Point of View anchor chart, from Teaching with a Mountain View
In my critique group, I’m known as the point of view Nazi. I am usually the one to notice when a writer has crept from one character’s point of view to another’s in the same scene. And I usually push my writing partners to go deeper into their protagonist’s point of view, showing not only action but also thoughts and feelings of the main character.
Point of view (POV) is defined as the eyes through which we see the action of a story. Selecting the point of view character is one of the most important decisions a writer makes. Usually, it is best to write a scene from the point of view of a character with a strong stake in the outcome of the scene. However, some writers choose to use a character who is more emotionally detached to provide a more objective perspective.
There are several points of view that writers typically use:
1. Omniscient (where the author flows from one character’s point of view to another within the same scene). Sometimes the author includes his or her own editorializing about what’s going on. This is an “anything goes” point of view, but readers may have trouble following what the author is saying.
2. First person (which forces the writer to stay in one character’s head at a time). This provides immediacy and depth, but restricts the action to scenes where that character is present.
3. Distant third person (where the author describes action from one character’s point of view, but doesn’t show much of that character’s thoughts or emotions). This POV is like writing through a camera on the character’s shoulder.
4. Close third person (which does go into the point of view character’s thoughts and feelings). This POV is more like writing through a chip implanted in the character’s brain.
Occasionally, an author will use a second person point of view, but the four options above are most typical. Moreover, the omniscient POV was more frequently used in the 19th century than in today’s writing.
Some writers stay in a single character’s point of view throughout an entire novel. Others move from one POV character in one scene to another character in the next scene.
Most writing instructors tell authors not to change points of view in the middle of a scene. When writers violate this “rule” of one POV character per scene, my POV Nazi hackles rise, even though the only real rule for writing a book is that there are no rules.
And most of the time in short stories, writers stick to a single POV character throughout the whole story, because the length of the piece doesn’t permit much character development otherwise.
I’ve found that writers run into POV problems most frequently when they slip into the omniscient point of view from first or third person. All of a sudden, the reader is thrown out of the head of the original POV character and is seeing the scene from someone else’s point of view or from outside the scene (as if viewing from the GoodYear blimp). This gives my POV Nazi vertigo.
When I write, I find the following techniques useful to stay in one character’s point of view:
First, I put myself in one character’s head and tell the story from that character’s perspective ONLY. It helps me to pretend that that character has a camera on his or her shoulder, like a cinematographer. In essence, I become that character while I write the scene. I only see and hear and smell and taste what that person sees and hears and smells and tastes.
Next, after I’ve written the scene, I go back to add in that character’s thoughts and emotions—whatever I imagine that character thinking or feeling. The setting and the action of the scene ought to evoke some reaction or response from the POV character, and that’s what I layer on my story, like icing on a cake. They might be feeling something in response to what they are sensing (the weather, sounds, smells, etc.), or they might be thinking about something in their past, or they might be thinking about something as irrelevant as how nice a piece of buttered toast would taste at the moment.
If I were really good, I could include these thoughts and emotions in as I write the scene the first time. But I find that I usually have to get the action down on paper first, then layer in more about my character’s thoughts and feelings.
One of the things I struggle with the most as a writer is getting into my characters’ emotions. Maybe it’s because I’m so into my characters that I think everyone should know what they’re feeling—after all, I know, so it should be obvious to my readers! Or maybe it’s because I’m an “S” not an “F” on the Myers-Briggs scale, and I have trouble expressing my own feelings. Nevertheless, my writing is better when I take the time to dig more deeply into my POV character’s head.
I’ve heard writers argue that writing from only one character’s point of view at a time limits what they can describe in the scene. Yes, it does. A writer has to be willing to do that. Some writers aren’t, and they write in omniscient point of view. But I find the omniscient point of view annoying—all that flitting from head to head—which is why I’m a point of view Nazi.
One way around the limited perspective of first or third person is to have other characters interact with the POV character during most scenes in the story. The other characters have some reaction or response to what the POV character says or does. The actions and dialogue of other characters adds their perspectives to the story, but ONLY in ways that the POV character can see or hear.
Keep in mind that not everything can be done in dialogue. I’ve seen some writers overuse dialogue where narration would work better.
Writers, what helps you stay in the point of view you have chosen for your story?