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Do POV characters have to be 'important'?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by peteks, May 23, 2014.

  1. peteks

    peteks Acolyte

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    So, I've had this bigger project for a couple of years, where I've been creating a new fantasy world from scratch. And I've been wondering, do you feel it is detrimental to the story, in a multiple POV book, to have some of the POV characters be just 'normal' farmers, blacksmiths et cetera? Because I myself like the idea of fleshing out the world through them, and also giving context on the effects of the 'flashier' characters endeavours on the rest of the world.

    But, do you think that having these kinds of characters inherently stalls the pace of the book too much? Because it seems to me that most books don't have many seemingly small characters whose lives are pinpointed in the story. Is it because it's bad storytelling, or just a stylistic choice?

    Waiting eagerly for your responses

    Pete
     
  2. Scribble

    Scribble Archmage

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    If it weren't for the loyalty of a certain humble gardener, the lands of Middle-Earth would have fallen into shadow. If a certain farm boy had not dreamed of being a pilot, the Empire would be in control of the galaxy.

    They have to be important to the story but they do not need to be important in the sense that they move nations, lead revolutions, or save the world. There is a certain snobbery common to princes and leaders who regard the small people as 'nothings', (the peasants are revolting... they certainly are...) and generally speaking, the peasantry are incapable of exerting much individual influence on the world - except through mobs perhaps.

    People always work to exert control over their world, in the way they can. The farmer fights insects, lack of rain, weeds, fungus, etc... the prince fights neighboring kingdoms, etc... The difference between 'normal' people and 'epic' people is that normal people's battles are usually less... epic? in scope.

    Does it stall the pace of the book? It can if it is mostly about ninja knights from space and you spend 20 pages on how the farmer irrigates his field. But if the farmer is running for his life, ninja-space-knights on his heels, that doesn't seem slowing.

    Normal people are generally drawn into epic , yanked out of their normal lives, but typically preferring things to be normal.

    Farm boy who is really a prince, small town boy makes it big, the dishwasher becomes a prize-fighter, the tailor slays a giant, all terribly cliché in our post-post-postmodernist sensibility, but it still works because most of us are normal yet we wish we were more epic.

    I say write any character, big or small, just don't be boring. :)
     
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  3. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    One story that does this pretty well is the Darkness series by Harry Turtledove. It's basically a fantasy version of the 2nd world war and it's told from the point of view of citizen of every country affected by the conflict. The characters range across the entire social spectrum, from important imperial dignitaries to lowly backwoods farmers. Some of them occasionally meet, while some go through the entire story without seeing any of the others.
    Most of these characters have little to no impact on the outcome of the war, but their stories and how the war affect them are still interesting. No one character is the bad guy - each and every one of them is the protagonist of their own story (like in real life :p ). It's well worth checking out and it definitely works.
     
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  4. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    I read an historical fiction story set during the crusades where the lead character was a Page who did almost no fighting but tended to his lord about, delivered messages and the like.
    As an historical person he was not important to the events, it was the lords and ladies, Kings and Sultans, that had the "exciting" life but he was there at all their important events and told the story as well as letting me see the reality of the day to day life at that time.
    [It might have been "The Knights of Dark Renown" by Graham Shelby, but it has to be 20 years since I read it last]
     
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  5. Addison

    Addison Auror

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    There's no rule that says the Pov character has to be THE character of the story. They don't have to be the hero, the damsel in distress, the one facing jail for murder. Like "To Kill a Mockingbird", the story could have been told from Atticus Finch's perspective, instead it was told from his kid's perspective which made it all the more powerful. The POV just needs to be the person who can help tell the story the best. Another good example, "The Great Gatsby". Think on that.
     
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  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    They don't have to be important, you just have to keep the story interesting so that you hold the reader's attention. I'm re-reading Joseph Conrad's Chance, and in that book, for example, as you're getting into the story you find the POV character doesn't even play a role in the story. He's basically a filter through which events are related by other characters (like Marlow). You can argue that whoever is speaking to the POV character becomes a de facto POV character, but the fact remains that the character who is technically the POV through which the reader sees the story is doing nothing and isn't even a participant in the events being related.
     
