The Effect of POV on Narrative – Manipulating the Reader and What they Know for Greatest Effect
This is the second topic in my exploration of narrative. The introductory post and the other posts I’ve written on the topic can be found here: Narration vs Dialogue and Action – Where it Fits in the Tool Box
Now. POV (or ‘point of view’ for those not familiar with the lingo), impacts on narrative style significantly. What is described is inherently influenced by who describes something. Description and exposition that is done well pulls it’s weight. And that, in my opinion, is the most important thing when talking about narrative description and exposition: that your narrative does more than one thing.
So your reader should be able to learn something about your characters from how they filter the world. If you POV is 1st person (I, me, we), then you’re going to be quite heavily filtering all your descriptions through the character. No two first person characters should walk into the room and focus on the same things, or describe them in the same way.
If, for example, you have a character from a desert country (character A), and a character from a country that is temperate, and has no issue with water conservation (character B), and you have them walk into a room with a dripping tap. Maybe they’ll both notice. More likely, however, character B will focus on what is important to them in the room – the open windows if they’re cold, or the way the room looks like it’s going to cost less than 30 dollars a night to sleep in. Character A will focus on the dripping tap. It might not be their primary focus, but if they’re from a place where you can’t water their lawns, and water sometimes has to be trucked in? It’s going to annoy them, dripping away in the back of their mind until they finally crack and turn it off.
So our character’s backgrounds influence how they see things. So too do their goals and ambitions. If Character A has just brought the place and intends to let it out, he’ll be focusing on the scuffed carpet, checking if the windows close, thinking about re-doing the plumbing because surely the tenant wants taps that actually turn off. Say character B has said he’s coming along to look at renting the place, but he’s actually trying to get off the streets while the police seek him out. He’ll notice the open windows, assess them as both an exit and entry point. He’ll notice the table, which might just be solid enough to hide behind. He’ll flinch when the Character A’s phone goes off, both because he’s easily startled, but he also may notice that there’s a siren in the background of the song. He’ll be looking towards the door, listening to every car as it passes by outside. Waiting, just waiting, for one to slow down and stop.
The realtor (Character A) will also be waiting for one to slow down and stop, but he’ll be listening out for new tenants, thinking about how he can rent this place to them. He might be eyeing up those who come in the house, more/or less (it could go either way) inclined to rent to someone from the same low class background as himself. He may be proud of this place, running his hands over the furniture, rapping his knuckles on the wooden kitchen bench because no place he’d ever lived had furniture made off wood – too expensive.
Notice these descriptions, and how they perform double duty. We can also see something else in this scene – the potential for conflict. Character A wants to rent the place out, make a respectable profit. Character B couldn’t give a damn about profit, or the possible damage done to the place – he just wants to get away from the police.
They are not going to have the same goals if an off duty policeman walks in the door.
Close third POV (he, she, they, but staying mainly in the thoughts of the characters, a-la most of Harry Potter) operates under the same sort of boundaries, but with the ability to draw back from the effects of character POV on narrative. Close third can contain more than one POV (as can first, but it’s less frequently done), and can give different perspectives within that same room.
Close third can also use a narrator. As can third POV (mostly the same as close third, but much less in the head of the character, and much more a narrator saying what’s going on in the character’s head than the reader hearing it directly.) A narrator is itself, another character. Whether it’s an actual character (like Death in “The Book Thief”), or whether it is just the writer telling the story, it too will focus on certain characters, and thoughts, depending upon what the narrator feels is important. In our above scene, it might focus more on the possible tension between the two men, and describe the approaching off-duty policeman. In doing so, the narration is not just describing things, it’s ramping up tension. Given what we know of these characters, the introduction of this third element invests us in the story. We, as readers, can guess what might happen when Character B discovers that the other prospective tenant is an off duty cop. It’s probably not going to be pretty.
Omniscient works in largely the same way – it’s an all-seeing narrator telling and showing us the characters thoughts as they see fit. The same rules apply – description and attention should only be given when the description matters, when it tells us something else about the characters, the story, or prospective conflicts. Every narrative description should do double, sometimes triple duty.
Narrative exposition is the same. It shouldn’t be there unless it has to be there. The back-story of Character A, regarding his lower class background, matters only if it influences how he acts when the off duty cop walks into the room. The fact that Character B has a sister that he stole medication for only matters if you want the readers to feel sorry for him.
As writers, we exist not just to tell the story, but to involve the reader. We want to manipulate their sympathies, their direction of thought, what they notice. This allows us to set things up, to surprise, to engage. Narrative can be really good at doing this – don’t waste words on just describing things, or giving exposition. Describe things that matter. Give exposition only when it is relevant to what is about to happen. We are situating the reader, drawing them in, and making them connect. Whatever POV you use to do this will influence that.