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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Point of View (POV)

Besides "show vs. tell," which I wrote about Sunday, errors in point of view (POV) are the most common type of mistake I see in the unpublished fiction I encounter.

As with telling, POV errors have to do with a presence or lack of discipline, in my opinion. It's simplicity itself (as in laziness) to simply tell readers what they should be getting or understanding. It's harder to provide the clues so they can figure it out on their own.

It's the same with sloppy POV. It's much easier to simply jump into every character's head to explain to us what he or she is feeling and thinking. It's much harder to restrict yourself to a single point of view within a scene.

In POV, as with most things in life, the easy way is not the path to excellence.

Omniscient POV

The most common POV error I see is when the novelist attempts to use what's called omniscient point of view. In this style, the novelist hops from head to head to tell us exactly what everyone is thinking and feeling. We never miss anything. We're given a God's-eye view of the whole situation. Hence the name.

Strictly speaking, omniscient POV is not an error. It is a legitimate way of handling point of view in fiction. Many successful authors use it today, and it was the viewpoint of choice in previous generations of fiction. Our beloved J.R.R. Tolkien uses it some in Lord of the Rings.

Here's an example of omniscient:

"That's marvelous," Lucy said, thinking she could maybe parley this into a date, after all.

Johnny noticed her thoughtful look and felt she must be thinking of trying to get as far away from him as possible. "Yeah, it's pretty cool."

"You two are something else," Carlotta said, fearing that her chances with Johnny might be drying up. She had to do somehing drastic. "Hey, Johnny, come here a minute. I want to ask you something."

Oh, great, Johnny thought. Here it finally comes. "Why don't you tell me from there?"



That's the sound of us head-hopping into every character's perspective.

As I said, there's nothing technically wrong with that. It's just...lazy. In my opinion. In fact, it's a whole lot like telling. Maybe it is telling in another form.

It's also less realistic. Your reader is most probably not omniscient in real life. She is more likely accustomed to knowing only what she knows and trying to discern what everyone else is thinking and feeling.

If you want your reader to identify with your protagonist, let her get close to that character only (by being privy to only that character's thoughts and feelings and perceptions). Letting her in on everyone's thoughts doesn't create intimacy with all characters equally, as you might think. Instead, it creates distance from all of them, because the reader doesn't know who to pull for or get close to.

Finally, omniscient POV removes the mystery from your characters and deprives you of the ability to surprise your reader.

How can you conceal who the bad guy is if you've been giving us his nefarious thoughts all along? How can you keep the reader in suspense over whether John Black can be trusted or not if you've allowed us to hear that he's wholeheartedly on the hero's side?

Thinking to endear every character to the reader, and thus create a stronger connection to the story, omniscient instead creates a powerful psychological distance that the rest of your story will probably not be able to overcome.

Omniscient POV is like abstract art. Sure, anyone can slosh paint on a canvas and call it "Woman in a Hat," but only someone with extensive art theory training can actually make it work.

In the same way, it takes a grand master of fiction to pull off a novel in omniscient POV. Sure, anyone can hop around in every character's head and call it omniscient, but without mastering the other disciplines of fiction, it may feel like a hack job.

My advice: avoid omniscient POV until Publisher's Weekly refers to you as a grand master of fiction.

Third Person POV

Third person is the most common POV in modern fiction. There are books about fiction out there that subdivide third person into third person limited, third person objective, third person omniscient, etc. But for my purposes we'll just call it third person and be done with it.

Here's an example of third person as I define it:

"That's a lovely hat, Meredith." In truth, Tom thought the hat was ridiculous but now wasn't the time for candor.

"Why, thank you, Tommy," Meredith said, looking shy. "You don't think it's too much, do you?"

"Oh, no! Of course not. Not for you."

Her face clouded. Uh oh. What had he said? Her eyes narrowed. "You're not just saying that because you want to get close to me, are you? I never could read you, Tommy."


"Never mind. I prefer not knowing."


Okay, you see it, right? We get Tom's thoughts but not Meredith's. We see Meredith's face cloud but we don't know what it means. Because Tom doesn't know what it means.

This restrictiveness and uncertainty feel more realistic because it's how we perceive the world, too. Third person also allows you to keep characters' true motives and loyalties hidden, something the novelist needs to do often.

In third person, you are limited to what the viewpoint character can see and hear and know. Think of the viewpoint character as a camcorder. You can't show us something the camcorder can't see or its microphone can't hear.

