Nearly every author with whom I’ve spoken has mentioned their early struggles with point of view (POV). The topic is vital to your success as a novelist.
What is Point of View?
Essentially, POV is the character narrating the story—whether throughout the entire novel or for specific scenes or chapters. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing in first person (the character is “I”), second person (the character is “you”) or third person (the character is “he” or “she”).
Kris Neri described it as, “Slipping into a character suit, looking out through the eye holes in the suit. You can only see what the character sees. That means that you can’t see what’s behind you; therefore, you can’t describe it until you turn around. And you can’t see the character suit’s own face, unless you’re looking in a mirror or something reflective. You can’t wear more than one suit in a single scene. You can’t wear two at the same time.”
The same goes for feelings and thoughts. You only know what’s going on inside the POV character.
While there are many POV related mistakes an aspiring author could make, two typical ones are head hopping and author intrusion.
Head hopping refers to describing thoughts of feelings of more than one character within a scene. Here’s an example. You’re writing in Sally’s POV when she and Jenny are talking. “‘You lied,’ Jenny said, feeling the sting of betrayal.”
Oops! You can’t know what Jenny felt when you’re in Sally’s POV. You can only know what Sally knows. You can correct this mistake with something like, “‘You lied,’ Jenny said, as if feeling the sting of betrayal.”
Author intrusion refers to describing or sayings things in a way that the POV character wouldn’t. Either you use a different style (referred to as voice), or you giving the POV character information he or shouldn’t couldn’t have.
The break can be subtle, but sophisticated readers and editors will pick up on it, thereby limiting your success as a novelist.
Writing in a Character’s POV
said that writing in a POV character’s voice is key to developing rich characters to whom your readers can connect. A 22-year-old female college student from San Francisco would describe an event differently than a 55-year-old male plumber from Ohio. These two characters grew up in different generations, each bringing with them the slang of that generation, not to mention the slang of where they grew up. Their life experiences were different, giving them unique attitudes, beliefs and values. Their emotional makeup is a product of many things, including gender and background.
“We need to see the scene and perceive everything in it the way the character would,” Mark said. “If you can’t do that, you’ve not captured the character. Describe it with their words. See things the way they would.”
Mark and others encourage authors to develop character profiles to help understand a character well enough to write in their voice. Know their physical traits (hair and eye color, height, weight, tattoos, etc.) as well as the events in their lives that shaped who they are and why they behave the way they behave. Know what drives them, especially what they want to achieve during your novel. Know what obstacles they face in achieving their goal, and what consequences they or others will endure if the character fails to achieve the goal.
Limit POV Characters
Publisher Jessica Tribble strongly recommends limiting the number of POV characters in a novel. As someone who decides what her company publishes, she prefers to see stories written from one character’s perspective. She said that some authors can manage more than one, but even they should limit them to as few as possible.
Kris Neri said, “There isn’t any fixed limit, but using too many POV characters makes us lose interest in all of them. Depending on the scope of a book, in a leaner book, I probably wouldn’t want to go over four POV characters; a bigger book might take six, or even eight. But that’s really pushing it. Don’t choose a POV count based on what makes it easier for you to write; figure out what works best for the reader.”
POV Rules to Write By
- One POV character per scene, identified immediately at the beginning of the scene
- No head hopping within a scene
- Don’t give the POV character knowledge he or she can’t have
- Limit the number of POV characters
- Choose a main character, and give that person (usually the protagonist) the most POV ink
- Only change POV when it benefits the reader’s enjoyment of the story, not when it makes it easier for you to write