Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Basics: Point of View

Funny, the things you just don't know when you write your first novel.  After I wrote mine, I handed it to my husband, who gave it to a friend of his to read.  (My first official "beta reader" and I didn't know it!)  This guy was an avid fantasy fan and voracious reader, so I was very interested in his opinions on my Masterpiece, which happened to be fantasy.

(I should, like, pay him for the pain of that experience.)

Anyway, he mentioned something in his notes about being in different heads when people were talking, and I really didn't know what he meant.  So, like any intelligent aspiring author, I ignored him.

Then I sent some chapters to a WRITER friend (different animal, that).  Who promptly told me I had point of view (POV) problems, and recommended I get myself a copy of Self Editing for Fiction Writers (I did).

Yeah.  I had no idea what it meant to "stay inside my protagonist's head."  Even tried to defend myself a few times while this guy was pointing out my errors.  (I shudder to remember.)

So what, exactly is POINT OF VIEW?  And why is it so important?

POINT OF VIEW (POV) is the story as viewed (or experienced) by YOUR MAIN CHARACTER(S) or WHOEVER IS TELLING THE STORY. In the modern novel, it's standard practice to give the POV to your protagonist, whether you're writing in first or third person.  (That's "I" or "he/she".)  Any time you write anything outside of this intimate experience, you're violating the point of view, and the writing either is rendered unclear or isn't logical.

Examples are the best way to learn, so here we go:

1.  Junebug is the main character:

"Oh my gosh."  Junebug turned ten shades of red as he stood in the bathroom doorway.  "I didn't know anyone was in here."

Since the story is being told from Junebug's perspective, HE WOULD NOT SEE HIS FACE TURNING TEN SHADES OF RED.  He is INSIDE his face, not looking at it.  It's a POV problem.


"Oh my gosh."  Junebug's face grew hot as he stood in the bathroom doorway.  "I didn't know anyone was in here."

2.  Celia is the main character.  Dave is the boy she likes.

"No one's asked me to the dance."  Celia lowered her eyes.

Dave's tee-shirt was sticking to his armpits and his breath was coming too fast.  It was like he fell to pieces every time Celia talked to him.  But he couldn't tell her that.  He cleared his throat.

"Will you go with me?" he asked.

In the above example, we jump right out of Celia's head and into Dave's, where we should never be.  First of all, Celia has lowered her eyes, which means she's not looking at Dave.  So even if his sticky armpits were visible, she wouldn't be looking at them right now.  The paragraph also talks about what he's feeling on the inside, and Celia wouldn't have any idea about that, either, unless she's some sort of creepy mind-reader.  So the entire paragraph is a POV error.


"No one's asked me to the dance."  Celia lowered her eyes, listening to Dave's too-fast breathing.  She wished she hadn't mentioned the dance.

Dave cleared his throat.  "Will you go with me?"

3.  Teresa ("I") is the main character.

"Here ya go, Teresa."

Roland handed me the keys and stuck his hand back into his pocket.  Satisfied, he flashed a smile I'd grown to hate.  My eyes reflected the annoyance that never seemed to go away.

"It'd be nice if you'd check with me next time," I said.

The middle paragraph has two egregious POV errors.  First of all, Teresa would not know that Roland is satisfied.  She might observe satisfaction on his face, or perceive it in his voice, but to simply say that Roland is "satisfied" is a POV error.  Secondly, Teresa cannot know what her eyes are reflecting.  She can FEEL the annoyance, but she can't know how it's being translated on her face.


"Here ya go, Teresa."

Roland handed me the keys and stuck his hand back into his pocket.  Smug satisfaction laced the smile he flashed.  So annoying.

"It'd be nice if you'd check with me next time," I said.

And there you have it.  It's a matter of being careful as you write.  Ask yourself:  Can my main character KNOW this?  Can he SEE this?  Can he HEAR this?  Everything your main character responds to has to be something he CAN respond to.  And if it's his own facial expression or something that only another character could know, then it's a POV error.

