inform me intellectually—but it doesn’t bring the person alive, doesn’t make them feel real. If they had utilized point of view carefully, however, they could have shown me things about the character that only that character in that book would have seen in that particular way, which makes that character real. It’s a combination of point of view (whether it’s 1st, 3rd, etc.) and “persistence of vision” – how that character sees what they see and how they interpret what they’re seeing. No two characters in any book should see the world in the same exact way. None of us do in real life.

Toni McGee Causey - The Art and Soul of POVI’ll give you a couple of examples. Let’s say that there’s a small bistro in the neighborhood: worn black and white square tiles, old mahogany bar, small tables with red checkered table cloths crowded as close together as possible, vases on the tables of real flowers, probably droopy white daisies, something affordable. Every table has the typical salt/pepper shakers, ketchup, Parmesan cheese, packets of sweetener for the tea that most people order there. There are a few patrons scattered about, a bartender whose seen better days, and overhead lighting that doesn’t seem to be making much of an effort.

Okay, let’s stop there for a moment. You probably were able to see the place, because I gave you enough visual cues to lead your eye. What I also did was give you cues in the same approximate order that you would normally take in on your own, if you should walk through that door. That’s important, that order. You’ll do yourself a major favor if you think about specific powerful details as you enter the room. Ask yourself, what’s the impact point? What’s the first thing the eye grabs? It’s usually color (black and white worn checkered floor, mahogany bar, white daisies, ketchup bottles, etc.). Next, it’s lighting and space—does the space seem crowded, spacious, etc., and what is the quality of the lighting.

And even so, we’ve only done maybe half the job that we could do for that space. Because right now, you have no idea who’s seeing that space. It’s a generic description. It’s visual, sure, but when you don’t have much space to grab your reader, you’ve got to give them much more than just visual. You’ve got to give them character and attitude, too.

Here’s where I tell you the warning of how many manuscripts and scripts—when I was a screenwriter—that I read where I got several pages into a story that had lush description, and several pages in, I still did not know more about that character who was in those scenes than I did when I started the manuscript. If I can get several pages into your story and not know your character? You have failed. That’s harsh, but it’s the truth. Do not waste my time, as a reader. Do not fritter away your opportunity describing crap for the sake of “setting the scene.” Setting the scene is a waste of time if you don’t clue me in to who you’re setting the scene for / with. Whose point of view it is. Give me attitude, give me character in what they’re choosing to share with me, and you’ll pique my interest.

So let’s go back to that bistro and think about that setting. Let’s say that your main character is a cop, walking into that scene. A cop is going to see that bistro much differently than a down-and-out-of-work twenty-year-old who’s been on the grift, looking for a little cash-under-the-table job. A cop’s point of view—whether you utilize the mechanics of first person or third or omniscient—his point of view, his “vision” is going to have a specific kind of attitude, a wariness, an assessment, that is different from any other character walking into that same bistro.

We’ll use first person here. (First person is generally used when you want the reader to very closely identify with the character and not have any ability to know more than what the character knows in that moment. It’s typical of first person stories to be told through the point of view of the main character for the length of the work, but there are exceptions—a narrator, for example, or multiple first-person characters, where the POVs switch between characters, usually with each subsequent chapter.) Here the example:

I hated that damned bell on the door; every eye in the place turned toward me when I entered, and it felt like a target painted dead center mass for the few seconds it took me to move through the door, through the thick greasy smell of fried bacon and stale beer, across the scuffed checkerboard tile, to a table in the back where I could look out over the place. The lighting was crap—like it had given up trying last century and nobody bothered to notice. It made everything I had to do here tonight that much harder. Didn’t help that I couldn’t wear my vest here, and here is where I’d most likely get shot. Fucked, that’s what that was.
Murray was hunched behind the bar as usual, working a rag on some invisible spot on the bar, hardly listening to some grifter kid try his spiel about how much he needed work while he was surreptitiously trying to lift the wallet of the old man sitting next to him, just below Murray’s line of sight. I gave Murray a nod and eyeballed the kid—let him stop the idiot. I sure as hell wasn’t blowing my cover for petty theft.
The chair wobbled—this was the worst of the rickety tables. There were two college girls at my favorite spot, the one closest to the easiest exit; they were wailing about boyfriends who done them wrong, each looking to try to top the other one. I could tell ’em each that they were going to keep gettin’ crap from guys if they hung out at shitholes like this. We were three-and-a-half blocks into hell-and-gone cheap-ass territory, barely on the outskirts of ghetto. I could’ve told ’em to go over to Charlie’s, over on sixth. They had better food, better beer, slightly better idiots willing to fork over dough for the pleasure of listening to them whine. Didn’t bother though. Girls like that never learn.
As soon as I’d walked in, I’d counted seven people in the room besides me: Murray, the kid, the old man, the two girls made five. I hated the way the tables crowded together, stained tablecloths barely cleaned from previous patrons. It made moving fast, getting to my gun, just that much more of a hassle. I hated hassle. I hated a lot of things, but I really fucking hated hassle. I’d discounted the five I already mentioned as soon as I saw ’em. That meant that one of the two people left was the asshole I was looking for, the perp trying to hire a hit-man to solve a problem. I was the hit-man. Or at least, that was my role tonight. I looked it. Smelled like it—smelled like six days of booze and cigarettes crammed into one. Well, that’s how I usually looked and smelled. Probably why the sarge wanted me for the job.
Of the two people left in the room, the lady near the front window was a contender, but not likely—she just looked too worn out to give a good damn about having anyone killed. I pegged her as a cleaning lady, coming off a rough night, too tired to do much more than scrape at her burned toast and runny eggs. She had dust on her gray sweater and smudges on her too-thin face and gray eyes that looked beaten. That left the shiny happy broad over in the opposite corner. The redhead who kept reapplying her lipstick, using her mirror to scope out the room. She wasn’t completely dim, then. That’s a problem. I don’t mind stupid criminals. It’s when they’re stupid-but-think-they’re clever that someone usually gets hurt.
Lately, that someone had been me. I was battin’ a thousand in shitty luck, and tonight, I had a bad feeling.
One day, I’m gonna learn to listen to that.

