Problems with Point of View

What’s wrong with this passage?

Jack rolled down the window half an inch, a smirk unconsciously spreading across his face. She’d never find her way back without him, and no one would find her until the coyotes had picked her bones clean.

Anna yanked at the door handle, trying unsuccessfully to hide the feeling of dread squeezing her chest. “Unlock the door, Jake. This isn’t funny anymore.”

Jake’s cold blue eyes stared into her green ones without blinking. After all she’d made him suffer through, he was going to enjoy this moment.

You might not know exactly what to call the major problem in this snippet, but I hope you could tell that something was off. It was rife with point of view (POV) problems—the bane of fiction writers’ existences.

What Is POV?

I think every aspiring fiction writer makes their fair share of POV mistakes. I know I have. When we talk about POV, we basically mean the point of view from which the story is told. Who are you listening to? Whose head are you in? In a practical sense, POV lays the foundation for everything you’ll write in your story, and it comes in four types.

Third Person uses he/she to tell the story: “He walked to the store.”

First Person uses I to tell the story: “I walked to the store.”

Omniscient lets the author tell the story. While very acceptable in what we now call “classic” literature, this is virtually a no-no today. Readers don’t want to be told, they want to be shown. We now consider an omniscient POV author intrusion. You can try it if you want, but do so at your own risk. And be ready for a lot of agents, editors, reviewers, and readers to not like it.

Second Person tells the story using you: “You walked to the store.” The “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that were popular when I was a kid used second person POV. Aside from those, it’s never been done well (and looking back, those weren’t really done well either). At the very least, you won’t be able to sell it in the Christian market.

You’ll pick one POV for your book. (Occasionally you can use both third person and first person, but it needs to be handled with great care–for example, the way Beverly Lewis uses a first person prologue and epilogue in the books in her Heritage of Lancaster County series to frame the third person body of the novels).

Once you pick your POV, you need to also chose your POV character(s). You can have more than one POV character per book, but you also don’t want to go POV character crazy. Most books don’t need more than two or three (hero, heroine, and villain).

You need to maintain one consistent POV character per chapter/scene within the book. What you saw in my example above is head-hopping. I popped from Jake to Anna and back to Jack again in the span of a few lines.

It’s difficult to explain why avoiding POV errors is so important except to tell you that consistent POV makes for better fiction.

How Do You Maintain Consistency?

To maintain consistent POV in third person or first person, follow one simple rule: You are the POV character.

(1) You know what they know. If they don’t know it, you can’t write about it. No “little did she know” or any similar statements blatantly foreshadowing the future. And unless you believe in ESP, no telling what other characters are thinking or feeling.

(2) You sense what they sense. If they can’t see it, hear it, touch it, taste it, or smell it, neither can you. For example, if you’re in Andrea’s POV, writing “Andrea’s face turned red” is a POV mistake. You can’t see your own face. What you could write instead is “Andrea’s face burned” or “Andrea felt heat rush up her neck.”

(3) You think what they think. Do you regularly think about the color of your eyes? Would you think about your hair as your “raven tresses”? You probably don’t think about your hair or eye color much at all, or the type of house you live in (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 the set-up of your society either–you take that for granted.

(4) You interpret the world the way they interpret the world. This one’s a little trickier, but it ties into a character’s voice. If your character wouldn’t use a word, that word is off limits while in that character’s POV. If your character doesn’t use metaphors, neither do you. If they’re cynical and grumpy . . . well, you get the picture.

Leave us a comment. We’d love to hear how you solve some of the challenges that some with maintaining a consistent POV.


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8 comments on “Problems with Point of View

  1. Pingback: Creating Suspense in Fiction « Girls With Pens

  2. Hi Marcy:

    I’m in the process of reworking The Right Place. Your post on POV has certainly clarified the problems I’m having.

    Now, I’m on to searching the next post you have suggested.

    Tracy Campbell

  3. Pingback: 5 Tips For Writing Deep POV « Girls With Pens

  4. I always find this POV conversation fascinating. Most everything Third Person Limited that I’ve read feels like the writer has crafted it to slide in depth, so to speak, between light and deep penetration. After reading Orson Scott Cards book on character, I felt freer to do this in my own writing.

    Okay, so here’s my question/issue: As we move deeper into the character’s POV, is it not acceptable to allow the character’s voice to dominate and conversely, as we pull back off to a lighter third person POV allow the “authors voice” to, if not dominate, come through a bit more?

    I hope that’s clear. I’m writing this in a bit of a rush.

  5. Pingback: 6 Ways to Develop Your Voice | Marcy Kennedy & Lisa Hall-Wilson

  6. Pingback: 6 Steps for Your Final Edit | Marcy Kennedy & Lisa Hall-Wilson

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