How-to Author Series – by Margie Lawson
How to Author Series Features Alicia Rasley
Hello Alicia! I’m glad you could join us today.
1. ML: Here’s a powerful quote from page 13 that speaks to what POV can do for your story. Could you elaborate?
POV can create tension between what the character says and what she means; between her vision and reality; between what is said and what is interpreted.AR: To effectively use POV, authors have to believe in the inner life, that we are not transparent beings, that our inside can be different from (and affect) our outside. If you believe that, then you can have the POV character (for example) say something and then mentally translate it:
"Of course I'd love to babysit little Sadie!" she said, smiling so hard her teeth ached. She had to get this account, and if it took installing little Sadie in front of a Little Mermaid marathon, she'd do it.
Or she can see something and believe it to be something the reader knows isn't real, like:
It was a lovely lunch, Shirley thought, leaving her customary 10% tip on the table. She rose, then hesitated. The waitress was so efficient, taking back that cold gazpacho soup and returning with it steaming the way it ought to be. Just this once, Shirley decided to leave a huge tip. She added a quarter to the pile of dimes by her coffee cup, just hoping that her generosity didn't make the waitress too conceited.
(I used to be a waitress, and 1) gazpacho is supposed to be cold, and 2) a quarter added to 10% isn't going to corrupt the waitress.
Going into a character's point of view offers readers a terrific experience of being someone else for a little while--- but they never stop being themselves, with their own values and knowledge. Writers can have fun with that separation between the character and the reader, and that sometimes results in unexpected character development.
2. ML: What are some examples of unintentional POV shifts that make you cringe?
AR: Here's one that is kind of subtle:
Women! Wives, cops, didn't matter. All they did was complain. The lieutenant nodded at the patrolwoman and said, "Thank you for bringing that to my attention, Officer Reilly. You may go."
Judy charged out of his office, slammed the door closed, and stormed down the hall.
This is supposed to be in the lieutenant's POV, but there's a switch, probably inadvertent. But the reader starts out in the lieutenant's head—we get his thoughts (Women!), so we know we're in his head. Notice that he calls her "the patrolwoman," and "Officer Reilly." We can assume that this is a rather formal relationship. But then in the next line, we have "Judy" (her name for herself, not his) leaving the office and slamming the door. Then she goes on down the hall. The lieutenant couldn't see that (she closed the door).
If you were sitting in the lieutenant behind the desk, what would your perspective be?
The officer muttered something under her breath, and turned on her heel. She stormed out, and the door slammed behind her. He sighed and went back to his paperwork.
That's clearly still in his point of view, right? He sees her leave. He sees the door slam "behind her". He sighs. That's what you have to do to stay in the character POV—stay in the character!
The kind of inadvertent shifts are the ones that make me cringe, because I can tell the writer didn't mean for that to happen.
3. ML: In your chapter on levels of POV, you address how adding some narrative distance can make characters and their emotions more appealing. Could you share an example?
AR: I wrote a scene where the heroine was humiliated and ostracized because of something she'd done. When I read it over, I realized that her POV made her sound self-pitying—not because she was, just because the reader might interpret it that way because it's just too intimate, too raw, to be in the head of someone suffering like that. So I rewrote the scene from the hero's POV, as he saw this happening. From his perspective, she was brave and forbearing. We got her pain—he could see she was hurting. But we also got his—he was suffering vicariously for her.
So that taught me that the reader doesn't need to be inside the character to identify. The cues of body language, vocal expression, and speech patterns can give the reader a sense of the emotion—and bypass that "automatic shutdown" that is our common defense mechanism against too much emotion.
4. ML: Given that your entire book is about POV and you’re limited to a short answer here, what gems would you like to share about the advantages and disadvantages of the different levels of POV?
AR: I would just say that different spots in the scene might benefit from dfferent levels of penetration. It's all about getting that part of the passage in the right level. For example, readers shake their heads when they read a passage where the character is in intense danger, running from the bad guy, and as she pelters down the ramp in the parking garage, hearing him behind her, she's thinking about her father and how aloof he always was and how she never knew if he really loved her—that is, action scenes are usually best done in the action level! We can't really believe she's in great danger and running hard if she has time and mental space to relive her childhood miseries.
Always consider the reader. The whole point of point of view is to give the reader a particular experience of the story… and that rests on your ability to create a believable experience in the character's viewpoint.
5. ML: You recommend the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell. What can writers learn about POV from reading her forensic procedurals?
AR: The clinical, almost objective description makes truly horrific material (autopsies) bearable, even interesting. Whenever you're dealing with stuff that might make the reader shut down or close her eyes, whether it's because it's so emotional or so gross, consider that distance imparts tolerance. We can read almost anything if it's presented right.
6. ML: Last question! How do you recommend writers handle secrets when they are in the POV character’s head?
AR: It all depends on whether you want the reader to know, and how certainly you want her to know. That is, if Mike has a secret and you want the reader to know what the secret is, go ahead and have him think it in some plausible way at an appropriate time. But if all you want is for the reader to suspect that Mike has a secret, but not what it is, think about ways you can hint. For example, Mike can start to think about The Secret, but then cut himself off and force himself to think about something else. Then the reader will know there's something he's refusing to think about. Again, it's all about giving the reader the right experience.
I think writers should always be readers first and foremost. We should read a lot and notice things like, oh, "He's got a secret! I just know it! I wonder what it is!" And we should stop them and analyze what the author did to create that impression. We have 3000 years of story in the Western tradition, and all the lessons we need are there. :)