One of the most common writing challenges is avoiding point-of-view errors. It doesn’t seem to matter where we are along the writing path—from newbie to multi-published—point-of-view errors crop up like many-headed hydra. Just when we think we’ve got them all, there’s another head coming around to bite us from behind.
When we start out writing, we’re most likely to head-hop, but as we understand point of view better, head-hopping usually disappears. The point-of-view errors we start to make are sneakier, harder for us to see in our own writing.
These POV errors happen any time we’re in a limited point of view—where we’re supposed to stay inside one viewpoint character at a time—and we write something that our viewpoint character couldn’t know, wouldn’t have experienced, or wouldn’t be thinking about. (My friend Jami Gold, who shared her excellent NaNoWriMo tips here earlier this week, calls them out-of-POV phrases. That’s a great way to describe them.)
So how do we avoid them?
We become the point-of-view character.
That might sound simplistic, but if we actually embrace this, we won’t have point-of-view errors in our book. Let’s look at what it means if we think about our point-of-view character in terms of ourselves.
We know our own thoughts and feelings, but we don’t know anyone else’s.
I can’t know what anyone else is thinking, or even if they’re thinking about anything at all. I can’t know how someone else is feeling. They might be smiling on the outside and in agony on the inside. Or the scowl I interpret as anger toward me might simply be gas pains.
I also can’t know why someone does an action. I can’t know if they turned toward me because they heard me enter the room, because they caught a glimpse from the corner of their eye, or because they were going to turn that direction anyway.
So, if we have a female POV character, and we write something like this…
Bob grabbed the signed baseball, angry she’d moved it from the shelf.
We’ve created a POV error. She can’t know Bob is feeling angry or what the source of his anger is.
Understanding that our point-of-view character is just like us in that their perception is limited to their own thoughts, feelings, and motivations is foundational to avoiding point-of-view errors. We can only write what our point-of-view character knows. If they’re making a guess or interpreting based on the evidence they see, then we need to make it clear through internal dialogue how they’ve reached their conclusion.
We can’t sense things outside of our sight, earshot, or smell range, and we can’t experience things before they happen.
Sounds obvious, right? But sometimes we forget to think about how we perceive the world around us.
I can’t see something that’s happening behind me or that’s happening when my eyes are closed. If I don’t notice something happening, I can’t tell you about it. I can’t normally see my own face.
I don’t know what my future holds, and I can’t experience something before it actually happens (including the tone of voice someone else will use when they speak).
So if our point-of-view character can’t see it, hear it, touch it, taste it, or smell it at that moment, we can’t include it. If we do, it’s a point-of-view error. I’ll give you a quick example for this one. Let’s say our viewpoint character is Andrea.
POV Error: Andrea’s face turned red.
Andrea can’t see her own face. This is from the perspective of someone looking at Andrea, but if we are Andrea, we don’t experience it this way.
What We Experience As Andrea: Heat rushed up her neck and into her cheeks.
If we’re Andrea, we experience it from the inside—what we feel.
We don’t think about things we’re familiar with, and we’re consistent in how we do think about things.
There are parts of my life that I never think about, and I’d bet there are parts of your life that you don’t think about either. You probably don’t think about your eye color much at all, or the way your living room looks (unless you come home to find that your husband and his friends have knocked out a wall), or about the way your boss regularly dresses. You don’t think about how to drive your car. You don’t think about the set-up of your society either—you take that for granted. Yet sometimes all those elements sneak into our writing, creating POV errors.
We can run every part of our novel through this framework. What name do you use when you think about your spouse? I only think about my husband as Chris. I don’t think about him as Christopher. I don’t think about him by his last name. Yet, when we write, within the same scene we might have our point-of-view character think about someone as Michael, the young construction worker, and the man.
The way we interpret, judge, and interact with the world depends on our past and personality and is individual to us.
Every fall, my family attends a rural fair, complete with exhibits, vendors, greasy food, and midway rides. It’s crowded and loud and you’re always running into people you know. I love visiting the animal barns and buying foods I can’t get anywhere else. It’s fun.
To my husband, an Iraqi war veteran with PTSD, it’s a struggle. A crowded situation like my friendly local fair translates to his mind as too many potential threats to mitigate. His past experiences mean that he doesn’t see the fair the same way I do.
That’s an extreme example, but we do it with everything we encounter every day.
I grew up with Great Danes. My current Dane weighs 130 pounds. So I love big dogs. I see a big dog and I want to talk to the owner and pet the dog. But many people see a big dog and it inspires fear.
Does that café you visited for lunch have character or is it grungy and rundown? Is the biker on the street corner someone to be feared, criticized, or used as a source for the best bike shops and tattoo parlors?
One of the biggest mistakes we make as writers in terms of setting is describing it in generic terms. Coloring our descriptions with our point-of-view character’s opinions brings them to life, enhances voice, and gives readers the exciting experience of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.
It also avoids POV errors. When we think about every event through our point-of-view character’s personal filter, we won’t try to describe something with words or opinions they wouldn’t hold. Or to describe things they never would have noticed in the first place.
Next time you’re not sure whether something you’ve written is a POV error or not, ask yourself what you’d experience if you were the point-of-view character.
Do you have any other tips on avoiding point-of-view errors?
- the strengths and weaknesses of the four different points of view you can choose for your story (first person, second person, limited third person, and omniscient),
- how to select the right point of view for your story,
- how to maintain a consistent point of view throughout your story,
- practical techniques for identifying and fixing head-hopping and other point-of-view errors,
- the criteria to consider when choosing the viewpoint character for each individual scene or chapter,
- and much more!
Marcy Kennedy is a freelance fiction editor and the author of the bestselling Busy Writer’s Guides series, which includes her newest book Point of View in Fiction: A Busy Writer’s Guide. She loves helping writers find ways to follow their dreams without sacrificing their life. The Busy Writer’s Guide series focuses on giving authors the in-depth, practical information they need while still respecting their time. You can find her blogging about writing and about the place where real life meets science fiction, fantasy, and myth on her website. To subscribe to her free newsletter (and receive some thank-you gifts), go to http://eepurl.com/Bk2Or.