Toni McGee Causey - The Art and Soul of POVOkay, not that that’s great, but I wanted to show you how that set up does several things in 645 words and what you “get” about that room is now significantly different than the generic version: 1) we know that room is being described by a very specific person with a very specific attitude, and (2) we know he’s a cop—though he never actually tells us and (3) we know he’s weighing and measuring everyone in the room, and how the room is laid out, (4) who might be carrying a weapon, (5) that he was in danger and knew it and (6) that he was going to do his job anyway. At the same time, you’ve gotten enough details to see the scene (the bistro)—and it’s the same details as what I described earlier, but it’s told with his very specific perception / attitude. That cop would count the people when he walked in, would assess the threat level, would look for ways to place himself in a position of retreat, should he need it, etc. Other patrons might not notice anything like that. Without actually telling you his attitude (I never said “he has a pessimistic attitude”), I showed it through his slant on what he saw, and how he perceived those things around him. That attitude has to be consistent throughout. Every time we’re in his point of view, we should have his persistence of vision—his specific way of seeing the world—which does more to characterize him than all of the descriptive modifiers any author could attach to him.

Let’s look at the same scene told through one of the other patron’s eyes. This time, I’ll use third person. (Third person is generally used when the author wants to convey a little bit more about the scene than a character might convey in the strict sense of “telling” the story. If an author wants the reader to know more than the protagonist knows, the author can switch to other characters’ POV—generally done now in their own sections or their own chapters—which can reveal information that creates stress for the reader, because they know more about the danger the protagonist is in than the protagonist does—yet. And the reader feels tension as the protagonist catches up to that realization.) Now, I’m purposefully not doing dialog or action here, just a section of description to show point of view. Here ya go:

It was a quaint place, as places go, for hiring a killer. She hadn’t expected it to even have tablecloths, or actual silverware. She’d done a little bit of research before agreeing to meet with the killer-for-hire here: rundown little bistro out on the edge of civility, struggling to survive in this economy. She felt for the place, really. She knew what it was to be struggling on the edge, barely able to make ends meet, trying to figure out a solution.
They’d done a fairly decent job, here: there were daisies in the vases on the tables. Sure, the vases were cheap—the kind you’d get at Wal-Mart, maybe, but there was nothing wrong with Wal-Mart. She didn’t know why people always said Wal-Mart with their noses in the air, like they were too good for the place. She bet every one of those people secretly shopped there and didn’t want to admit they were the same as regular, normal people. She just really didn’t understand people like that. Staring down their noses at perfectly good vases, for example, acting all high and mighty. People like that? Were no good. No good at all. She wanted to give them a piece of her mind, sometimes, and she bit back the words. It didn’t make for a good alibi to be the kind of person who stuck out in people’s memory as having been angry. No, no, she’d just bide her time. Her time would come.
But she liked the little white daisies. Real flowers instead of plastic. They were trying hard to be pleasing. The whole place was, really, like that waitress in the kitchen who’d looked harried, who’d worked hard to keep the tables bussed and the orders coming out quickly, who’d been crying her eyes out over something bad that had happened this past week, she’d said, as she apologized for sobbing over her order. She had wanted to soothe the girl, to empathize. Empathizing, though, made you memorable. She knew better than to be memorable.
She’d been waiting for the killer for the last hour, coming in early to get a feel for the customers—which ones were the regulars (the old guy at the bar looked like he’d grown there since the fifties… she was actually surprised when he was able to stand to go to the restroom)… and the not-so-regulars… the hussy who kept applying her lipstick, checking out the room. Probably some floozy, waiting for some woman’s husband to come along, checking out all of the angles, making sure the wife wasn’t hanging around in the shadows, about to catch them. She was probably someone in the process of breaking up a home, that hussy.
She was in the middle of thinking about changing her hired-killer order to a two-fer when the skeevy guy came in, creeping across the room like some sort of nasty beetle, his eyes shifting around, taking everything in, looking at her, passing her over as just another fixture. It was probably the dust on her sweater, the smudges on her face, the sturdy cleaning-lady shoes that had done it. It was what she’d intended, to be forgettable. Still, it rankled. She’d apparently been forgettable to Harry, too, with him cheating on her with another hussy, just like that one over there in the corner.
The skeevy guy was reflected in the big picture window, since it was dark outside. She watched him without being obvious about it, and he looked tense. He checked out everyone in the place, over and over, waiting. Nodded to the bartender about something she couldn’t see. She thought maybe he was the killer-for-hire, but there was something odd about him. Something a little too TV-villain perfect, and little warning bells went off in her head. Maybe he was a cop.
He was already making his way over to the hussy, and she watched, eating her bad eggs—they really could do a lot better in this place with a decent cook—and the skeevy guy asked the girl, “So, you looking for me?”
The girl screamed, then, and jumped up and did the damndest thing: she shot the guy. Twice. And then ran.

