Whose Story Is it, Really? (Using POV When Writing About Your Supporting Characters)

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Last Friday, I talked about the four main types of POV (First Person, Third Person Limited, Second Person, and Third Person Omniscient), which ones are most commonly used, and how important it is to maintain consistency when writing in your protagonist’s POV.

Today is about how to maintain the POV consistency when introducing new and supporting characters in your writing, and how to “switch things up” in the correct way.

Maintaining Correct POV in Scenes with Supporting Characters

If you haven’t made the conscious decision to write in Third Person Omniscient (and I’ll give some examples of this as we go along), it really is in your best interest to figure out what character you want to ‘focus’ on in each scene of your work. By ‘focus’, I’m talking about through which of your characters’ eyes will the reader be experiencing the story? The following is an example of the type of POV switching that implies the writer either hasn’t figured out whose POV they want the scene to be written in, or isn’t aware of the difference:

Tailor couldn’t wait to see her sister. It had been years, and while they spoke on the phone every few months, updating each other on their lives, the thought of seeing her in person made her palms sweaty. She hoped neither one of them had changed so much in the time they’d spent apart that they hardly recognized each other.

People bustled all around her in the airport, and she watched the elevator emptying from the terminal in anticipation. Then, there she was. Emily stepped off the elevator and looked around the food court where Tailor had been waiting for her. Tailor had to force herself to wave after a moment’s hesitation, but finally she caught her sister’s attention.

When Emily reached her, she dropped her bag and wrapped her arms around Tailor’s neck, squealing in excitement. “I can’t believe I’m here,” she said in Tailor’s ear, then stood back to take in the sight of her. Emily couldn’t believe how much her little sister had grown. The last time they’d seen each other, Tailor had been, what? Seventeen? Now she was a woman in her mid-twenties, gorgeous, and all grown up.

“I’m so glad you are,” Tailor replied, squeezing her sister’s arms and flashing her an excited, nervous grin. Emily looked only a little different, which made sense since she’d had two kids and lost fifty pounds since Tailor had last seen her. But there was no mistaking the still-round face framed by shoulder-length blond hair, the bright, smiling blue eyes, or the tiny, barely-perceptible cleft in her chin. She felt like she was dreaming.

In the majority of this short description, Tailor seems to be the protagonist. This is written in Third Person Limited, where the narrative draws us closely into her thoughts, fears, and emotions around waiting for and meeting her sister.

75% of this little story is about Tailor, and is written in her POV. However, the third paragraph takes us completely out of this, which, if you’re not intentionally writing in Third Person Omniscient, is incorrect and can do a lot of damage to both a particular scene and your novel as a whole. For a brief moment in this third paragraph, we’re ripped out of Tailor’s mind and thrust unceremoniously into Emily’s. I used the same style of Third Person Limited narrative when describing Emily’s thoughts about the last time the sisters had seen each other, but this scene doesn’t ‘belong’ to Emily, especially if Tailor is the protagonist and the entire book is about her experiences.

I’ve been tempted to cut out pieces like this altogether, but there are ways to work around this. For example, staying within the correct POV and focusing on Tailor, this third paragraph can be split up, and most information within it rewritten correctly to stay consistent with POV:

When Emily reached her, she dropped her bag and wrapped her arms around Tailor’s neck, squealing in excitement. “I can’t believe I’m here,” she said in Tailor’s ear, then stood back to take in the sight of her.

She seemed surprised, looking Tailor up and down, and Taylor wondered if she herself had changed more than she’d thought. She was seventeen the last time they’d seen each other, and she realized the years between high school and her mid-twenties had probably changed some of her features. In Emily’s eyes, she suddenly realized, she probably looked all grown up.

See the difference? The reader gets the same information: Tailor was seventeen the last time she’d seen her sister, she’s now in her mid-twenties, and Emily seems surprised by the small changes in her appearance. This rewrite, however, stays completely consistent with Tailor’s POV.

It’s really important to remember that information, history between characters, and even your supporting characters’ emotions and thoughts can effectively be portrayed through your protagonist’s POV. This is done by describing within the narrative what the protagonist would see in the other characters’ facial expressions, movements, or dialogue. Instead of saying Emily was excited. I’ve written she dropped her bag and wrapped her arms around Tailor’s neck, squealing in excitement. This is something Tailor hears and feels that expresses her sister’s excitement, all through Tailor’s POV. Another example of this is in the rewrite above, where instead of switching into Emily’s POV to say that Tailor was “gorgeous and all grown up”, I wrote In Emily’s eyes, she suddenly realized, she probably looked all grown up. This has the same effect on the information being given, and the characterization growing within the scene, but stays consistently where it should – in Tailor’s POV.

When all of the characters’ internal thoughts, memories, emotions, etc., are shown in scenes without distinguishing between POV, or without any visual breaks as queues, this is Third Person Omniscient. Every character’s inner workings are fair game, and the author explores all (or most) of them, jumping back and forth to give the reader information that none of the characters could possibly know all at once. It can get confusing, which is one reason why I think most people choose not to use it. To see more about this, read this article by The Write Practice on ‘Head-Hopping’.

Writing Only What Can Be Experienced Through One POV

In addition to staying within the realm of only one character’s POV within a scene through internal dialogue, it’s incredibly important to do the same with what that character hears, smells, sees, and feels physically. Too often, I’ve seen scenes written where a supporting character outside of the POV leaves a room, answers the telephone, or speaks in hushed whispers to other included characters, and the protagonist (or character in whose POV the scene is written) suddenly knows what’s happening, whether in their internal dialogue or in the narrative itself. This can really take away from the credibility of the story line, if an author does not stay within the ‘walls’, so to speak, of using that particular POV in the first place. Here’s an example of this:

Thomas sat in his favorite armchair, lost in the drone of the television in front of him.

