I recently posted a short story, From the Sounds of Silence to the Wall of Sound. In the story a teenage girl, Deb, found herself on a couch next to her church’s youth coordinator’s five year old son, Terrance. Scott Fleming made some teasing remark about the boy. He was seated on the floor leaning on Janice Rodger’s legs, looking at Deb and smirking. He then pointing out that Deb’s love life was less than stellar. Janice laughed. Deb used to have a crush on Scott but he could be such a jerk. As much to spite Scott as anything else, she flirted with the little boy. It was all in fun and he really was adorable, yet Deb was surprised at how good having little Terrance snuggled up against her made her feel. At 16 she was now an adult and didn’t need to be babied, but she still secretly liked to be cuddled, a need that really wasn’t getting met. She didn’t want anyone in her family to touch her and even if she had a boyfriend to cuddle, he would most likely interpret it as a desire for sex. With Terrance it was different, more innocent. She both thrilled in and ignored the warm feeling spreading through her body when she saw the look of adoration on Terrance’s cute young face. If only Larry McAlister looked at her like that. She paused a moment then thought, “or even if Scott did”.
What, you didn’t read that scene in the story? Of course you did, only it was from Terrance’s point of view, not Deb’s.
Writers’ resources often make a huge deal about point of view. They go over the need for point of view (POV) and the different classifications. Questions are often asked, such as “Can this be seen from the chosen POV?” or “Can that be known from the chosen POV?” These questions are important.
Imagine if after the paragraph above written in Deb’s POV the very next paragraph started, “Mrs. M. came out of the kitchen with a pitcher of lemonade. Deb made herself a glass as Mrs. M. looked on with a worried expression. She’d dumped an extra cup of sugar in the mix while talking on the phone. Mr. M. was going to be home two hours late and she was upset so kept scooping. Deb didn’t notice. She liked her lemonade sweet. As Deb shared her glass with Terrance, fussing over the little boy, she missed Mrs. M.’s sigh of relief.”
So, how did Deb know about the extra cup of sugar? How did she know Mrs. M. was worried? How did she know Mr. M was going to be late? If she can’t know, you can’t put it in. If it’s important for the story, find another way, perhaps by having Mrs. M. apologize. Which is all fine, but it isn’t the point of this article.
Attitude and the way the characters look at things is equally important. Let’s look at that first paragraph from another POV.
Mrs. M. stood at the edge of the living room, leaning against the doorframe as she watched the kids. Despite being an outsider, an authority figure, she found herself enjoying the visit. The musicians, just some local teens, were actually quite professional. Everyone was so polite. These were good kids. Mrs. M. thought it was great how they not only tolerated Terrance but actually made him feel part of the group. And then there was Sabrina Bailey’s daughter, Debbie. She was growing up to be a fine young lady. She always tried to be the mature one in the group, yet she looked like a little girl as she snuggled up with Terrance. Mrs. M. always thought of Debbie as a bit of an ugly duckling and was happy to see her begin to discover that she was actually a swan. She just needed to slow down and not try to grow up so fast. Mrs. M. smiled to herself and hummed along with “Leaving on a Jet Plane”.
POV isn’t just what a character can see or know. It isn’t only about how they act or knowing what they think. The writing changes when the POV changes. Everything needs to be from a different perspective. Every word is filtered through that character.
The teenager thinks of herself as “Deb” while Terrance and his mother know her as “Debbie”. To Terrance she’s an ancient beauty. To his mom she’s a young girl at the verge of womanhood, an ugly duckling about to become a swan. Deb thinks of herself as an adult, hip and modern. Terrance’s Mom sees a group of good kids from church. Deb sees her friends with all the messy complexities of their relationships. Terrance watches the teens in awe. They’re cool role models. The words reflect these viewpoints.
I’m sure everyone has heard, “let the characters speak for themselves.” While this is true for all aspects of a story and every character, it takes on new meaning for the POV character. Even a description of an inanimate object needs to be in the words of that character.
So think about where you are writing from, whose eyes it is seeing the action. Listen to the attitudes, understand the perspective.
Above all, be true to your point of view.
Drawing by Trent P McDonald