Interestingly, novels from earlier eras tend to use a more OMNISCIENT point of view, instead of sticking inside the protagonist's head.  Jane Austen, my favorite novelist, doesn't tell Pride and Prejudice, for instance, solely from Lizzy Bennett's viewpoint.  She pretty much jumps into the heads of whomever is in the current scene.  In the hands of a skilled writer, this can work just fine.  But I would caution against attempting this for two reasons:  One, it's a difficult thing to pull off, and can end up confusing your readers.  Two, modern readers are used to the modern POV, which is limited to the protagonist (as in the above examples).

So as you write, remember that the story is unfolding AS YOUR MAIN CHARACTERS LIVES AND PERCEIVES it.  Make sure everything you say is coming from inside his head.

And don't ever ask to see my first novel.  Just sayin'.


  1. Omniscient isn't hopping from one character's head to another. Omni, is having an all-knowing narrator with a distinct voice who can see everything and everyone and knows what they're all thinking all the time. (Like if you were to retell a movie, knowing the twists and turns and motivations to someone who hadn't seen it.)

    It's also not antiquated. Stephen King uses it frequently.

    Harry Potter is written in Omni, with a tight focus on Harry. ("When Mr. and Mrs. Dursley woke up on the dull, gray Tuesday our story starts," <--- this is the narrator's voice. As is ----> "There was already someone there but it wasn't Snape. It wasn't even Voldemort.")

    Lemony Snicket (A series of unfortunate events) is done in the more antiquated sort of 3rd Omni, with an omniscient narrator that breaks the 4th wall and speaks directly to the reader; he also becomes a character in the books later in the series.

    It's only head-hopping when you bounce from one character's voice to another. In Omni, the voice stays consistently that of the narrator.

  2. Yes, technically that's correct. I'm going to get into the different POVs in another Basics post some time, as it was too much to talk about in one post.

    I was using the term "head-hopping" broadly, because really, that goes on a lot, too, in omni -- "George felt this way" and "Emily thought this thing" and "Bilbo was worried" and so on. You're not technically "in" their heads like you are in tight POV, but you're still hopping from viewpoint to viewpoint. That's what I was referring to.

    Stick around and maybe I'll make you write the next post. ;D (I'm kidding, really...;D)

  3. (BTW, I found Lemony's narrative so annoying in the first book that I didn't read the rest.)

    (Also, the first chapter of each HP book is omniscient, but the rest is tight Harry. No?)

  4. (I have to agree on the Lemony snicket bit. It got to be a bit too "precious")

    From what I can tell, the whole of HP book 1 is in Omni (which is why I pointed out the line from the end). Rowling uses Omni effectively, which is why her world-building rocks. But, she keeps the focus on Harry. Just because you can show the inside thoughts of all, doesn't mean you have to. I haven't read the others, so I couldn't say.

    The trick to writing any viewpoint is to make the POV invisible. POV only becomes an issue if its noticeable. A ton of people *hate* 1st person present, but I've seen them rave about books written that way, only to say later that the book was so good they didn't notice its POV. (I was one of them.) The same is true for 3rd limited and 3rd omni (or 1st person past, for that matter).

    This seems to be a sticking point for new writers. Over on Absolute Write there's two or three new threads dedicated POV each week.

    And, just to make your eyes cross - I've got 3 WIP nearly finished: 1 in 1st present, 1 in 1st past, and one in Omni. :-D

    It's fun to change it up.

  5. I think there is an obvious difference between omni and third-person limited and that is more specific than just the multi-character POV. In
    omni, the narrator is quite often "outside" of the heads of his characters which means he doesn't head jump when he switches from character to character. In third-person limited, the narrator is in the heads but the heads switch in different scenes.

    You can always tell the difference by asking yourself this: do I feel like I SEE the characters (OMNI) or do I feel like I AM the characters (third-person limited).

  6. @Authoress -- Lol, I found Lemony Snicket's narrative annoying, too. The Harry Potter books are written in close third, with a couple of exceptions--the opening chapters of book one, book seven, and the first two in book six. And, if I remember correctly, there is a bit of head hopping in book one.

    Great post! Head hopping can get subtle, so it's good to know what to look for. =)

  7. Love the way Cassandra Clare changes POV in her Mortal Instruments books. It's a great ride. Great post.