Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Point of View

Being an indie author doesn’t automatically mean your book needs work. But I've read enough indie books to know some could use a little tightening up. Point of View (POV) is one area I have found needing a little work, so I thought I would blabber on about it today.

Let’s start with the easy one. First Person POV: In this POV, we are in the main character’s head, and the word “I” is used. We only know what the main character knows. If you start in this POV, your entire book should be written in first person. I’ve seen traditionally published books where the author started in first person, and then decided they needed to tell the story from another POV, so they switched into another character’s head. In my opinion, this is confusing and should be avoided at all costs. If you think you might want to switch the POV to another character, you should start out in Third Person. (We’ll get to that one later.)

Here’s an example of a paragraph written in first person: I grabbed my lunch and headed out, slamming the door behind me. I had only taken a few steps before I heard quiet sobbing. Sheila sat on her front stoop, her head in her hands. I rushed over to see what was wrong.

Now, here’s an example of the same paragraph, with a point of view shift that shouldn’t be there: I grabbed my lunch and headed out, slamming the door behind me. I had only taken a few steps before I heard quiet sobbing. Sheila sat on her front stoop, distraught over her husband’s harsh words. She couldn’t believe what he had just said to her. I rushed over to see what was wrong.

In the second example, we shift over to Sheila’s POV in the middle, and then back to the main character’s POV. We can easily tell because the main character wouldn’t know why Sheila was distraught. We should only be able to hear and see what the main character is hearing, seeing and thinking.

First Person POV is the easiest to stay in. It is also limiting, because we can never leave the main character’s head. If something is going on in the book outside of the main character’s knowledge, we can’t find out about it. We don’t know what other characters are feeling and thinking, only what the main character perceives through his or her five senses.

Next, we’ll talk about Second Person. This is where the word “you” is used, and you as the reader are the main character. This point of view is hardly ever used in novel writing. I’ve read a few poems written in Second Person, but it’s hard to pull off. For the purpose of this blog, I’m not going to say any more about Second Person POV. You don’t need to worry about it, you’ll probably not be using it.

Now we come to Third Person POV. This is where the author uses “he” and “she”.

There are two main types of this POV that I will touch on. The first is Third Person Omniscient. In this POV the narrator can see into everyone’s head, knows not only the past and present, but also the future.

Here’s an example written in Third Person Omniscient: Sheila wiped the tears from her cheeks and stood. Her resolve crumbled, and she entered her one story cottage. She had no idea that today would be the day that would change her life.

The reason this example is Omniscient is because Sheila wouldn’t know that today would be the day that would change her life, so we’re no longer in her POV. The narrator knows all, so the narrator can reveal all. This can be disorienting to the reader.

Third Person Omniscient is difficult to pull off, and was mostly used in the past. Today, if it is used it is usually to begin a novel, and then the author switches to Third Person Limited.

Which brings us to our next POV, Third Person Limited. This POV is probably the most used, and has the most flexibility. In this POV the author uses “he” and “she”, but stays in the mind of one character. The author can switch between characters, but only after section or chapter breaks. While we are in one section, we should stay firmly in one character’s POV.

Here is an example of Third Person Limited: Sheila stalked into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of orange juice, glad that Robert wasn’t around. Footsteps sounded behind her and she turned. Robert leaned up against the counter, his jaw clenched and his eyes narrow. “Oh, you startled me,” she said.

Here we were in Sheila’s POV. We can tell it’s Sheila’s POV because she was glad that Robert wasn’t around. We wouldn’t know this in anyone else’s POV.

Now here’s the same passage, but with a POV shift that shouldn’t be there: Sheila stalked into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of orange juice, glad that Robert wasn’t around. Robert opened the bedroom door at the sound of someone in the kitchen. He walked over to Sheila, and leaned up against the counter. Anger coursed through him. “Oh, you startled me,” she said.

The passage first starts out in Sheila’s POV. We know it’s her POV because we read that she’s glad Robert isn’t around. The POV shift happens when we read ‘at the sound of someone in the kitchen’. Sheila wouldn’t know why Robert was coming out of the bedroom, and depending on where she’s looking, and if you can see the bedroom door from the kitchen, she might not even be able to see Robert.

So, what’s the big deal? Why can’t I shift into Robert’s POV? I want to write about his anger coursing through him. Why can’t I switch?

The answer to this is simple. POV shifts are disorienting to the reader. If you want to jump into Robert’s POV, end the section and begin another one starting out in his POV. This is much less disorienting to the reader. One more thing I would like to point out, and that is with the first example I showed his anger through Sheila’s eyes. You don’t need to switch POV’s to tell the reader that Robert is angry. His clenched jaw and narrow eyes should tell the reader he’s not happy.

Okay, let’s recap the two main POV’s used these days in novels, First Person and Third Person Limited. If you start your story in First Person, you should stay there. Don’t talk about anything that your main character wouldn’t know about. The entire story should be told through one person’s eyes.

