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?
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.
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Really good points for all writers to think long and hard about. Thanks.
It's the subtle POV shifts that I've had to learn to recognize and avoid. Thanks Marcy!
Marcy, thanks for this article—It's clear, easy to read and I know it all to be right on—I just sometimes forget to think about it. I'm printing it to read every now and then as a refresher.
The great thing about writing is we can fix so much during editing 🙂
Excellent examples that drive home the point. We all KNOW this, but as you say, the subtle POV migration happens anyway. Thanks.
Love this post, Marcy. I've seen lots of POV posts, but not ones about what I call, 'minor POV violations'. They're very easy mistakes to make! Thanks!
Once we've been writing for a while, the minor errors tend to be the ones that creep in, so I was glad I could share this post. Thanks for having me here at WITS!
My first writing lesson from my mentor was on POV, and I"m overly sensitive to shifts without transitions. I love deep POV (and will be giving a workshop at the SleuthFest writing conference next February). Things like "she ran her hand through her short-cropped chestnut hair" or "her floral print skirt blew in the breeze" can make my teeth itch. If you substitute "I" for the "hes" and "shes" in a 3rd person deep pov manuscript, you'll probably catch a lot of what we in our critique group call 'shaky POV'
Switching to first person as a check is an excellent tip. Thanks for sharing!
I love this and would like to repost it on my Word Press Blog. Is there a way to do that? I don't see an option for Word Press.
Joanne, you can just do a lead in, then copy and paste the URL. Or say, .... the blog is here <- and put a link under 'here'.
It's so easy to slip out of POV, even when you know better! 🙂
I liked this — and it helped me soooo greatly — that I've shared it with my Facebook NaNoWriMo group. Thank you ever so much.
Great post, Marcy. I know that a lot of authors "head hop"--dual points of view in the same section--and for me, it ruins my suspension of disbelief. When writing in multiple viewpoint, it's preferable to keep each character's perspective separate. Either start a new part or a new chapter; that's what I'd suggest. However, everyone employs his or her own writing style. In truth, there are no right or wrong ways, just better ways.
I agree. I always recommend that writers use a proper transition when they want to swap heads. That said, we can definitely do whatever we want in our fiction, especially in these days of self-publishing. But when we do, we need to be aware of the possible consequences. Most readers, myself included, do find it jarring and confusing when writers head-hop. Thanks for the comment 🙂
Lovely! Just lovely! I really needed a pep talk about POV! Thanks for the great post!
I really enjoy reading your posts, Marcy. The timing of this post is funny. POV errors is what I have been working on all week!
Thanks, Tim 🙂 My hope is always that my post will reach someone at just the right time.
Great post! I'm also for deep PoV writing, and all your advice is a perfect fit, but when a writer prefers writing in omniscient? Then the narrator sees all and knows all. But is this PoV the way to go these days?
I find it challenging to describe what my heroine is wearing when I'm in her PoV. I can't have her standing in front of a mirror all the time! So I usually go for "Her too tight skirt was more proof that she needed to cut down on those late snacks in front of the TV", or "Why did she have to wear heels when she knew her day would be endless? She blocked the idea that, on some level, she'd done it for Markos' benefit before it fully formed."
Yes, I write romances... 🙂
These tips are for writing in a limited point of view (first or third). I think omniscient is still a valid point of view, but it's also tougher to execute well than most writers realize. I suspect that's part of the reason it's "out of fashion."
Those are great ways to deal with one of the toughest challenges for a limited POV. Thanks for sharing!
This is brilliant! Thank you.
Excellent information about characterization and POV here for writers with specific examples. Thank you so much! I've shared generously.
[…] “Becoming Your POV Character” by Marcy Kennedy (Writers In The Storm) […]
[…] Writers in the Storm posted an article about becoming your character, so that you don’t make mistakes like head hop or have multiple viewpoints for one character. The best way to do that is to become your character. That way, Marcy Kennedy explained, we can better remember that we only know our own thoughts and feelings, not someone else’s, we can only experience things within our eye sight or within our ear shot as they happen, and our past and personality determines how we react and interpret things. […]