“What would you like for dinner?” Candace asked.

He didn’t answer. He didn’t want to talk with her now, not after what she’d done. How could she ask him such a trivial question like that, as if the words she’d shouted before had never left her mouth to stab him in the heart? She hadn’t apologized, and he knew she wouldn’t. She never did. All he wanted was to be left alone, because she’d shut him down completely and he didn’t want to fight anymore. 

He promised himself he wasn’t going to say a word to her until she brought up what she’d said and attempted to make some kind of amends with him. If that ever happened. Candace whisked herself out of the living room and into the kitchen, digging through the refrigerator to pull out leftover spaghetti and Ragu in a jar. Thomas ignored her exit, didn’t care about whatever she was doing, and wondered if he’d even eat what she made, no matter what it was.

This is a really mild tip out of POV, but the sentence in the last paragraph Candace whisked herself out of the living room and into the kitchen, digging through the refrigerator to pull out leftover spaghetti and Ragu in a jar. feels completely out of place to me when I read this. Here we are, glimpsing into Thomas’ relationship and how hurt he is, and suddenly we see Candace in the fridge, pulling out specific dishes for dinner? If we’re in Thomas’ POV, how could he possibly know that she’s in the fridge and pulling out leftover spaghetti? It snags me right out of the scene, because I want to stay with Thomas, and because it’s quite clear he doesn’t care what Candace does in the kitchen, so that sentence becomes arguably irrelevant.

Another, more poignant example of this is:

Becky sat on the couch and stared at the group of adults huddled in the kitchen. They whispered in tones so low she couldn’t make out a single word. The adults took a vote to decide which of them would be the one to tell her the bad news first. The man in the baseball hat won, and walked toward the couch where she sat.

Here, we’re in Becky’s POV, which we know by the fact that it states she can’t hear anything the adults say. However, the last sentence breaks the ‘wall’ of this POV. If Becky can’t hear anything they’re saying, how does she know they’re taking a vote to decide who will speak to her? And how does she know what they’ll say is bad news? This can be fixed one of two ways. 1) Take out the line about her not being able to hear them. Rewrite it as They whispered in tones so low she had to strain to make out what they said. 2) Describe what’s happening, and give the reader the same information, by ‘showing’ what ‘taking a vote’ looks like: The man in the baseball hat pointed to himself and the woman standing beside him, who scowled. Becky watched him look in earnest from one adult to the next, and each of them whispered a single word she couldn’t make out. 

“Fine,” the man in the hat said, putting his hands up. “Fine, I’ll do it.” The woman beside him seemed to relax, and then the man left the group of adults and walked toward the couch.

Becky found it really hard to swallow when the man knelt down in front of her, brought his face level with hers, and pulled his hat down tighter on his head. She could only stare at his mouth.

“Becky,” he whispered. “I’m afraid I have some bad news to tell you.”

Yes, writing it this way uses a lot more words. It also conveys more than just “the adults took a vote on who would tell her the bad news”. It shows: a) Becky’s confusion over their actions, b) both the man’s and the woman’s distaste over having to potentially speak to Becky, c) the man’s discomfort, and d) Becky’s fear over not knowing what’s about to happen. Personally, I would much rather see this written the second way, because not only does it maintain Becky’s POV, it also builds much more tension.

Writing in a Supporting Character’s POV

I want to make sure I point out this is perfectly okay to do! In a lot of ways, it mixes up the story and gives the reader crucial information, which will build tension, but which the protagonist can’t possibly know.

For instance, say your protagonist’s boyfriend cheated on her, she’s devastated, and she doesn’t know who the other woman is. She confides all her anger, frustration, and hurt to her best friend. As it turns out, her best friend is the one who actually had an affair with the protagonist’s boyfriend, but she can’t or won’t admit it.

Of course, you could always keep the readers in the dark until the grand moment when everything is revealed. However, there’s a potential to build tension and really draw the reader in, make them unable to put the book down in order to see what happens, far before that. This is where changing the POV to a different character can come in really handy.

It would be nice to have a scene in the best friend’s POV, where she either speaks to the boyfriend or just thinks to herself about the horror of what she did, about her guilt and her remorse. Or maybe even about the fact that she feels neither of these things, and plans to take advantage of the protagonist in the future. Doing this, the reader gets a glimpse into a different character, different motivations and intentions, and when the reader knows something the protagonist does not, it can build the tension of the protagonist’s journey until they, too, finally understand everything.

This is great! I’ve written multiple chapters or scenes in my own work that are in a supporting character’s POV. However, I make sure that I do two things, which are always important when switching POV. a) I follow all the same rules I’ve outlined in this post, just for a new character. b) I make sure to provide some visual clue for the reader to prepare them for a POV switch. Otherwise, it can get really confusing, really fast.

The most common ways to do this are by inserting some kind of symbol break, like *** or – – – which visually breaks up the scene for the reader. Also, simply inserting an extra space between paragraphs can accomplish this, though it’s less obvious. Heck, even start a new chapter, and write the entire chapter in the other character’s POV. You can also change the tense in that chapter from past to present, or change from a Third Person Limited to a First Person or even Third Person Omniscient point of view if it suits your purposes. The thing to remember is to always separate these changes in a way that lets the reader know you’re doing it intentionally.

Well, that sums up my mini-series on POV. If you have any questions, or would like to discuss anything I didn’t manage to cover, please leave me a comment below. I’m always looking for new, helpful topics to write about here, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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