by Lori Freeland
Pitch out Visuals? Pass on Variety? Personalization of Villains? People of Value? Just what is POV, and why do you care?
Point of View (POV) refers to the character telling the story in a particular scene or chapter of your book. And only one character should tell the story at a time.
Why? Having a clear picture of what’s happening keeps us from being confused—not only in a novel but in real life too.
Imagine that you and a few friends witness a car accident. The responding police officer asks what happened, and everyone describes the incident at once. There are a few reasons he’ll likely listen less than thirty seconds before he stops the chatter.
- It’s hard to differentiate one voice from another when they’re mixed together.
- People highlight separate points and share them in a different order.
- Not everybody witnesses the event the same way. Bias kicks in. Each of us sees the world based on our own life experiences.
- What sticks out to one person fades into the background for another.
- We remember things differently, and not everyone’s data will match.
It’s much easier to interview each person who saw the accident and put the “big picture” together at the end using all the information. Your reader, like that police officer, can only process the world through one set of eyes at a time.
When we open a book as a reader, we “step into” the POV character’s head. In a way, we become that character. That means we can only:
- see what he sees
- hear what he hears
- feel what he feels
- know what he knows
- think the way he thinks
- react the way he reacts
If Paul is the POV (person telling the story), when he walks out of the kitchen and into the bedroom, he takes us with him. We can’t see his dog eating the hamburger he left out to thaw because Paul can’t see it. He’s no longer there. And neither are we.
However, if he’s in hearing range, he can describe the audio and let the reader “hear” it too.
Have you ever gotten a comment from a critique partner or an editor about your character head-hopping? Head Hopping means you’ve slipped out of the POV character’s head and into another character’s head. Sometimes writers will jump back and forth, and that can be confusing.
Think of head-hopping as God-like powers to peer into people’s minds to read their thoughts, intentions, and emotions. I can’t do it. You can’t do it. So, your POV character probably shouldn’t do it either—unless she’s psychic.
Types of POV
First and third person are the most common. First uses “I” and third uses the character’s name and “he” or “she.”
Example: I walked to the store and met Frank. / Karen walked to the store where she met Frank.
Point of View Versus Perspective
Point of view focuses on who’s telling the story. Perspective focuses on how that character sees the story.
Like with the car accident, characters can view the same event in different ways. How they view the event determines their reactions, actions, thoughts, and emotions. Think about this—a villain isn’t a villain in his own story.
Fact Versus Opinion
We can think of deep POV as fact versus opinion.
FACT: What the POV character actually sees, hears, or learns from first-hand experience and past knowledge about someone else. If it’s fact, the POV can make statements about what another character knows, feels, or thinks.
Example: At the kitchen island, David’s sorting documents. His symmetrical stacks are white cutouts on the black high-top table, and he’s brought us each two water bottles. As much as he drives me insane, if there ever is a zombie apocalypse, I’d pick him as my Walking-Dead wingman every single time. He thinks of everything.
(Statement made by our POV based on past, firsthand knowledge that’s supported by David’s current actions.)
OPINION: What the POV character perceives through non-verbal cues (body language, expressions, voice cues) or what she’s heard from another person. This refers back to perspective. If it’s opinion, the POV character can make an educated guess about what another character knows, feels, or thinks.
Example: In one barbed look (expression), David manages to nail me with equal amounts of accusation and disappointment, reminding me once again that I’m not his favorite person (opinion formed by our POV based on that expression).
Side Note about perception: One character’s perception of another character can be wrong, but that’s okay. Misperception causes conflict, and we want conflict.
We can think of deep POV as going undercover. An undercover agent has to stay in character 24/7. Sometimes his life depends on it.
Most people read for a chance to be someone else for a while. They like getting lost in someone else’s world. But how do we keep that world as real as possible so they don’t get yanked out in the middle of the journey?
Don’t Shatter Deep POV
- I widened my blue eyes.
- Her brown hair fell over her shoulders.
- My face turned red.