Toni McGee Causey - The Art and Soul of POVOkay, that’s 701 words, and we have an entirely different POV: we’re in third person, and specifically getting that person’s attitudes about life, about her surroundings, about the people there, the details that she would notice that the cop wouldn’t. We’re seeing her point of view as well as her persistence of vision: her take on that world. Nowhere does she tell us what she does for a living (but we get the details). Nowhere do I give you her slant on life, but you can tell it’s a bit schizophrenic—empathizes with the place, loves the daisies, but is obviously contemplating killing not just Harry, her husband, but some random woman who she feels is a hussy. We know a great deal about that woman just from what we see through her vision. How she sees her world and the details she picks out matter. They’re tools for you to use.

We could keep going with the other characters, playing with other forms of point of view. Omniscient has the advantage of giving us a lot more information than the protagonist usually has, and as such, can sometimes create a lot of tension (we see the bomb beneath their seat that they have no clue is there)… but it can also leave us feeling a bit detached, emotionally, from the characters if not handled very carefully. There’s also the risk of losing or confusing the reader with too much head-hopping (moving back and forth between character’s POVs)—which you can do in omniscient, but it is a real risk, and the reader has to be carefully led (the segues better be fabulous).

The pros and cons of the mechanics of point of view—which one you choose to use—have to be weighed carefully. If you want us to be in the shoes of the protagonist, then we can’t know more than he or she knows, and that in and of itself can create a lot of obstacles. One, for example, would be: how do you show important stuff that he needs to see which is a clue, but not have him pick up on the clue right now (which might mean he either looks dumb or he’d figure it out too soon and oops, the story is over). This issue definitely applies to first person, but can apply to third person, if the only point of view in the book is that one person.

The drawback to third person is that you have the ability to show some of the things the character doesn’t quite pick up on, but you run the risk of the reader being too far out ahead of the character and getting frustrated with the story as the character catches up.

The pros to using omniscient is, of course, scope: big epics, S/F/F (where there’s a tremendous amount of world-building), and period pieces can truly benefit from omniscient. The pros to first person is that immediacy of emotion / reaction—the reader tends to more closely identify with the character. The benefit of third is that you have some of the advantages of first (that close identification with the character), but you have a bit more ease in switching into another character’s point of view (and I’d generally recommend doing that with a section break or a chapter break when you make the switch, just to keep the voices of each character clear). The disadvantage to multiple point of view characters (third person or omniscient) is that, if you’re doing your job right, you’re creating different voices (styles of thinking/speaking/seeing the world) for each character. (This is not to be confused with “voice” of the overall project. That’s a different subject for a different day.) If you’re utilizing POV well—giving us the attitudes and details that only that character could give us, then when you switch into another character’s point of view, we should be able to tell it just from what they relate to us and how they are seeing their world.

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Toni will be taking questions on POV today, but tomorrow, stop on in when she takes examples of your work in a special POV workshop! Don’t forget to comment today – Toni’s giving away THREE $25 gift certificates to the bookstore of your choice to lucky commenters!

Join us tomorrow when Toni takes examples of your work and offers advice – a genuine workshop only here – on Romance University!

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Bio: Toni McGee Causey is the author of the critically acclaimed and nationally bestselling “Bobbie Faye” novels—an action/caper series set in south Louisiana; the series was released last summer in back-to-back publications, beginning with CHARMED AND DANGEROUS, GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE GUNS, and WHEN A MAN LOVES A WEAPON. While pursuing an MFA in Screenwriting, Toni had scripts optioned by prominent studios and, just this year, produced an indie film, LA-308, which now has offers of distribution pending. Toni began her career by writing non-fiction for local newspapers, edited Baton Rouge Magazine, and sold articles to places like Redbook and Mademoiselle. She was recently a contributor to the anthology Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans, as well as Killer Year: Stories to Die For. She has had several of her blogs syndicated nationally from the group blog, “Murderati,” and she can also be found at “Murder She Writes.”

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47 Responses to “The Art and Soul of POV by Toni McGee Causey”

  1. Hi Toni! Thanks for these great examples. I have a hard time with setting as a whole – it often feels tacked on, even though I try really hard to interweave it with POV. I’m super jealous at how naturally it seems to come to you!

    I have a question. You don’t mention anything about character likeability or sympathy, which is what I get whacked for often – people don’t like my protagonists. Do you have any tips on how to create this mythical phenomenon of likeability while still staying true to the character’s POV?

    Posted by Kat Cantrell | January 27, 2011, 7:44 am
    • Thank you, Kat. I think it came easier for me because I was originally a painter and then a photographer–both before I really started writing in earnest. That doesn’t mean you have to be either of those–but it helps if you pick up a camera and just frame things. Even if you take really awful photos, don’t worry about that–look at the photo and then notice what it is that jumps out first, then second. (It’s harder to process a scene when you’re physically *in* the scene, so for practice, I use photos.)

      But on to your question about likeability. I’m going to change that word on you, because I think the word itself–likeability–is part of the problem. It implies that all of our heroes/heroines/minor characters have to be likeable, and then where’s the conflict? We end up working so hard to make them likeable, that we don’t have versatile, unique characters.

      Instead, think of the idea of empathy. We want to have empathy with the characters, to be able to identify something about them that resonates with us–so that we can step in their shoes for the short moments we’re reading their POV. And empathy doesn’t mean they have to be likeable–it just means that we have to understand where they’re coming from, their motivations, their goals.

