Fundamentals: Point of view

Think of Point of View (PoV) as “where the camera is” in your story. Like a director of a movie, an author must exercise control of the camera to maximize both their artistic expression and the emotional impact on the reader.

Unfortunately, Point of View issues are common, even in commercially published fiction. Avoiding errors isn’t enough either—authors often fail to exploit Point of View to its maximum potential.

Types of Point of View

Personage – What pronouns do you use?

First person: tells the story directly through the character. Somewhat common.

Example: I parachuted off the Empire State Building, and I loved it.

Second person: tells the story to the reader. Very rare.

Example: You could have parachuted off the building too, but you chickened out.

Third person: tells the story from outside the character. Very common.

Example: Bob parachuted off the building, but his chute didn’t open and he splatted.

There are a few differences between the common third person and the less-common first person.

While first person is more intuitive and easier to get into, as it’s how we tell stories about ourselves, you’re stuck with that character for the story.  This means the character needs to be interesting and likeable, and also a good storyteller (showing and not telling).

Third person requires a bit more skill to manage than first person, but it allows for moving between characters (usually at chapter breaks), writing unlikeable characters (such as chapters from the antagonist’s perspective), and killing characters (if a first person character dies, how are they telling the story?). Overall, this additional flexibility is why third person remains the dominant form used today.

Scope – Stick to a character or move around?

Scope determines whether the camera stays on one character or not. This only applies for third person, since in first person, you’re stuck in the character’s head automatically.

Limited scope: The author is limited to one character’s perceptions and knowledge. While there may be more than one point of view in the book, the camera only moves between characters at chapter breaks. This is the most widely used scope in fiction today.

Omniscient scope: The author is omniscient (all knowing) and can write the actions, dialogue, thoughts, and emotions of any character, including writing as a godlike narrator with their own “narrator voice” or writing with a “narrator character” in the novel. This scope is less common in modern fiction, but was widely used in classic literature.

Intimacy – what will the author reveal?

Authors don’t usually write everything they know. Again, we have a spectrum of whether we reveal the character’s thoughts and feelings (going “in their head”), or we just show dialogue and actions (staying “outside their head”).

Shallow intimacy: On the shallow end of the spectrum, the author stays back, only showing a point-of-view character’s dialogue and actions. This preserves mystery and intrigue about the character, but makes it much harder for a reader to bond with a character. This mode is also called “objective,” since it is simply a record of events without the inner thoughts and emotions.

Deep intimacy: On the deep end of the spectrum, the author also includes what’s going on in the character’s mind: emotions, thoughts, and internal monologue. This mode is also called “subjective,” since it includes the character’s opinions. For limited scopes, thoughts are typically written as free indirect speech, without any tags like “she thought” and no italics. For the omniscient scope, usually thoughts are written with these tags so that readers don’t become confused about who is thinking what.

Combined, you have a four-way grid of Scope versus Intimacy.

If you’re just getting started and don’t know which to choose, I strongly recommend deep limited. This is the most widely-used point of view and for a good reason: it’s easy to write and the reader can make a deep connection with the character.

Whether you choose first person or third person is up to you. Third person is the most common due to its inherent flexibility (you can switch between characters at each chapter) but first person often comes the most naturally to new writers and you will be the least likely to make point-of-view errors.

More on point of view and narration.

Point of View Examples

Deep limited third person: the author only follows one character at a time, and can only describe the world as this character perceives it.

Shane’s clown suit might as well have been made of cheesecloth when it came up against the biting cold winds of the Moscow winter. Some secret agent he was. Infiltrate a birthday party of a Russian railroad baron—awesome. Dressed as a clown? Nightmare. No one will suspect the clown, they said. Yeah, right.

He shivered and pulled his purple peacoat tighter across his polka-dot shirt as he approached the back door of the restaurant. He could back out, just run for it. No—not him. He was an agent, dammit. He banged on the rusty steel door. “Party clown here!”

Here the reader knows what Shane knows, including his thoughts and emotions, but can’t know anything else, such as what’s on the other side of the door.

Omniscient third person: the reader has access to all the thoughts and feelings of any character, even if the author may not write about all of them.

