Last updated on June 4th, 2018
Point of view, or POVs, are just about the trickiest of all the writing techniques one has to master to master the craft.
Second only, I think, to “Show, don’t tell.”
Most of you know there are three basic POVs: First person (1PPOV), Second person (2PPOV), and Third person (3PPOV), subtitled as 3PPOV-limited and –omniscient (godlike).
1PPOV is easy to explain; it’s just like life: The protag can only infer or guess what another person is feeling by his or her body language or expression, or know what s/he’s thinking by that person telling him. The protag can only know anything about where a person’s been or has done by seeing it, or by someone else/or entity (nightly news) tells him. 1PPOV requires the author have a great many info-helper characters to move the story along, or the protagonist has all the info come to him, a la Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. . . . Ah, but was Nero Wolfe or Archie Goodwin the true protagonist in that 40-year series? So maybe “the protagonist is the ‘I’ is not so set in stone? That question aside, 1PPOV is difficult in that whoever you-the-writer choose for the “I” designee must always be in the action, hear it, read it, or be told what happened to solve the conflict; no one else’s POV is allowed.
I have seen 1PPOVs watered down lately, with 3PPOV-limited creeping in. This is unacceptable license to me, allowing undisciplined writers the full range of POV choice and making it easy to write, as well as get the immediacy of personalized thinking in. This type of writer wants to be able to say “I saw Santa kissing Mommy under the mistletoe” and let us know what she thinks of that, and let us know what Mommy thinks of Santa kissing her under the mistletoe. Why bother with the 1PPOV? Because it’s easier to tell than to show. Learn the right way to write; don’t cheat.
2PPOV is nearly impossible to write. My advice is to stay away from it. These stories invent a narrator telling the protagonist what s/he did throughout the book, as if the protagonist had amnesia or brain damage as a result of the story. The jarring “you” is very uncomfortable, IMO. “You got up, went to the window, and saw a magnificent star in the sky.” The reader has to say, “Okay, I’m buying into this; I can see me doing that.” For a hundred or more pages? By the time you’ve fought the pirate, rescued the girl, taken the treasure back, and then been whacked on the head so you forget all of it, are you still seeing yourself doing all that? The writer’s job is to make the reader reeeealy stretch his suspension of disbelief. There are easier ways to write.
3PPOV is the POV of choice for most writers because of its ease of use. You can get into everybody’s heads, just some people’s heads, or have directed peeks.
3PPOV limited objective can be directed snooping in a focused number of people’s heads—the smaller the number, the better. Let’s say you’re writing a novel about a couple’s rocky romance through World War II, for instance. Your medium is the letters the daughter finds after her mother dies (her father died many years before). The bulk of the story will be focused on the thoughts and pictures made through her parents’ words, but you could bring the daughter’s in as she absorbs what she learns, and then passes what she learns (with all her attendant thoughts, wild or placid or confused, in her head) on to her daughter. You wouldn’t want to go much further than that (with that premise); perhaps some letters of recommendation from Navy brass for her father, and letters from her aunt to her mother to add more emotional input or reveal secrets that otherwise couldn’t come out, but keep it minimal. Objective 3PPOV is the simplest because the characters you invent don’t often interact and it’s obvious through whose eyes we’re seeing the story; the POVs don’t have a reason to cross.
Limited 3PPOV can also open the view from many people’s heads and can span the world or universe through their eyes, emotions, and the five senses. Limited means you control the number, though. Your space odyssey could have 40 characters, but you decide that only ten will have major walk-on parts, with two of those being your protagonist and antagonist. Those are the eyes the readers will use to see this show. The most important rule: Don’t put two sets of eyes in one scene (let alone in one paragraph, which I’ve seen).
Example (JAIME is a mystic and this is his scene; Ellison is reluctant to let him go on a journey, but this is not his scene, though both have major parts): “You will understand soon, Ellison. I had a dream that our success depends on many things. One of those things requires that I make the journey with Abigail,” JAIME said.
ELLISON wondered which journey Jamie was alluding to, the journey back to Sanacre, or another one, more esoteric. “If it weren’t for the fact that your dreams have a habit of coming true, I’d never agree.”
We cannot know what Ellison is thinking here. He needs to ask which journey Ellison means, not wonder; his wondering is “head-hopping.” This is mixing POVs. Not good, and if you don’t have it under control with a few characters, you’ll flounder in chaos if you choose to go the Omniscient route:
3PPOV-GODLIKE. Everybody’s mind-mic is on. People drop in and out of everybody else’s space with no control, no gates, no manners. The readers get a full dose of everyone’s thoughts, often without any clear indication of who’s doing the thinking (I wanted you to know, here, so I uppercased them).
Example (don’t expect this to make any story sense):
“That many were with her?” TOM asked, beginning to be alarmed; his cover could be blown. “Did you see them doing anything, uh, suspicious?”
“Sure,” ELLISON said reluctantly, who preferred to be in charge of his own office and patients, but there wasn’t anything he could do when faced with Tom’s assumption that he was in charge. He didn’t like Tom and, as he watched Allyson and Tom leave the room, he wondered how Allyson would bear up to Tom’s blunt and insensitive ways.
JAIME heard footsteps in the hallway. He saw Allyson and the faker Tom approaching him and quickly closed his eyes to feign sleep.
AIMEE saw them coming, too, and moved out of the way to make sure she didn’t upset anyone with her presence.
The readers would know that there are four major characters in this scene, and also who opened it: ALLYSON. She hasn’t got a thought in it here. She’s gone blind, yet full sonic thought booms are coming in loud and clear from everyone else, even Aimee, who’s a bit player. Head-hopping galore. Messy, messy, messy.
POVs are critical to your story to keep it straight. How to keep the POV you pick under control is a big part of good story-telling.