      Obviously, you can’t elucidate all of the goals and ideals of a character the first moment we meet them, but we do get them by layers. Brushstrokes, if you will. So what we need to see from their POV is their attitude or their perception of the place and *within that* attitude or perception, we need to be able to identify that, feel some empathy for it.

      For example, let’s just say you have an absolutely horrible sounding person doing something despicable, but he’s really the hero of the piece and we eventually want to like him (just not now–maybe it’s *really important* that we don’t like him right now). But… you don’t want us to hate him. So maybe he’s seriously abrupt, cold, unfeeling as he moves in his world, and there’s nothing about what he’s about to do that is kind or likeable. How do you handle that?

      You show his perception of the world, him doing one small thing that resonates as ~human~ — as kind, as a whiff of a possibility that there is hope within.

      Example:

      He moved through the moonscape of the house, all lights off, his own senses guiding him. They would die here tonight. They deserved it, and it had taken every single favor he’d had to be able to get the information that he needed to climb that outer wall, disarm the security, knock the guards out cold–they hadn’t done anything but make the mistake of being hired by the wrong guy. It would only take him thirty-six seconds to traverse the big kitchen, ease the knife out of the block; another twenty-four to make it upstairs. Less than sixty to finish the job. Everything in his life had come down to this moment and he stepped forward, a soft toy underfoot.

      It made no noise.

      Fuck

      There was a child here. There was not supposed to be a child here.

      He could murder the man–and yes, the woman.

      Easily. Happily.

      It took him less than eighteen seconds to leave the grounds.

      So we know this guys is bad ass. Really, seriously, bad ass. There’s no doubt that what he’s about to do is illegal and immoral, and yet–there’s a conscience in there at work. And that gives some credence–however small–to the notion that maybe he was right and these people should be dead. Which makes us curious to find out if we’re right. So we’d keep reading.

      In quieter scenes, you can do the same sort of thing by giving us a glimpse of a flaw, or a concern, or a worry–what would make them vulnerable? Give us a small glimpse.

      For example:

      She knew her reputation: she was the terminator. She fired people for a living and by God, she was good at it. She had all of her reasons filed according to every human resource code known to man. The suit she wore was professional, subdued. Expensive enough to put people on notice as soon as they walked in the room–but not so expensive that they felt bullied when she was done.

      She straightened the eighteen files lined up perfectly on the boardroom table, smoothed her perfect hair into place, had every separation benefits package ready. She closed her hands behind her back, digging in her too-short nails into the palms of her hands, feeling the pain, and nodded to her assistant: it was time.

      In this case, she may not be likeable, but we get that she’s not completely cold-hearted: she dresses to both put people on notice (so they’re not sandbagged) and yet, not so fancy that they feel like she’s rubbing it in their faces that she’s got a job and they, now, don’t. Plus, digging in those nails–a telling tell (like a poker player’s “tell” — a giveaway) that this isn’t nearly as easy for her as she lets on.

      So you look for those small moments–like the hands–or the bigger ones–and you show us those *in action*. It wouldn’t have had the same impact if I had *told* you that he has a moral code–I showed it. It wouldn’t have the same impact if I’d told you she had empathy for the people she had to fire–I started showing those details.

      Let me know if this helps or if I need better examples, more discussion!

      Posted by toni mcgee causey | January 27, 2011, 10:29 am
      • WOW thanks for this indepth answer. You’ve hit the nail. I struggle with exactly what you said – likeability to me means no character arc and little conflict. I love a protag with a place to go internally, but I also know you’ve only got those first few paragraphs tops to hook people. Your examples do convey questions the reader will want answered and hints of deeper traits we might learn if we read on, which is awesome.

        I’m going to look at my manuscripts again. I’m missing a vital piece of this somewhere and I’m determined to figure out what it is! As a side note, I wonder if maybe it’s a preference thing. Not everyone likes the same types of books and thank goodness for that. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s workshop. :)

        Posted by Kat Cantrell | January 27, 2011, 11:11 am
        • Kat, sometimes, it really is a preference thing, and that’s not something you can really do anything about. I know for a while, I got tired of reading first person books and just stopped. I wouldn’t even consider buying one with first person, and I have no clue why. Now, I’ve just written one in first and I’ve read several in first that I’ve loved. Maybe it’s mood…. I dunno.

          I do honestly think first is much more difficult to keep hold of the reader, though. I suspect it’s because to be so deeply immersed in an experience by identifying with an “I” pronoun means being more vulnerable to the writing.

          Posted by toni mcgee causey | January 27, 2011, 11:40 am
  2. Morning Toni!

    Wow, that’s a lot of great information! When I first started writing, I did first person POV. While I got judged fairly well, I got nicked on POV…..apparently some people just hate it. Ah well….

    When building your character, their motivations and conflicts etc., what system do you use to enter their head? Do they show up fully formed? Do you do character interviews? What makes them come alive for you like they do in the examples above?

    Thanks for posting with us today!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | January 27, 2011, 8:57 am
    • Carrie, I don’t know that I have a “system” per se. I could probably make it sound like a system and it might actually be one, but if it is, it’s something I came to organically after trial and error. I make that point just to be clear that it’s usually different for every writer, so to take from this whatever might be of use.

      I like to say that characters come fully formed, but that’s never true; I’ll know what kind of character I want to write about, and I’ll know a bit about the world that character is going to live in. Those two things–the kind of person and where they’re from, their socioeconomic background, their level of education–are sort of rapid-fire decisions. What makes them come alive, though, is a combination of attitude, losses, goals, and shame.