Example (with deep components in bold)
Jill stepped off the casino elevator and surveyed the slot floor. It was busy for a Monday morning, with about half the machines grinding quarters. She found her target and walked quickly, with the confident stride of someone well-within the bounds of their authority. Time to take out the trash, she thought.

Raymond jerked up from his daze at the sound of footsteps behind him. Someone was coming, he could feel it. He turned and locked eyes with Jill, then moved his gaze down to her employee badge.

She smiled with the slightest touch of a sneer. “Excuse me sir, but you’ve been here for three hours.”

He crossed his arms, covering his ketchup-stained shirt. “And?”

“Complementary drinks and appetizers are for players only, sir. And you haven’t been playing, sir. Just drinking.”

Note that by removing the bold text, which provides thoughts, you have what is often called “cinematic point of view” or shallow omniscient. You may be used to this from TV and movies, but in books it can be difficult to write well (usually becoming boring to read) because of the lack of intimacy. Being deep in a character makes up for the fact that books can’t show you flashy images or play dramatic music like movies can. A book without that depth is like reading a movie script versus watching a movie—which would you rather do?

More on POV in writing.

Scope problems: Head hopping

In the casino example above, we stay in the same omniscient point of view and clearly mark who is thinking which thought. But what happens if you jump from one point of view to another to another, telling the story through the eyes of multiple characters, without clearly setting them apart? Or what if you are trying to write in a limited point of view but accidentally slip into omniscient without realizing it? This is called head hopping.

Note that the phrase head hopping is reserved for sudden, unintentional changes points of view. This is separate from the common practice of changing the point of view from character to character at each chapter.

Unintentional head hopping

This is the most common scope issue you’ll find in your own writing, and it happens when you are trying to write in a limited point of view but accidentally include information that the point-of-view character couldn’t possibly know.

Don’t do this (clairvoyant characters):
Ralph looked across the table at Emily, who was perusing the menu, unaware of his attention. She was far prettier than her dating profile suggested, and totally out of his league. Maybe there was something weird about her. She’d been trying to hide her teeth all night.

Emily flipped through the pages of the menu again, and decided to order the steak, medium rare. It would be a perfect appetizer, some bloody meat before her real meal—ten pints of Ralph blood.

We’ve got point-of-view errors from subtle to obvious here. Is she unaware of his attention? He wouldn’t know for sure. Has she been trying to hide her teeth? All he can do is guess, he doesn’t know her intention. And then obviously, he can’t know what she decides to order until she tells him, and he can’t know her evil plans to drink his blood.

How to fix this: Be hyper-aware of your character and “stay in their head” as you write. When you are visualizing it as you write, don’t visualize it like a movie—instead, imagine yourself inside the character’s head, like a first-person video game.

Deep omniscient done badly

Here’s an example of a story that jumps from one character to another  rapidly:

Don’t do this (painful head-hopping):
Sarah glared at Betty. That bitch had taken the last blueberry scone, she just knew it. A scone for a crone. Betty glared back. Sarah was such a skank. Never mind that it was her ninetieth birthday. And then there was Jezebel, who claimed to have a PhD but everyone knew it was fake. Jezebel knew Betty was thinking about her as she watched Betty glance at her fake diploma on the wall. Of course, no one could ever prove that she hadn’t finished her dissertation, except Sparky of course. Sparky wants biscuits, thought Sparky the dachshund. He really wants them. Maybe if he barks enough Sarah will give him some.

In the above paragraph we shift from Sarah to Betty to Jezebel and finally to Sparky the dog. It’s a bit nauseating, isn’t it? This type of head hopping is essentially a poorly-handled deep omniscient story.

There are two ways to fix it. The first is to step back and be a fly-on-the-wall narrator, with access to all information, like in the casino example above, rather than diving deep into heads of characters. Use “she thought” tags to identify thoughts and assign them to characters, and keep it to a minimum.

The second option is to change points of view more smoothly using a transition device. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which is written in a stream-of-consciousness style, Woolf makes the transitions smoothly and give the reader time to rest in each character’s point of view before switching. Anything less is usually jarring or confusing to the reader.

More on head-hopping POV.