If you’re not looking in a mirror, you don’t see those things about yourself. And neither does your character. We don’t think about ourselves that way either—unless it’s something we’re constantly aware of that either bugs us, like an obvious scar, or makes us proud. Conceited people will think about the way they look all the time.
For ways POV characters can describe themselves, check out this WITS post Characters Are People Too.
- “Hey, Joe, how are you?”
- “Joe, do you want to go for a drive?”
- “Joe, that’s a great jacket.”
How often do you actually say someone’s name during a conversation? Make it a point to notice next time you’re talking with other people.
For more on dialogue, check out this WITS post: Dive Deep into Dialogue.
- I thought she looked beautiful. / She looked beautiful.
- She wondered if he liked her. / Did he like her?
In deep POV, everything is that character’s thought. You can cut “thought” and “wondered” 99.9% of the time. Especially avoid “he thought to himself.” We all “think” to ourselves. We can’t “think” to anyone else. And sometimes, we wouldn’t want to.
- Filtered: I watched Ben swagger across the room and noticed Jane’s face fall.
- Unfiltered: Ben swaggered across the room, and Jane’s face fell.
Multiple Points of View
How NOT to Write Multiple POVs
1. Don’t confuse secondary characters with POV characters. Each POV character has to have his or her own complete story arc related to the overall story arc. This includes your villain.
This doesn’t mean you can’t tell a secondary character’s story. But it should be told through a POV character’s observations. In Harry Potter, Harry is telling the story, but we feel like we know the secondary characters just as well.
2. Don’t retell the same scene from a different character’s point of view—unless you’re telling that kind of story. The movie Vantage Point is told that way. One event. Multiple perspectives. Different versions of the truth.
3. Don’t add new POV characters just to create subplots. If your story spans a large time period or has dual timelines, each of the POV characters you add needs to have their own complete story.
4. Don’t bring in POV characters because you feel you need to offer the reader information or explanations. There are more creative ways to do that. But that’s another post.
There are specific times in your story that allow you to change to a different point of view. When you...
- Start a new scene
- Start a new chapter
- Make an obvious scene break (use white space and #)
How do you pick a POV?
You’ve decided to go with two POV characters. Maybe you’re writing a romance with the hero and heroine’s points of view. They each have their own complete stories related to the overall story arc, and you’re good to go. How do you choose which character tells what part of the story? You might:
- swap out every other chapter or every other scene
- split a scene in half and show both points of view
- consider which character has the most to lose or gain during the scene
Whatever you go with, be consistent. Don’t give twenty chapters to the heroine and four to the hero. Don’t show us inside “his” head and never give us a glimpse of “hers.” In a dual POV situation like this, think of your novel like a movie with two co-stars. They both want equal time.
When you’re working with multiple POV characters, it’s crucial to orient your reader. Make sure they know whose head they’re in. Readers don’t like to be confused. Open each scene with your POV character.
- Dialogue (the POV speaking)
- Action (the POV doing)
- Internal Thought (the POV thinking)
If you open with a “floating” question, no dialogue tag attached, your reader will assume it’s the POV character and jump into her head. And once you choose your POV, commit. No head-hopping for that portion of the story.
As writers, why do we care about POV?
Because we care about our readers. Our job is to give them the smoothest read possible. They want to step into the world you’ve imagined through the characters you’ve created and stay there—without any glitches, blips, distractions.
Your turn. What are your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to POV as a writer? What are your biggest issues as a reader? Leave a comment! And I love examples. Please share yours.
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An encourager at heart, author, editor, and writing coach Lori Freeland believes everyone has a story to tell. She’s presented multiple workshops at writer’s conferences across the country and writes everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels—YA to adult. When she’s not curled up with her husband drinking too much coffee and worrying about her kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head.
You can find her young adult and contemporary romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog and writing tips at lafreeland.com. Her latest release, The Accidental Boyfriend, is currently free on the Radish app.
Top photo credit:
Photo 113666910 © Monkey Business Images - Dreamstime.com