    Last edited: May 23, 2014
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  7. stephenspower

    stephenspower Inkling

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    I like the idea of a POV character who's recording the action of the story, but who isn't a part of it, for how that POV character then shapes the narrative. For instance, in "Citizen Kane," the point of view character is a reporter who doesn't affect the story, but he provides the impetus for the narrative, "Who or what is Rosebud?" and his travel from place to play organizes the narrative. Of course, the only time the movie steps away from his reporting is when it provides the answer to his question, which he never learns. In "The Great Gatsby" Nick Carraway is the moralizing lens through which readers see the story, although they can disagree with Carraway's personal outlook. The above example of the page is a great one for showing how the movements of a minor character can tie together the stories of disparate characters.
     
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  8. Jake Belsten

    Jake Belsten Dreamer

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    Another good example of this is the Sherlock Holmes books - John Watson is the POV character, which adds to the mystery of Holmes' character.

    I agree that POV is incredibly important, but, as some people have said above, you need to make each character have their own story. It's all very well and cheery having them flesh out your world, but they need to have a purpose within the story - if they don't then the readers will realise their own job is to give background information.

    I know it's a really obvious pick that you've most likely read, but Game of Thrones is a great example, especially as it's a fantasy world and such a sprawling setting/plot. Once again, choose your POV characters wisely. And plan ahead! You don't want to get halfway through your story when you realise you're going to kill off your POV character - or maybe you are. Just make sure you've got another one! The characters have to be positioned well within the world to catch everything of the plot, but from a different characters/group of characters perspectives.
     
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  9. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I think most fiction follows that path, but as I noted above Conrad doesn't follow it. In Chance, and some of his other stories, the ultimate POV character through whom the tale is being narrator has no story or function apart than as a vessel through which the story is presented.
     
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  10. stephenspower

    stephenspower Inkling

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    Leon Uris's "Trinity" is unique, I think, in starting in the first person, moving a quarter to halfway through to the third person, then having that first-person narrator die at the end.
     
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  11. Jake Belsten

    Jake Belsten Dreamer

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    In essence, I think the POV of a story is something that can be played around with alot, and it's something that can make or break a story. It's probably a good thing to play around with different ideas and different POVs until you get it just right, but as I said earlier, make sure you've got it sorted before you launch into writing the proper thing!
     
  12. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    often, a side-lined character is a better POV than the guy making things happen. It gives an opportunity to reflect from a more silent POV, one who can come off as subservient, unintelligent, deceitful, etc. while letting the reader in on the bigger events and those secrets he wishes to keep from other characters. I used a POV character who was crucial to the plot of one story, but she had no idea what secrets her companions kept from her, nor how they valued her. I wrote the lead-up events in third person in chapter one from three different PsOV, just so the reader KNEW why the journey happened, but for the rest of the book, my third limited character was connecting pieces and making the most of her situation, completely unaware of the bigger moving pieces around her.

    Now I know that example isn't exactly what you're trying to accomplish, but imagine how far you can take it...

    A lord fighting a brutal war with a neighbor, but from the POV of his housekeeper or steward, we learn how his own people work against him, to realize his downfall...and are already selling his possessions right out from under him! FUN!

    I think often, a character further away from the action is the best.
     
  13. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    This, a thousand times.

    You can do ANYTHING in a story. You can break every "rule" you can do everything that everyone says readers don't like and get away with it. There is only one thing you can't get away with: being boring. If your story is interesting it doesn't really matter how you tell it, people will read it.
     
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  14. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yeah. It's amazing to me how often you will still see someone say "you can't do X if you want to get published" on a writing forum. It invariably turns out to be a false statement and you can list published works that do X. Nevertheless, you'll see someone else come along, or maybe even the same person, and repeat the same falsehood. It's like it is so ingrained in them that even empirical evidence that proves it false is discarded. Like showing someone who thinks the world is flat all the evidence that it isn't, and they just go on believing it is flat.
     