Intimacy problems: Filtering words

When you write, you want the reader to experience what the characters experience, and when you’re writing a deep point of view, you will need to write feelings, thoughts, and inner monologue. But how?

Writing thoughts

The first instinct is to write thoughts like dialogue or with italics, like so:

Don’t: I stepped into the mausoleum. That mummy’s got to be here somewhere, I thought. I lit a torch.
Don’t: Calvin peed on the car’s hood ornament. I hate this brand of car, Calvin thought, ever since one ran over poor old Hobbes.

While this approach may be necessary for writing omniscient points of view (to distinguish between characters), for limited points of view it becomes tiresome to read if we see the character’s thoughts frequently. Many authors instead write the thoughts “straight” (free indirect speech) with no filtering words like “thought”.

Do: I stepped into the mausoleum. That mummy had to be here somewhere. I lit a torch.
Do: Calvin peed on the car’s hood ornament. He had hated this brand of car ever since one had run over poor old Hobbes.

Filtering words

Filtering words can take many forms, because they can include emotions.

Don’t: Sarah saw her bees out the window. She loved them so much, and she expected a good harvest this year. She heard her husband snoring in the bedroom. She wanted to drown him in the honey vat and make it look like an accident.

The verbs are a mix of senses and emotions: saw, loved, expected, heard, wanted. The sentence style is also repetitive because each sentence begins with a filtering verb. Here is it without the filtering, and with more showing rather than telling.

Do: Sarah glanced out the window at her beehives and smiled. The bees were busy and would gather a good harvest this year. The birds sang along to their buzzing and—her husband snored in the bedroom. Her face twitched, and with each spasm, her smile twisted into a sneer. Soon she would fill the vat, and he’d have his taste—he’d taste it all.

Here the verbs are highlighted in italics again, showing how filtering tends to restrict your verbs to those that describe emotions and senses, while removing it allows for a greater variety of language. In general, just remember to “stay in your character’s head” when you’re writing a deep, limited point of view.

As with thought tags above, in an omniscient point of view, filtering words may be more appropriate, because the world and the characters are in fact being filtered—usually through an omniscient narrator’s voice.  This approach may be somewhat old-fashioned today, but when executed well, it is just as enjoyable as anything else.

More on filtering words.

Establishing a Character’s Voice

Is your language right for the viewpoint character? Can you tell how he/she feels? Or does the character not match the point of view?

If your character is a college professor, they’ll use big words. If they’re a high-school drop out, they’ll speak differently. Likewise, they’ll have different thoughts, reactions and dialogue if they are introverted or extroverted, optimistic or pessimistic, religious or agnostic, angry or calm, mature or childish, neat or sloppy, creative or analytical etc. etc. etc. It all comes down to knowing your characters and living inside of their heads.

On “The Simpsons”, the character Dr. Hibbert is a physician who went to Johns Hopkins Medical School.  He’s no dummy, and tends to be solemn when making diagnoses.

Don’t: Dr. Hibbert put his muddy boots up on the desk. “Well shucks Homer, you’re in a dilly of a pickle. We’ve gotta pre-form some surgery on your old noggin.”

Do: Dr. Hibbert tented his fingers. “It’s a serious matter Mr. Simpson. If we don’t remove that crayon from your brain, it could damage your cerebral cortex.”

In an omniscient point of view, the character’s voice can become more distant. This is one of the biggest challenges of this expanded scope: losing intimacy and voice. To avoid a generic omniscient voice that sounds like a history textbook, there are two solutions.

  • First, you can pick a “narrator voice” and use that, such as in most classic literature. If you read Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, or Charles Dickens, you’ll discover that each has their own unique voice, despite writing in an omniscient viewpoint.
  • Second, you can go with a Virginia Woolf style, where you zoom deep into a character and use their voice, then back out, switch to another, and zoom in deep again. This is challenging to manage but allows you to write from multiple, shifting points of view in the same scene without establishing a narrator voice.

Check out our article on style and voice, or find even more here.

Writing Deep Point of View

Okay, now that you understand concepts like personage (first or third), scope (limited or omniscient), and intimacy (deep or shallow) as well as some of the pitfalls (head hopping, filtering words, inconsistent voice), the logical question is “but how do I do it?”