Plus you get the element of thought: the viewpoint character can't know things the viewpoint character doesn't know. Like when a stranger walks into the room and suddenly the viewpoint character begins referring to her by her name. Um, that's a POV violation. The viewpoint character couldn't know it, so we can't know it, either.

I recommend you write just about everything in third person until you've got a couple of novels under your belt.

First Person POV

First person is the most intimate POV there is. This is the "I" and "me" POV. You're so close to the viewpoint character that there is no distance between you and him or her.

Here's an example:

"Lois, why did you buy that?" I figured I knew why, but I thought I'd best check.

She looked annoyed at my question. "I needed it for work. I told you about the presentation, remember, or weren't you listening?"

Next she'll attack my video game hobby. "Oh, okay."

"I don't know why you hassle me about these things. What was that memory card thingie you bought for your console last week? You didn't tell me about that. You just showed up with it."

Knew it.


With first person you're so close to the viewpoint character's thoughts that you're essentially one with him or her for those scenes. The vocabulary you use in these scenes ought to sound like that character's thoughts, words, and phrases he or she would use.

This is the Vulcan Mind Meld of fiction.

A great time to choose first person is when you're writing about someone very different and distant from your typical reader, but to whom you want that reader to feel close.

For instance, in Operation: Firebrand—Deliverance I chose first person for the scenes in which I was seeing through the eyes of a pregnant North Korean woman.

Talk about someone who was different from my reader—not to mention from me! But I wanted the reader to span the distance and understand how familiar and normal she was. I wanted the reader to care about her more than anyone else in the book. So she was the character I chose to write in first person POV.

With first person what you lose in objectivity (compared to third person) you gain in intimacy with the viewpoint character.

First person is also great when you want to create a claustrophobia—one similar to what your detective protagonist is feeling, perhaps—because you're stuck inside only one person's head.

Like third person, first person is limited to what the viewpoint character can see, hear, and know. If he doesn't see, hear, or know it, neither can the reader. This takes discipline but is well worth your effort.

First person is the second most common POV used in modern fiction. Try your hand at it. It's wonderful.

Cinematic POV

I've just made this term up. As far as I know it's not a legitimate style of POV. I wanted a way to describe what I've seen in some unpublished manuscripts.

In this style, the author zooms in on every character's reaction or action but does not give us his or her thoughts. It's like a camera that sees all, even if the viewpoint character can't see it. For example:

Jimmy tied his shoes and resumed his walk to school.

Behind the bushes, a predator lurked. It tracked Jimmy's progress with its eyes.

Inside the house, Mrs. Tucker washed dishes and rubbed her temples.

The mailman rounded the corner and pulled up to the first mailbox.


Whose head are we in here? No one's. We're in the director's head, I suppose. We see everything, but externally. We don't know anyone's thoughts. We're on the outside of everyone. But we don't miss anything.

This strange, distant spectator POV is cropping up here and there in the manuscripts I see. It makes sense, I guess, since so much of modern fiction is more like a movie than traditional fiction. Maybe things are moving in that direction.

But I don't like it. Fiction still does do a few things better than movies can do, and getting the viewpoint character's thoughts and feelings is one of them. I would hate to be limited only to what an external observer could see.

Mixing POVs

Finally, let's talk about using different POV styles within the same book.

In my first three novels I used third person exclusively. Then in my second three novels I used a mixture of third person and first person.

How do you mix POV styles? I did it by choosing one character to be my first person viewpoint character and using third person for all the other viewpoint characters.

I chose one person to feature, if you will, and used first person for that character. Every other viewpoint character just got the third person treatment.

If your novel has only one viewpoint character, then you're golden. Just pick third or first person and stick with it throughout. But if you've got more than one viewpoint character, try doing one in first person and the rest in third.

One warning: don't do more than one first person viewpoint character in the same book. It's confusing to the reader. Pick one to make your reader closest to. Do the rest in third person.

For more on POV, read the excellent chapter on the topic in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King. And for more tips on improving your fiction, read my weekly column.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, Jeff.

Maybe you can clarify something for me.

In my manuscript I wanted to give a brief description of the Atchafalaya Basin (a huge wetland delta in South Louisiana)

However, keeping POV in mind, my character wouldn't have any reason to think about that description from his POV.

However again, in the Testament, Grisham gave a brief introduction of the Pantanal. ( a wetland in South America )

Is this an acceptable switch in POV? Is this not what Clancy does when he gives us way too much info?

I hope I explained this properly.


2:14 PM  
Blogger Jefferson Scott said...

Hi, Dayle.