      Their attitude about the world is often formed by the other three: what they’ve lost/won, what their goals are, and what they’re ashamed of. Attitude is one of the best tools when you’re thinking about how a character is going to view that scene. Are they cocky? shy? resilient? defeated? etc. And most people are rarely just one thing, they’re several, but there’s usually a key to who they are, a key way of being in life that’s their default, and once you hook into that, you’ve got the soul of the character. Once you have the soul, everything else is details.

      Posted by toni mcgee causey | January 27, 2011, 11:05 am
  3. Hi Toni!
    Fabulous explanation and examples of using setting and reactions to develop character.
    I find it so much easier to spot breaks in my crit partner’s work – S wouldn’t say that; you need guy-speak here; XYZ just happened, she wouldn’t just walk away – than my own.
    Any suggestions on learning to step back and not let that internal eye fill in the blanks?

    Posted by Cathy Perkins | January 27, 2011, 9:49 am
    • Thanks, Cathy!

      I’ve got two… “tricks” for lack of a better word. I only use these after I’ve written the whole piece, but they’re handy. One is to read the manuscript backwards.

      ::::waiting for everyone to gather the heads that just rolled off their shoulders::::

      Yeah, I know, weird. When I’m looking at a scene, though, I want to see *just* that scene, and if I read the scene in the order of the story, I start assuming some things are on the page that aren’t. So I pluck out the last scene and read it and see if it’s clear? are the senses represented in some way? (not all of the senses are appropriate for every scene, but I try to make sure that I have grounded the reader in some reality that feels tangible) I’ll look at cadence of the dialog–does each person sound like themselves and only themselves? I want to make sure they don’t all sound alike or have the same verbal tics. I’ll then make sure that the physicality of the scene makes sense–that they went from point A to point B in a clear way, not muddled, and that the reader can follow that action in their mind’s eye. I’ll then look for repetition of beats–have I gone over any of this information before, earlier in the scene? (later, I’ll do this for the whole story) I’ll read it out loud and watch for how smooth it feels, are their repetitive words, etc.

      The second trick is to print out just one character’s scenes at a time and read them and *only* them, in order, to make sure their emotions and motives and actions track and stay in character. I tend to do this on the screen now without actually printing it out, but I have been known to print out sections and use a highlighter just to make sure a certain point was tracking and wasn’t being repeated…. or undone by accident.

      Posted by toni mcgee causey | January 27, 2011, 11:12 am
  4. Fantastic post. Helps me explain why scenes with loads of visual cues make me crazy when they don’t tell me anything about what’s going on with the character. We see what we see–and miss what we miss–for a reason, and in storytelling, that’s important.

    How do you determine when to reveal the character information through narrative vs. dialogue or action?

    Posted by PatriciaW | January 27, 2011, 10:12 am
    • Patricia — that’s it exactly. Loads of visual cues without context of why we should notice or care just becomes too much white noise and readers will tune out those sections!

      As far as when to introduce character information… well, always, is the real answer. (I know, that’s annoying!) But I think everything goes back to character. Character=Story and you don’t have Story unless you have the characters doing something.

      But I do get the heart of your question – how do I decide between the techniques, and that’s mostly about answering what is the best tool to show this? question for every instance. Sometimes, it’s obvious that I need to show them do something (which is much much better than letting the character narrate what they had done. Most of the time, if you’re narrating what had happened… you’re putting a sense of distance between the reader and the character’s action. The reader isn’t *in* that moment, experiencing it. They’re hearing about it (already completed) and they don’t get to experience it, which means they feel a slight (or even great) disconnect between themselves and that character. Which means they’re no longer closely identifying with that character… which means the tension isn’t going to feel as important… which means they can put the book down more easily.

      And none of “putting them in the moment” means having to use present tense. Here, let’s do a couple of quick examples:

      When he walked to school that morning, he’d managed to trip over his own two feet in front of Rosalyn, with nary a thing to blame it on except stupidity. She laughed and turned back to her friends. Fat chance of her going with him to the dance.

      Okay, that’s not too offensive a paragraph, but it’s boring and we’re not in the moment.

      Jimmy walked the three blocks to school, precisely because Rosalyn walked the the last two blocks, and it was his chance. He’d managed to have two conversations with her, so far, without completely humiliating himself.

      And there she was. A vision. Jeans that fit just… and that sweater… and… was it hot? Because he was sweating. It was forty freaking degrees and he was sweating.

      Girls weren’t all that turned on by sweating at seven in the morning. He was pretty sure about that.

      He’d pretend to have just raced there, late from some cool thing he was, uh… doing. She was right there, three feet away and he sort of jogged a couple of steps like he was in a hurry.

      “Oh, hey, Ros,” he said, nonchalant, like she didn’t matter, wasn’t his every waking thought. His voice almost didn’t quiver that time. He was getting better. He grinned. “So, whatcha–

      Bam.

      Face planted on the sidewalk, books flying, grit and gravel and leaves caking his left cheek and what the hell had just happened?

      He rolled over and look up and after a brief second of startled shock, Rosalyn and her friends… cripes, her friends had been standing there… could this get any worse?… were laughing. Yep. Worse.

      He looked down at his own feet. Not a stone, a crack, a displaced piece of sidewalk to blame. Just clumsiness.

      She was still laughing when she walked away. He’d hear that laughter every time he looked at her now.

      No way she’d go with him to the prom.

      His life was over.

      (I could do shorter examples, but that takes more time. :) )

      I love dialog–love to rant, to show people off at that moment of conflict, but mostly, I love showing–the action of the story. I try to view every scene as an action scene, and show the conflict as it happens, not as someone is reflecting on how it happened. The first is active voice, the latter is passive.

