One of the most important decisions to make in fiction writing is whose point of view you are going to tell the story from. Sometimes, of course, the narrator (as distinct from any of the characters) has access to everyone’s point of view. But usually, there’s a handful of characters (some main, some minor) who get to tell the reader their thoughts, feelings and motivations because the narrator is telling the story through them and their point of view (POV).
These are the characters the reader is generally going to attach to; because they are more transparent than the other characters, the reader gets to know them better, and sympathise with them. One of the best examples of this in action is the transformation of George RR Martin’s Jaime, who goes from vile to understandable once he becomes a POV character in the Song of Ice and Fire series.
However, it’s not necessary the case, and thoroughly unpleasant characters/villains can have a POV which just makes the reader hate them more – the example of this being Cersei, in the same series. The point is, however, that even these nasty characters are more real to the reader because they have the POV.
So how do you go about choosing which of your characters should be POV characters?
Firstly, they need to be in a position to at least observe, and better yet act in, the storyline. No good having a POV character who gets to stay home safe and just relate the exciting events as they’re reported to him or her (though this is a device that can work with careful thought and perhaps other POV characters). This is why POV characters are generally main characters, or accompanying the main/central character (ie the person everything is happening to).
Secondly, it’s good if they have something unique to say about the storyline: their perspective should add something that would not have come across if a different character was the POV. This is especially fun to play with when you have several POV characters, or a strongly independent narrator, and you can make it clear that events are being filtered through POV characters’ own biases and assumptions (a classic example is Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, where you gradually work out that Tenar is in fact a member of an evil priestess cult despite her taking quite a while to figure it out herself).
Thirdly, a good choice of POV character, especially in fantasy/SF, will be able to tell the reader something about the world. This is either because the character is a complete innocent and needs to have stuff explained a lot, or because he or she is deep into some aspect of society and can explain it to others. Care should be taken not to info-dump on the reader, of course.
Fourthly, you should know your POV character backwards: their whole lifestory, motivations, star sign, favourite food etc. They’re going to carry your story and if they’re not convincing, neither will your plot be. If you do this really well, your POV character makes your story – hello, Locke Lamore.
Let’s look at some examples from my own writing. The POV character for my published books, After the Dragon is Trick, who is accompanying the main character, Mizzle (I don’t consider him to be the main character, because he does not drive events, Mizzle does). He’s a classic unreliable narrator. In the book I’m editing for publication at the moment, the main character and the POV character are the same, Rana, who definitely drives events.
In both cases, these were easy, logical choices; despite the availability of other characters, these were the people whose voices I wanted telling the story (I try to keep narrator and POV character as close as I can). In the book I’m currently writing, Simon was also a logical, easy choice; he practically showed up fully formed and there was never any chance someone else was going to tell his story.
However, in this current story, I am also, for the first time, experimenting with other POV characters, in particular, Lily, the sister of the Mosaic Simon has captured. This is not necessary, really: the book is long enough without her scenes, and I’m having a lot of trouble getting her right.
On the other hand, she is necessary. Simon’s an anti-hero, but it’s fairly easy to forget that, so I need someone to be observing his actions from the outside, to both remind the reader that he has a vicious streak and that the rebels he is happily executing are in fact justified. I can also use her to explore some of the more esoteric aspects of the valley systems which Simon, being local, doesn’t even notice.
Yes, I had other voices available to do this: Lily’s husband for example. But it was important to me to have a female POV character – I like to do that anyway, but in this case it is essential, because all the Mosaics are female, and I wanted a woman looking at that, and at the way they’re treated, and reacting like a woman.
Often, your main POV character will make themselves clear: the story will come to you in their voice already. Sometimes, especially when you have a big cast, you do get to make logical decisions about who gets to have a POV. Taking the time to consider your options, including some characters you might not have even thought of, can result in a stronger story.