In Third Person Limited you can switch POV’s, but only after a section or chapter break. Let the reader know right away whose POV you are in if you have switched, (if it’s not obvious) to lesson confusion. This is as easy as mentioning what your character is feeling or thinking.

While in one person’s POV, only write what he or she is thinking, feeling, and seeing. If you want the reader to know about another character, give clues as to how they are feeling by ‘showing’ the reader through their actions and descriptions.


1. When describing things, make sure the character who’s POV you are in would describe things this way. For example, if a man walked into a bar he might notice the dim lights and the scantily clad waitress. If a woman were to walk into the same bar, she might notice the crystal light fixtures or the blue eyed man sitting at the bar. Don’t describe things or people out of your character’s POV.

2. When new characters are introduced, don’t name them until the POV character finds out who they are.

3. If your POV character is a child, don’t use names for their parents. The child would think of their parents as “Mom” and “Dad”. (Unless your character is a teen who might have a bit of a chip on their shoulder. Then they might call their parents by their names.)

4. Don’t say things like “Sharon didn’t see the man in black”, because that’s outside of Sharon’s POV. If she didn’t see it, don’t mention it.

5. When describing the POV character, don’t say things that the POV character can’t see. For example, take the sentence, “I rubbed at my red, puffy eyes.” The character wouldn’t be able to see that their eyes were red and puffy unless they were looking in the mirror.

Homework: Count the POV shifts in this next example. Leave a comment and tell me how many you counted. Who knows, you could win something!

    Jennifer ran her fingers through her hair before rapping on the door. Her heart felt like a quivering lump of jell-o. Alex answered the door almost immediately. He could tell Jennifer was nervous, the way she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “Hi,” he said, leaning on the door frame.
    Jennifer couldn’t back out now. She mustered up the courage to speak. “Hi.” She swallowed, her tongue feeling like sandpaper. “I was wondering what you were doing this Saturday.”
    Big blue eyes peered at him, and his heart melted. “I’m not doing much,” Alex said.
    Jennifer felt beads of sweat forming on her brow. “Well, if you’re not busy, would you take me to the Sadie Hawkin’s Dance?” She held her breath.
    After what seemed like forever, Alex smiled and said, “Sure.” He could tell she was pleased by his answer.
    Relief flooded through her. “Great. Thank you.”
    Brianna couldn’t figure out what was taking Alex so long at the door. She closed her Physics book and stood. A girl’s voice carried through the air. She frowned, and walked into the other room. Jennifer was at the door.
    Brianna appeared behind Alex, and Jennifer’s heart stopped. A slow smile crept across Brianna’s face. “Hello, Jennifer.” She possessively put a hand on Alex’s shoulder.
    Heat rose to Alex’s face. “Um, Jennifer, you know Brianna. We were just studying.”
    “Yeah, studying,” Brianna said, wiggling her eyebrows up and down.
    Pain stabbed through Jennifer’s chest. She blinked back the tears. “You know, just forget it, okay?” She turned and fled.

For extra credit, try writing this scene staying only in Alex’s POV.


  1. It seems to have become fashionable lately for writers to mingle first person and third person. I read a J.A. Konrath book along those lines recently, and I remember reading a chick lit book like that a while back. Personally, I don't like it, but I think this is an example of people mixing up the rules to make the reader sit up and take notice. It's hard to do well, and is likely to be jarring.

    I'm a big POV purist. I'm revising and cleaning up my second book, and there are a couple of places where POV shifts during a scene. And it BUGS me. I think I'm going to have to leave them, because I can't figure out how to write around them, but I would never ever ever do that nowadays. But again, some authors do get away with POV shifting within a scene. If you do it very well, and don't do it too often, it can be done. It's the "head hopping," where writers shift back and forth from paragraph to paragraph, that is really annoying to the reader, I think.

  2. Yes, I've seen First Person to Third Person Limited mixed up. Personally I don't like it, but I think it can be done well. Sometimes, knowing the rules and pushing them can be successful. Other times, it doesn't work and just leaves the reader confused. :)

  3. You're absolutely right that this is a tricky issue that everyone has to deal with. I remember when I got my book back from my editor he was serious about the problems it posed, and we had to spent a lot of time to get through it. The essence of his advice was: one character per scene. If you want to get inside of someone else's head, you've got to change scenes.

    I counted 10, though I wouldn't be surprised if I missed one or two. Great exercise!


  4. Whoo hoo, Jason, you win! :) Yes, I had to learn about POV too after I wrote my first draft. I kept wanting to shift into other heads to make my point. I'm glad I had nice people telling me how to fix it. My brother, for one. He was the first one to tell me my POV shifts were driving him nuts. (Thanks, bro!)

  5. I understand the issue of mixing POVs, and it seems a LOT of novels make that mistake. Worse, when multiple POVs are imposed on the reader, there are too many details that are either too packed to comprehend or too many irrelevant details that do not factor into the characters or the plot line.

    With at least one POV used, there's a chance for greater clarity and for greater atmosphere. And atmosphere is one of the many factors that keep readers intrigued, especially when they don't have too many random details thrown at them.


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