      I’m not sure if this helps?

      Posted by toni mcgee causey | January 27, 2011, 11:36 am
  5. Hi Toni and welcome to RU. I agree with Patricia about the setting details. I hate when setting is just flopped in front of me for no reason and I usually wind up skimming big chunks of description. I love the way your setting details revealed the character’s attitude.

    Great post!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | January 27, 2011, 10:29 am
  6. Hi Toni,

    Welcome to RU! Thank you for providing such a fabulous lecture. I love seeing before and after examples. It helps bring the message home in my mind.

    Looking at your improved bistro scene, I would worry that I was providing too much detail if that was in my mss. Your example reads really well and I have a clear visual, but, as a writer, I have all these “keep it lean” rules cluttering my head. LOL Does that make me paranoid? Yeah, probably. I write historical, which complicates it even more. We’re known for our tendency to write purple prose. Is that another way of saying we’re in love with our own words? LOL

    Thanks again!
    Tracey

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | January 27, 2011, 12:08 pm
    • Tracey — I completely understand. That example was an off-the-top-of-my-head first draft. I doubt I’d leave everything in there for a ms., but… I might. :) But that’s good that you know your own style. These things are adaptive to whatever style you prefer–lean and terse or more fluid, lush. You absolutely should do what works for your own voice.

      Posted by toni mcgee causey | January 27, 2011, 2:30 pm
  7. Toni – It’s taken me all morning to comment on this brilliant blog because I’m still trying to take it all in. There is so much great information here, my head is spinning.

    I’ve bookmarked it already and now I’m trying to memorize it so I can make sure I address the issues you discuss in my WIP. While I always watch for head-hopping and basic things like that, I’m not sure I’ve covered some of the other POV aspects you describe adequately. Yikes – back to work!

    I love reading first person in mysteries, but it’s a lot less common in romance – Lisa Kleypas’ contemporary romances come to mind, but I can’t think of any others offhand. Women’s literature and what used to be called chick lit seem to work with first person, especially when written by authors like Sophie Kinsella and Joshilyn Jackson.

    I love the scenes you posted – you’ve set the bar incredibly high for tomorrow’s POV entries from those of us still struggling. I’ll be back tomorrow, since I need all the help I can get!

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | January 27, 2011, 12:38 pm
    • Becke, thank you — I’m so thrilled you’ve found this helpful. That’s always a risk when setting out to teach something; I firmly believe in the “First, do no harm” philosophy of teaching writing, because we all are so different, our voices and what works for us should naturally be unique.

      That said, please do keep in mind that I had more than 25 years to hone that POV aspect. I remember all too well those first manuscripts I wrote where I felt like I was juggling twenty balls with lumpy greasy mitts for hands–no way to catch them all, no idea how to make it work smoothly. What I hadn’t realized at the time is that POV is actually the tool that would help do all of those things–I just hadn’t been taught that. I’d been taught the basics (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.), but not the flow, the attitude, the depth, that POV can give you. I hope this helps! Looking forward to all your samples tomorrow! (Don’t be shy.)

      t

      Posted by toni mcgee causey | January 27, 2011, 2:35 pm
  8. Wow. Best POV description/explanation ever. Really brought it into focus. Thank you.

    Posted by Kim C | January 27, 2011, 1:49 pm
  9. Hello Toni!

    Great post! I’m getting better at POV switches and deciding which character’s POV I’ll use when writing a scene. But like you stated, it’s just the basics. Because I have to shave off a ton of words on my ms, I’m looking for ways to inject the info (i.e. internals, backstory) any way I can, so I’m going back and re-evaluating ways to make my character’s POV work harder. Not sure if that makes any sense.

    Like Tracey, I worry about including too much description. A description of a house shouldn’t read like a real estate ad..cozy 3 bd, 2 ba, EIK, with detached garage and yet, I don’t want it to sound like a blurb from House Beautiful either. I’m looking for the middle ground. The examples you’ve provided have been extremely helpful in showing other uses of POV. Thank you.

    BTW…Love your Bobbi Faye books. I felt like I needed an O2 tank next to me to keep up with the pace. I couldn’t stop reading! [And I wondered what a contest judge would do to me if I used parentheses in my entries.;P ]

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | January 27, 2011, 4:14 pm
  10. Jennifer… LOL on the O2 for the Bobbie Faye books. Thank you. :) So glad you enjoyed them. They were a blast to write.

    And I’m cracking up over the parentheses. That was a certain Bobbie Faye style that I don’t do elsewhere, but I am certain it wouldn’t have ever made it through a contest vetting. [Contests are so incredibly subjective, and if there's a committee--and I've been on a big one--it gets distilled down to what everyone can agree on, not necessarily what really was the best or what really should win. Very difficult to look at those results and glean any real useful information from it, no matter what the contest, and no matter if they gave out critiques. Occasionally, yes. Lots of times? No.]

    As for shaving off words, POV like this really can do that for you. It’s not easy–it requires really thinking about attitude for every line, determining if what we’re seeing is something we *need* to be seeing to better understand character. Good luck with that!

    Posted by toni mcgee causey | January 27, 2011, 4:39 pm
    • Yep…those parentheses…after getting hammered by contest judges over using the word “bespoke”, I’m waaay too chicken to use parentheses. I’ve noticed Janet Mullany, who writes cheeky historicals, loves ( ) too!

