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Types of Point of View (POV)
Personage – Impacts the pronouns
First person: tells the story directly through the character:
Example: I parachuted off the Empire State Building, and I loved it.
Second person: tells the story to the reader (rare in fiction).
Example: You could have parachuted off the building too, but you chickened out.
Third person: tells the story from outside the character:
Example: Bob parachuted off the building, but his chute didn’t open and he splatted.
Scope – impacts how much you know
It’s a spectrum in terms of how close you get into the head of a character (primarily for third person, since in first person, you’re in the character’s head automatically).
On one end of the spectrum, the reader has intimate knowledge of all the character’s thoughts, and can’t know anything the character doesn’t know. On the other end, the reader remains distant, watching events like a fly on the wall.
Intimate (close): the reader has direct access to the thoughts and feelings of the character who is telling the story. Intimate third person is a popular choice for fiction writing today.
Example (intimate third person):
Shane’s clown suit did nothing against the biting cold winds of the Moscow winter. Some secret agent he was, sent to infiltrate the birthday party of a Russian railroad baron dressed as a clown. No one will suspect the clown, they said. This was going to be a trainwreck. He shivered and pulled his purple peacoat tighter across his polka-dot shirt.
Omniscient: the reader has access to all the thoughts and feelings of ALL the characters, even if the author/narrator may not write about all of them. In an omniscient point of view, the author/narrator may include the thoughts of any character, or stay detached and simply narrate a story as an outsider, or zoom in/out as needed.
Example (omniscient third person and distant, except for intimate components in italics):
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 reverie 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 just the slightest touch of a sneer on the side of her nose. “Excuse me sir, but you’ve been here for three hours.”
He crossed his arms, covering his ketchup-stained shirt. “And?”
“Complementary drinks are for players only, sir. And you haven’t been playing, sir. Just drinking.”
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? This is called head-hopping.
Head-hopping is all about how frequently you do it and how well you do it. Few readers would balk at a book that switches back and forth between two primary character POVs with each chapter.
On the other end of the spectrum, a story that jumps from one character to another after each sentence is tiresome to read. In general, there’s no reason to head-hop frequently unless it’s crucial to telling your story.
Don’t (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 POV from Sarah to Betty to Jezebel and finally to Sparky the dog. It’s a bit nauseating to read, isn’t it? There are authors who have pulled off this type of narrative shifting, but those that do tend to do so smoothly and give the reader time to rest in each character’s POV.
Even with just the addition of line breaks, it’s easier to read, but it’s still a mess.
Don’t (but it’s better with line breaks):
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.
Imagine how this story would change if we spent a paragraph, a page, a scene, or a chapter in each character’s point of view.
Another way to improve it would be to step back and be a fly-on-the-wall narrator, with access to all information.
Do (an omniscient narrator describes the same scene, telling us the character’s thoughts):
Sarah glared at Betty, eyeing the crumbs on her lips, the crumbs of the last blueberry scone Betty had carefully purloined. It was a game of scones and crones, and the parlour was filled with the scents of both. Betty glared back at her. Even now, on Sarah’s ninetieth birthday, the sting of Sarah’s adultery with Betty’s first husband had hardly faded in seventy years.
Jezebel, Sarah’s daughter, caught Betty’s eye with a knowing smile. Of course, Jezebel knew all about the affair, and of her feelings towards Sarah, but Betty still had the upper hand: Jezebel had never finished her dissertation, and the PhD that her mother was so proud of was fake. She was no more a doctor than Sparky the dachshund, but that didn’t stop Jezebel’s smug smile as she watched Betty glance from her to the framed diploma on the wall.
Tonight, Betty would spring her trap, finally realizing a revenge seventy years in the making, humiliating Sarah and Jezebel together at the birthday gala like she had been humiliated so many years before. Sparky the dog yapped, jarring Betty out of her reverie. He wanted biscuits of course, but a scone would do, or perhaps, even better, she would give him a bone to gnaw by the night’s end. A bone from an old, cheating crone.
As you can see, an omniscient POV gives access to everyone’s thoughts and feelings, and allows for more to be described, as the narrator knows everything and doesn’t have to wait for thoughts, dialogue, or action to reveal important plot details (through “showing”) and can simply “tell” the information to the reader. This is closely related to some considerations on “show versus tell”.
In general, you’re better off sticking a single point of view in each scene or chapter and developing the character for your reader to enjoy, then switching at a natural break in the story.
Even in omniscient point of view, where knowledge of multiple characters thoughts may be expected (but is not mandatory), authors that use it well follow a single character at least long enough to make a point, if not for a whole scene or chapter. In some cases, narrators stay out of heads entirely, merely reporting the scene as it happens, with the backstory and musings, but without access to any thoughts at all (other than the narrator’s own). In this case, the writer is still sticking to a single POV — that of the narrator.
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 an educated 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 feet 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.”
Likewise, the character Reverend Lovejoy is kind and a bit depressive. He’s typically not the type to start a fight, take the lord’s name in vain, or swear at people.
Don’t: Reverend Lovejoy glared at the atheist protestors, then flipped them the bird. “Hey! Jesus says to kiss my ass you bastards! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill all of you!”
Do: Reverend Lovejoy sighed when he saw the atheist protestors, but then tentatively smiled when he didn’t see any members of his flock among the group. He shook his head and headed home to play with his model trains.
When you write, you want the reader to experience what the characters experience. Unless you are writing in a distant third person (fly on the wall or narratorial voice with no access to thoughts) you’re going to have to write thoughts and feelings. But how to write about them?
The first instinct is usually to write thoughts like dialogue, like so:
Don’t: I stepped into the mausoleum. That mummy’s got to be here somewhere, I thought. I lit a torch.
While there’s nothing wrong with that approach, it becomes tiresome to read if we see the character’s thoughts frequently. Many authors instead write the thoughts “straight” with no filtering words like “thought”.
Do: I stepped into the mausoleum. That mummy had to be here somewhere. I lit a torch.
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. 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 there would be a good harvest this year. Her husband snored in the bedroom and her smile twisted into a sneer. After the harvest, she could finally drown him in the honey vat. It would be so easy to make it look like an accident.
In general, just remember to “stay in your character’s head”.
That said, in an omniscient point of view, filtering words may become more appropriate, because the world and the characters are in fact being filtered—usually through a narratorial voice. The third crones-and-scones piece above gives an example of how to do this. This approach may seem somewhat old-fashioned today, but when executed well, it is just as enjoyable as anything else.