Picking a point of view (POV) to tell a story from can make or break a novel. The question of which character is telling the story and why matters to both readers and writers, not to mention that choice creates a domino effect within the book that impacts many other literary elements. When point of view is handled well, nobody notices. When botched, the effort sticks out like a sore thumb.
Picking a Point of View: Choices!
Improper handling of point of view is one of the most frequent issues I come across when working with clients, not to mention issues with picking a point of view tend to plague a fair share of books by indie authors that I’ve read and reviewed over the years. That’s not to say traditionally published books never fall victim to such problems. After all, I must have rolled my eyes countless times when Fifty Shades of Grey’s Anastasia Steele’s thoughts were italicized even though the story was already being told from a first-person point of view. (Read my book review here.)
Plenty of sources have already defined point of view in great detail. Here’s a quick refresher:
- First-Person: The actions of the story are filtered through the observations of one character. “I went into the store to buy a candy bar, and ate it immediately like only a fat pig could.” This allows the reader to intimately experience the character’s story, but it also limits the story to only what that single character knows.
- Second-Person: The narrator refers to the reader as “you,” which creates the feeling of being a character in the story. “You walk into the store to buy a candy bar and eat it immediately like the fat pig you are.” This can help create an intense feeling of intimacy, but its is rather rare and also difficult to pull off successfully. The repetition of the pronoun can become a bit grating.
- Third-Person: The actions and observations of the story are filtered through various characters by references to “he,” “she,” “it,” or “they,” but never “I” or “you.”
- Limited: This approach can run the gambit from subjective (describing certain characters’ thoughts and feelings) to totally objective (not describing any thoughts or feelings).
- Omniscient (all-knowing): This narrator has access to every characters’ thoughts and feelings, which can make it hard for the reader to feel close to any of the characters.
- Objective: This is more rare, but can yield interesting results. The reader is not allowed access to any character’s thoughts and can only form judgements based on actions, words, and facial expressions. This tactic places a priority on showing rather than telling.
- Deep POV: Too often, writers will resort to emphasizing thought and sense words when it comes to how the protagonist is feeling, thinking, remembering, sensing, seeing, hearing, or feeling something. This can create a narrative distance between the reader and the action on the page. Speech tags without much delving into actions and motivations behind the character’s spoken words can also have a distancing effort. Utilizing deep point of view can work wonders to truly immerse the reader in the character’s worldview and experience their life vicariously.
Problems arise when writers start to create mash-ups that employ elements of these different points of view simultaneously. An all-knowing viewpoint used to be more popular, but has since given away to a greater use of first-person, and the most popular third-person limited. At the very least, it can be very trying for a reader to follow changes in point of view when they occur in the same scene–let alone the agony of when it occurs within the same paragraph! Head-hopping tends to make for a disorientating reading experience except when employed by the most skillful of writers. It’s better to focus each scene on a single viewpoint, or better yet, only switch perspective with a new chapter when compelled to tell a story from multiple characters’ perspective.
Definitions aside, I often find myself wondering what drives writers of all experience levels to misuse point of view. Part of the problem lies in the cinematic way most of us tend to picture stories in our minds. Our moving visions shift from scene to scene much like a camera. However, images in a film are rendered from an objective viewpoint (unless a pesky voiceover comes in). Words on a page simply cannot convey what a camera can, nor should they.
Inexperience in picking a point of view and sticking with it is more often than not the case. In the end, awareness is key. However, many popular books provide exceptions to every rule. Yet, perchance to sound like a hypocrite, we’ve all heard the saying that it’s necessary to learn the rules before breaking them.
What point of view issues have you encountered as a reader or a writer?
Image Credit: Boy’s Green Eye by L-O-L-A (http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1405557)
Image Credit: Male bald head in white by Illusionist (http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1417639)
Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2016.