      Posted by Jennifer Tanner | January 27, 2011, 5:27 pm
      • okay, here’s where I put on my teacher hat and tell you that if you love something and it’s a part of your voice, do it. My only real issue is clarity. If a writer breaks a “rule” and the result makes the story clear or a detail jump to life, then do it. There are always exceptions to those so-called rules. As long as you know why they were rules and why you’re breaking them (and you have a good reason), I say go for it. ;) I’m a radical like that.

        Posted by toni mcgee causey | January 27, 2011, 7:11 pm
    • Jen’s the one who introduced me to you….your books. And Bobbie Faye. What a blast! Those are the types of books I want to write. Fast-paced, fun to read, and can’t put down even if your husband is yelling at you to turn out the darn light!

      =)

      carrie

      Posted by Carrie Spencer | January 27, 2011, 5:55 pm
  11. The bulk of my WIP is in one setting, and that choice is, to the story, nearly irrelevant. As long as there is some movement around the main character, it could be a cafe, park, library, shopping mall. The main character is contemplative, reflective, but once I’ve established the settingso that the reader is there, the rest is an internal struggle by the main character, aimed at leading the reader to rethink values, beliefs. So…is it the internal monologue that progresses his character and gives us that persistance of vision? Thanks Toni!

    Posted by Debbie Rati | January 27, 2011, 7:37 pm
    • Debbie, I think that sort of internal monologue can possibly give us persistence of vision, or POV, but I also think you’ve skated right into a quagmire that is the undoing of many many *many* an author, so I’d have to ask you a few questions, if I were going to do right by you. (Meaning, I absolutely loathed it when people patted me on the head and sort of sent me along and didn’t give me a heads’ up for potential problems, which, had they, I might not have chosen to heed, but I might have, and that would have saved me months… and in one instance… years of heartache over not learning enough fast enough.) So, that said, I’d ask you to look at your manuscript to see if:

      1) there is conflict in every single scene. No scene anywhere should be void of conflict. Someone wants something. And that should be different than what others want in that scene. The conflict can be small or large, but it needs to be there. If the scene is with one person, then they need to be at odds with something outside themselves: the world, society, etc. Contemplation and angst have to be set up with something to instigate it. (You probably have that… I’m just asking all of the type of questions I’d ask of my MFA classes.)

      2) Goals — we need to get a sense of progressive goals for the main character; they need to attempt to achieve their first goal and whatever it is they do to achieve it, makes it worse. This keeps going where the stakes get bigger as the story progresses. They keep failing… and it matters more and more and more that they re-evaluate and achieve their goal.

      3) Rising tension: there needs to be a constant ratcheting up of tension. That doesn’t have to mean explosions–it can mean increasing tension within a character. But it has to grow through the story. If the biggest conflict of a story comes at the very beginning, or early on in the story, and then the rest of the conflicts are about the same danger-level (or stress level), then the pacing is going to feel off and boring.

      Those three things are very very hard to achieve with one person in one setting, but they can be done. (Moby Dick) BUT, and this is a big but, that type of story runs the risk of appearing to be a homily, and those really don’t sell. So long as you can answer yes, that you’re using the tools above, especially the conflict, then you’re probably on safe ground.

      Now, to go back and answer your question: yes, POV can be conveyed via internal monologue, as well as in one setting. You’ll just want to make sure you keep that one setting fascinating or the reader will start to feel claustrophobic. (Which you may want to achieve–just be aware.)

      Posted by toni mcgee causey | January 27, 2011, 8:18 pm
  12. Toni -

    At risk of repeating what others have said…what a fantastic lecture today! It’s amazing what great resources I’ve stumbled across now that I’m beginning a new story.

    I’m with Jen in that I’ve been knocked by contest judges over my voice. Never met a simile/metaphor I didn’t love :). That’s just what we tend to do as Texans! But I have learned that if it’s overwhelming to the reader, I need to make some choices…lose the reader or lose the metaphor? Metaphor’s gotta go.

    Do you do any pre-writing in your characters’ POVs to get the groove of who they are, or do you just dive into the draft armed with how you think they’ll behave based on their way of “being” that you mentioned to Carrie?

    Thanks so much for being here and spending your precious time to write such an amazing lecture, Toni. We look forward to having you back tomorrow.

    Best,
    Kelsey

    Posted by KelseyBrowning | January 27, 2011, 7:46 pm
  13. Kelsey, LOL on the metaphors… I’ve done that, too. (Had too many.) I don’t think you need to cut them all out, though–cutting them all out can destroy your voice and render a passage flat and dull. The trick I’ve learned is to write the three or four (or five or six) :) metaphors that spring to mind in a scene and then later, go back and pick the most powerful one. I try not to do too many per scene–one or two powerful ones, a couple of smaller things that evoke strong imagery sprinkled in. [I think Cajun and Texan story-telling have a lot of similarities... lots of hyperbole. :) ]

    As to pre-writing…. yep. I end up doing a lot of it, and I get frustrated when I can’t quite nail the tone/voice of the character at first. When I first wrote Bobbie Faye, I was switching from screenwriting back to fiction. I’d originally started out in fiction in college, but quickly tired of the trite attitudes there and wanted to do something more commercial, and screenwriting popped up in my periphery and before you know it, I had gone over to the dark side. I’d spend 7 years as a screenwriter, having most of my prose style beaten out of me, so when I went back, it was extremely difficult to get back into that swing–especially the interiority of a character. For those of you who’ve read Bobbie Faye (especially those of you who’ve seen how she personifies things like Hormones and Fear, etc.), none of that was in the original pages. And it was flat. I kept wanting to do those things and I kept hearing all of the “shoulds” on my shoulder, telling me what I could and couldn’t do. I sent the first three chapters to a published friend of mine who had the backbone to call me and say, “Nope. Horrible pages. Throw these away and start over. You’re leaving out her interior thinking–get that in there.” And after trying and trying and feeling hemmed in, I finally thought, screw it, I’m writing this character the way she sounds in my head. And Bobbie Faye was born.