This is a good question. It shows you're really grasping POV. It also shows you're wary of that silly situation in which characters tell one another things they both already know. Ick.

I have two suggestions for you.

First, use what I call the dumb puppet trick. (See Tip #21 at http://www.wherethemapends.com/writerstools/writers_tools_pages/tip_of_the_week--21-30.htm). In short, you bring in someone who doesn't know the thing you're wanting your viewpoint character to talk about and you have that character ask. Reporters, tourists, and children are always good candidates for this.

Second, use contrast. Let's say your viewpoint character has just returned from a trip (or is in some other way mindful about another place) and is struck by how wonderful or awful the place is you're wanting him to describe. He could then be justified in talking about it in reference to the other place. "The sun cast a deep shadow over the ravine--nothing like the endless flatness he'd gotten used to. And the trees were gloriously green today, unlike the brown shrubs of Kazakhstan." And so on.



8:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Jeff,

I was aware of the first option you describe. But I read book after book where the author just spells out a description in a paragraph before he melds into the point of view of the character. Seems like a jump from universal to third.

It seems to me that in some cases, this is warranted if done well.

In the Grisham example I mentioned, the character had never been there so he had reason to think about it. My apologies to Mr. Grisham

I never thought of your second option. That might work in my situation. All of my characters are aware of thier surroundings, so, with a little imagination, I should be able to make that work.

Thanks again,


9:42 AM  
Blogger Jefferson Scott said...

Glad to be of service, Dayle.

A variant of the dumb puppet idea is the argument. In arguments people do finally talk about what they both know: "You said you were going to pick Jimmy up." "No, you said you were going to have Lisa get him." "You know he won't go to Lisa, not after what she did last week." "That was just because you said she was a..." and so on.


12:35 PM  
Blogger David said...

Man you sure get heavy handed. Either you have one loyal following or you're willing to put it all on the line and have people drop you like a case of Hong Kong Flu.

I've always had problems with POV and find I have to rely on my reviewers and proofreaders to point things out to me that need correction. And during these times of correction I often find I have to dig into other places of the book and correct them. I've used the mixed 1st Person and 3rd Person POV types as I want the main character to be the initial focal point. I've been told that I have too many POVs (as in too many 3rd person stories), but it's impossible to tell the story from, say 3 POVs, as one writer suggested. Writing poor POV initially isn't laziness. It's part of a lengthy process. Being lazy is not correcting the POV after the first draft.

In the words of Dennis Miller, "Of course that's just my opinion, I may be wrong."


7:10 PM  
OpenID emmadarwin said...

Fascinating post, though I'm going to be picky and point out that 'third person' isn't a point-of-view, it's a grammatical definition. You can take a first person narrative and re-write it in the kind of third-person narrative that's often called 'closed' or 'limited' without changing a single thing except the form of the verbs and pronouns.

Yes, it's often easier to stick with a single PoV (in first or third person). It presents both problems (usually with plotting, but also with insights into other characters) and opportunities (of voice, unreliability, suspense and so on.) Fundamentally it looks easiest and in some ways it's hardest. You can escape some of the problems by having a series of single PoV's, of course, but the longer a reader's with one PoV - identifying deeply with one character - the more of a wrench it is to be asked to identify deeply with another.

The only thing wrong with changing PoV within in a scene is that it's hard to do well. But since when did the fact that something's hard to do well in writing mean that we should give up, rather than learning how to do it? We have the whole of literature from Jane Austen to Barry Unsworth to show us how. The key is to make sure you take the reader with you as the PoV moves, and I'd engage to teach any aspiring writer a couple of simple ways to do that in twenty minutes, so that it doesn't feel like 'head-hopping', just like really full, compelling storytelling. Get it right, and readers are quite capable of identifying with more than one character in the same scene.

The proper narratological term for an 'omniscient narrator' is 'external narrator'. 'Omniscient' is a value-laden term which carries all sorts of implications that makes the post-Victorian generation want to rebel against it - which I suspect is at the root of some objections to this kind of narrative. An external narrator may be a bossy Victorian paterfamilias determined to tell you what to think. But it may equally just be like a friend sitting you down and saying, 'Listen. This is what happened...'

Either way, an external narrator can be a powerful unifying factor in a novel. It can work far better for the reader to have an overall sense - however non-specific - of someone telling a story, than a badly-done series of single-person PoVs.

And all the above is the exact opposite of what I did in my first novel The Mathematics of Love, and in my new one, A Secret Alchemy. The only rule about writing is that there are no rules...

9:27 AM  

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