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  15. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    hooray for fanaticism in all its forms! However, there are risks to going your own way. Most of the time the justification seems to be, "If you can pull it off, do it." I have to agree with that. There are standards we as readers, writers, agents, publishers, etc. set and we almost dare someone to WOW us with something outside the box. However, the key word seems to be "wow". When it's done very un-wowing...it's just another weak manuscript by someone who didn't know what they were doing. Present tense is a good example of that. Some publications specifically mention they won't accept any story in present tense, yet some present tense books exist and are very good. I have read several newbie stories in present tense and honestly, there's no question in my mind they were poor choices. However, done well, present tense can be very engaging. A solid first POV, present tense is certainly a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, as a writer, unless you really have a solid grasp of the concepts involved and masterfully balance narrative, it often just comes off as pretentious and taking itself too seriously. Is it a best-avoided format? I don't know. When it's done well... it shines. When not, it's a dull turd you can't wait to flush. I think giving advice on where to do THIS and where never to do THOSE THINGS is harder to give to strangers than to someone with whose work you are very familiar. At least from the standpoint of "never do" and "try doing".
     
  16. Lovi

    Lovi Scribe

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    I think the OP meant having a POV character that is completely outside the actual plot, which also means that there has to be at least one other POV character so that the actual plot can even exist. I think that having a character like this is a huge let-down, because all he does is something that doesn't have to do anything with the plot. The reader constantly expects him to eventually become a vital part of the plot in some awesome way, but all he does is the mundane work of a smith or a farmer or such. No matter how well and interestingly the POV is written, it still won't be satisfying because it's pointless to the actual story.

    If you can make it interesting, which means being good at the craft basically, just having the tiniest link to the actual plot would make it relevant and powerful. Having a "pointless" character like I've described could, however, add some great mystery. Imagine suddenly adding a POV character that is interesting, but who travels away or dies in the end, seemingly having no connection to the actual plot whatsoever. The reader will keep trying to find answers and connections between the other events and the character, and you could use this later on as a way to build up more plot on top of the opening.

    So, be aware of what you're trying to achieve with the character and throw some of your very interesting ideas into it to make it interesting so that the reader won't quit reading your book because of the boring part. I know that for me it might only take one boring part and I'll lose interest in the book half way in.
     
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  17. Terry Greer

    Terry Greer Sage

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    The second of the world war Z books told the story of the zombie apocalypse through a huge series of POV clips that allowed all aspects of the collapse of order to be explored - with no main character to carry the story.

    Bob shaws 'Other days other eyse' - about the discovery and use of 'slow glass' (a substance that light travells through much slower than normal glass - taking from milliseconds to decades depending on its manufacture) similalry was made up of a whole slew of short stories exploring the ramifications of such a substance. Again with no overall main character.

    It can be very a very effective way of exploring avenues and perspectives that you couldn't possibly show any other way.
     
  18. Terry Greer

    Terry Greer Sage

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    I think the idea is not that his actions are mundane, just that he's not pivotal to the main plot. Perhaps the smith is the first one to meet up with a skirmishing group of mercenaries - fights bravely and dies.

    His 'importance' to the story is that he's displayed the mercenaries tactics/characters and attitudes, along with perhaps what the average villager thinks about the conflict. This is important and very useful backstory, not to mention atmosphere and colour, but its not 'important' as far as the main plot goes.

    Of course in this case he doesn't need to die - but then you would be expecting him to reappear later. The task is to make sure that the reader is in no doubt that the character won't reoccur.
     
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  19. psychotick

    psychotick Auror

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    Hi,

    I occasionally use a relatively unimportant POV character in a book to advance the plot. Usually I'm using them as a witness to events, and sometimes also as a sort of "everyman" who's thoughts about a situation will be seen as typical of the people of whatever group he's of. Mostly though these are short chapters and you get to know little more about the character than his name.

    So for example in one of my WIP's I have a soldier on patrol who only has two objectives for the plot. To wave a shipment of grain through a check point not realising that the instructions are fake and the grains going to the wrong trading family's warehouse, and later that night to be annoyed by the explosions when the warehouse is blown up. But I use him as an example of the typical soldier of his army, disinterested, would rather be somewhere else, angry about his lost pay, distrustful of his superiors etc. And I also use him because my hero is fighting a counter insurgency type war where no one even knows a war is happening - so most of his actual action is spent sitting on his backside dreaming up ways to undermine the enemy. Since that's boring to read about, rather like reading about a chess game, I'd rather have readers see the effects of his plans in action.

    Cheers, Greg.
     
  20. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    Most of the time I make my protagonists the viewpoint characters. Since the story centers around their exploits and development, they probably rank as the most important characters for me in the story-wise sense.
     
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