    Fast forward to last year, when I switched to a completely different genre and a completely different tone and character. Avery’s story is very dark, and is told in first person. (Bobbie Faye is in third.) Avery’s story is only told through her eyes–Bobbie Faye through multiple POVs. It was insanely annoying to switch from Bobbie Faye’s take-no-prisoner attitude to Avery, who is strong, but very damaged, and who has run from a tragedy smack into another one. (Avery’s story is not humor–not at all.) I must’ve written nearly a hundred pages (kept rewriting that beginning 25/30 pages) until finally, BANG, her voice clicked, and I had her POV. I had had a few almost-there sets of pages and I could have just gone forward with those, but what I’ve found to be true for me is that I can edit the hell out of plot/language, etc., but once a voice is set for the beginning of a story, that voice carries through. It’s hard to change mid-stream. So I take a tremendous amount of care to try to get that nailed on page one, because I’m going to live with it for a long long time.

    (And keep in mind, in the Bobbie Faye books, I had several POV characters, so each of their sections had to sound uniquely like them. That was hard, too, to make sure Trevor sounded different from Cam, because they saw the world differently.)

    Posted by toni mcgee causey | January 27, 2011, 8:34 pm
    • Seriously, this was an incredible lecture. I feel bootcamped!

      I tend to do a lot of internal dialog too. I kept getting dinged on it by contest judges and I’ve gone and stripped the thing down so much it doesn’t sound anything like me anymore.

      Thinking about internal dialog as part of POV is just, well, a brilliant point of view!

      Time to get back to it and polish away.

      Thanks!

      Sonali

      Posted by Sonali | January 27, 2011, 11:58 pm
    • Toni -

      If I could be so forward, I’d like to throw my arms around you and give you a big ole hug :). I’m so happy to have someone else say they write like they see it instead of how everyone else sees it! Seriously, I think that’s a bit of what I’ve been missing – some of that pre-writing, if you will, that’s going to show me a character’s unique way of being.

      I wrote some pages in my heroine’s POV this morning, but I know it doesn’t have her voice yet, and that’s okay. It’ll come!

      Toni – thanks so much for your time and generosity!
      Kelsey

      Posted by Kelsey Browning | January 28, 2011, 3:03 pm
  14. Thanks Toni, I just reread my WIP and conflict and tension are there. I’m only in the first act, about to enlighten the reader as to the goal, and your advice is timely. Not worried about selling the story, that’s not my goal, but I would like to avoid a homily. You’re an awesome teacher, thanks for your time..

    Posted by Debbie Rati | January 27, 2011, 10:07 pm
  15. Wow, Toni! Thanks for the wonderful post. I also learn so much from your writing posts – they’re like mini classes. Looking forward to tomorrow’s workshop too!

    Posted by KellyJ | January 27, 2011, 10:36 pm
  16. Wow, this is one of the best explanations with examples I’ve ever read. Thanks, Toni. I’ll try to find something to submit. I’ve surely got plenty of bad examples, lol

    Posted by Marley Delarose | January 28, 2011, 6:24 pm
  17. This was fantastic! I wished I’d visited before Saturday, but it’s given me a lot to thnk about.

    Posted by Walt M | January 29, 2011, 10:49 pm
  18. Hi! POV is driving me crazy. Here’s why: I like multiple POVs — even headhopping. I’ve been told I change POV too often in my writing. But as a reader, I want to know what’s going on, and not necessarily just what one particular character thinks is going on.
    For example, in the scene at the bar, maybe one character thinks it’s a sleazy, nasty place, but for another character, it’s cozy, and comfortable. If we only get one character’s POV, then do we have an accurate picture of the place?
    How would you handle that?
    My biggest problem with POV switching, is that in addition to showing characters’ reaction in conversation, I like to show what the characters are thinking. I feel like I lose the opportunity to show depth if I have to keep an entire scene or chapter in one POV.

    Posted by deedee | January 30, 2011, 1:32 pm
  19. “Just keep in mind the fact that there is a tendency of the eye—or our inner perceptual ability—to hang onto images in sequence which then builds a larger image, an impression of movement, an impression of reality.”

    HI Toni,

    I just discovered your Pov pearls last night. I am intrigued by the sentence above. You know that wonderful feeling when something nascent is grasping a new rapture to play with in the writing? Thank you. I wish I’d discovered this a few daze ago, so I could return and enter on day two.

    A myriad of quixotic and quirky POV,

    Slainte,

    Laurel

    Posted by Drea | January 31, 2011, 1:56 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] because I have a really cool blog/workshop on POV that’s going to be posted over at Romance University. (This is an actual workshop, where you can submit 2 to 3 sentences for us to work on honing just [...]

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tracey Devlyn, carrie c spencer. carrie c spencer said: Stop by RU today – http://romanceuniversity.org/?p=6004 – @ToniMcGeeCausey is talking about POV – you won't want to miss it! [...]

  3. [...] Toni McGee Causey posted a few weeks ago on Romance University. [...]

    Point of View - February 6, 2011
  4. [...] presented this as a two-day workshop over on the fabulous Romance University — and I highly recommend that if you’re interested in seeing some great examples as we [...]

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