As mentioned above, we generally focus on deep point of view in modern fiction writing. Whether you’re doing it in a limited sense (sticking to one point of view in a story or scene), or zooming in and out of different character’s heads with an omniscient point of view, you usually want to go deep so you can create that emotional resonance with the reader.

Deep point of view means that you are including the character’s senses (touch, taste, smell, vision, hearing, and more) as well as their thoughts, dialogue, and actions. It means that you’re customizing those sensory experiences and those events so that they match up with the character, so that their voice matches who they are as a person.

Like most things in writing, intimacy is a spectrum. Here are some examples, written from shallow to deep. Note how the lines change as we go deeper into the point of view until we’re truly viewing the world through the character’s eyes and not from the writer’s.

Example: a mountain climber getting out of a crevasse.

  • Arnie grabbed onto the rock and hauled himself over the top of the ledge and out of the crevasse.
  • Inch by inch, Arnie pulled with his one good arm, tugging and straining. Everything ached. Every muscle and tendon was stretched to the limit. With a groan, he hauled himself up onto the ledge. He was finally out.
  • Arnie grunted as he wrapped the tips of his fingers around the rough outcropping. One more pull, just one more. Simple one more rep at the gym, one more bale of hay back at the farm. It was just one more. His arm moaned, do I have to? Yes, dammit, yes you have to! Arnie commanded his biceps and triceps to pull tighter, then forced his deltoids and pectorals into one last pull, hauling his chest over the granite ledge and out of the crevasse, out to freedom.

In the first example, we’ve got a solid description of what’s going on. It’s not very exciting, because it’s too detached from the struggle the character is going through.

In the second one, you’ve got more details, you’re closer in to what he’s feeling. You’re feeling his tugs, strains, aches and pains, and then his relief when he makes it out. Note that we didn’t use filtering words like “feeling”.

In the third example, we go even deeper. We feel his fingers grab on. We hear his thoughts, hear him psyching himself up, hear his muscles cry back to him, hear him force it and overcome. He’s not just “finally out,” he’s free. Thoughts, emotions, memories, graphic details (fingers on the edge), and a specific voice (that of a weight lifter who knows the names of his muscles and is attuned to what they’re doing, he knows what kind of rock he’s climbing).

Example: a woman discovering her son’s drug stash.

  • Stuffing the socks in the drawer, Karen touched a plastic bag. She grabbed it to throw in the trash but stopped. It was full of little green nuggets, some kind of plant, maybe marijuana. She grabbed onto the dresser to steady herself.
  • Karen neatly placed David’s rolled up socks in his sock drawer. One of them crinkled when she pressed it into place. Why was he always such a messy boy? She pulled the sock back out and rummaged. It was a plastic bag, a plastic bag full of green things, some kind of plant—marijuana! She crushed the bag in her hand. Not her son.
  • Karen pressed David’s socks into his drawer in neat little rows, just like she did every Monday morning. They were still warm and sweet-smelling from the laundry, like little newborn pups in a basket. She smiled as she fit the last roll into place, then stopped as something crinkled. She shook her head. Davey had been eating candy again. There would be a punishment for that, probably take away his screen time for a week. She gently pried the socks out and searched for the offending plastic. What would it be this time? Mars bar? M&Ms? Maybe a—she gasped as she withdrew the baggie. Marijuana.

In the first example, we’ve got a pretty straightforward description of what happens in the scene with not much intimacy in her point of view or voice.

In the second, we’ve got some sensory details, a few thoughts (messy boy, not her son) and a bit more of her clean-freak personality and her emotions.

In the third example, we’ve got a clear picture of this person, a doting yet very strict mother. We’ve got her thoughts, her emotions, and some sensory details (touch and smell). We know what she’s thinking, how she views the world, and we can already guess the shitstorm that David is in for when he gets home from school.

Now you give it a shot. Take a key moment in a story (like a triumph or important discovery) and write it plainly, then try to go deeper into the point of view, giving us the sensory details, the thoughts, the emotions, the dialogue and the world as this person sees it.