Point of View Basics

Writers sometimes get in a snarl over point of view (POV) issues. But never fear. It’s just another tool you get to use–and choose. One of the reasons that point of view seems hard is that as a reader  you may have been unconscious of viewpoints in novels. (That’s good. The author’s viewpoint choices didn’t draw attention to themselves.) POV can also seem daunting because how-to books list so many types of viewpoints and give them long names like Modified Objective Viewpoint and First Person Subjective.

Limited Omniscient Point of View

The most commonly used viewpoint is the limited omniscient. All this means is that you’ll enter more than one character’s thoughts, (using such phrases as “he doubted,” “she expected”) but you’ll limit the number of characters whose minds you enter. Also, when writing in each of these viewpoints, you as narrator will only know what each person in turn knows. You cannot, for example, tell the reader things that are happening 50 miles away unless you have a viewpoint character to observe the occurrence. (Actually, the limited omniscient POV is really just the third person POV spread around to more than one character.)

Why do writers often select a limited omniscient approach?

  • Custom. Readers are accustomed to reading stories from this perspective; when an author uses this POV, she is assisted in her storytelling by not drawing attention to her viewpoint technique.
  • Comfort. There’s a certain comfort for a reader in the emotional distance of this viewpoint (as opposed to the first person viewpoint, where the narrator is himself a character in the story.) We want to empathize with your character, but we may do so more successfully with just a hint of control on the part of the author.
  • Flexibility. When you can enter more than one person’s head, you have greater story-telling capability. Unless you have mastered the craft, it is difficult in first person POV to show how other characters feel. And of course, in first person POV your sole point of view character is limited in what he knows and observes.

Big commercial novels often play a bit loose with limited omniscient. Established authors sometimes will jump into additional characters’ thoughts, turning the spotlight there briefly if it seems useful. It’s true that readers tend to notice this liberty (especially, for some reason, in the US) Anyway, it’s an advanced technique.

But don’t force the limited omniscient POV on your novel. Choose what’s right for your story. Also, sometimes, as you write, your story may inform you that another choice is needed.

Changing Viewpoints Within the Scene: Taboo?

If you’ve chosen the limited omniscient POV, can you change viewpoints within a scene? In my opinion, yes. It’s not as hard as making a pie crust from scratch, and it won’t poison your story! I hear writing teachers say it’s taboo. Nah. It will annoy some readers, though. I did it in my series The Entire and The Rose and only one reviewer seemed to care.

Notice how authors accomplish this in the novels you read. I will occasionally switch viewpoints between two major characters in a scene; I’ve also been known to jump into a minor character’s head for a quick read on their perspective. In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster said, ” . . . this power to expand and contract perception (of which the shifting view-point is a symptom), this right to intermittent knowledge–I find one of the great advantages of the novel form.”

Major Viewpoint Characters

Pick your major viewpoint characters carefully. My rule is: if the character is not well-rounded, do not give them a viewpoint. All major viewpoint characters should have:

  • internal conflicts
  • firm desires
  • a growth arc
  • interesting psychology

The first clue that you haven’t developed a particular character very well: If you find yourself bored spending time in that character’s head! It’s not just you. Your readers will be bored, too.

OK, these are the basics. I can take questions here – or do a more detailed post on POV if it’s a good topic.

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