Point of View, and why you must stay consistent

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POV is the way editors and experienced writers refer to 'Point of View', which is simply this: the viewpoint through which your story is told.

The most important thing I can say is that whatever Point of View you choose, you need to be consistent

Let's have a look at the different types of Point of View, using a totally made-up scenario.

Different types of POV

First person POV is where the story is narrated directly by the main character. "When my younger brother shot me by accident in the arm, I didn't really believe it for the first second." 

Many novels for teens and young adults are written using first person POV. It brings the reader very close to the action and emotion of the main character and feels very personal.

Second person POV is fairly uncommon, using 'you' as the subject. It would be a challenge to read a whole book written from this perspective. "You were shot by your younger brother in the arm, but you didn't quite believe it.

Third person POV is much more common, using 'he', 'she' and 'it' as the subject. "When her younger brother shot her in the arm by accident, she almost didn't believe it." The vast majority of stories are written using a third person point of view.

Be consistent

Now, I said that the most important thing about POV was to be consistent, (and I'm putting in bold to emphasise it once more.)

So far everything sounds straight forward enough, right? In fact, I can almost hear you asking, with a slight amount of smirk, if any writers are actually so incompetent as to make what would be the horrendous gaffe of switching from first to third person POV? (I know you aren't even going to bother with second person because of course, we both know that hardly anyone is ever going to use it). 

Why bother telling me to be consistent, Cecily? I mean, really? 

Well, I'm glad you asked. The problem comes with the third person POV. There are  different ways to do it. So let's take a look at two of the main ones.

Third person limited

'Third person limited' keeps to the point of view of one particular character. The story is told using only the information that character knows, and the experiences that character has. If she doesn't hear it, see it, get told it, experience it, smell it, eat it, or know it, the reader doesn't get to read it. 

There was a noise, and then something hot seemed to hit her arm. Abe was standing by the door, his gun in his hand, and a look of confusion on his face. Could it have been? She couldn't quite believe what she was thinking.

In third person limited POV, the main character is unable to know the motivations of her younger brother. She can see him with the gun, she can see a look of what she knows to be confusion on his face, but she can't read his mind to know if his shot was accidental or not. The reader is left to construct the events in the same way as the main character, with her limited point of view

Third person omniscient

'Third person omniscient' is a little bit different. 'Omniscient' is a great word that's usually used to describe God - all-knowing and all-seeing, and in this POV, the narrator is, well, God. You get to tell the reader everything you know about the scene, if you want to. 

There was a noise, and then something hot hit Macy's arm: a bullet, fired from Abe's gun. She cried out in pain for a moment, and looked over towards her brother. Had he meant to fire? She couldn't quite believe it. Abe was shocked and sorry on the inside, and shaking on the outside. It had been an accident: at least, he thought it had...

Here, we see things from Macy's POV: her pain, her question, her reaction. But in the same paragraph, we also see how Abe is feeling, and his thought processes (which may turn out to be darker than we imagined.) As narrator, you're playing God, in both heads at once, and telling the reader everything you know about the scene.

Which do you choose?

Here's the thing: you shouldn't choose third person omniscient for your POV.

Of course, there are no rules that say you can't. But just like everyone can tell you're not a graphic designer if you use the Times Roman and Comic Sans typefaces in your document, everyone can tell that you're a beginner writer if you use third person omniscient. Yes, Dickens did it. Yes, other people still do it, but generally, it's frowned on. It's not fashionable. Publishers probably won't pick you up if you do it. It's not considered great writing. (And I know you want to be a great writer, right?)

So unless you are a very clever writer who has amazing talent and who is going to win the Man Booker prize next year with your outstanding work of genius, when you're starting out you basically have two choices for POV: first person, or third person limited.

And you need to be consistent.

One of the most common comments I write in a manuscript is this: "POV glitch." It's super-easy to hop from one character's head to another - easier than you'd think. 

Always, always, always, be asking questions. Does my character know this piece of information? Is it reasonable that they would have found this out or learned it for themselves? If so, how? Have they seen, heard and understood what the other character is doing? Do they actually know what is in the other character's head, and how they're feeling, and what the expression is on their face, or are they just guessing at it? Is everything I write through my character's eyes, ears, hands, feet and brain?

How to do multiple points of view

I can hear your next question: but, Cecily, I want to have two or more characters' points of view. Are you telling me I can't do that? 

Don't worry. If you've always enjoyed playing God in your writing, but now realise you need to come back to earth a little bit, there is a way to bring several points of view to a piece, and, yes, still remain consistent. You do it by using the third person multiple POV.

This is essentially the same as writing in third person limited, but instead of only bringing one person's POV to the novel, you choose several characters' perspectives. 

What's the catch? Every time you change Point of View, you have to make it obvious. 
Put a couple of line spaces between sections, or add some  *********. Or start a whole new chapter. It really doesn't matter how you do it.

What's important is that the reader knows that we are officially now following this character, not that one. It's common to have fewer, larger switches between characters, but I have seen books where the POV changes were only a paragraph, or sometimes even a line, each time. That's up to you and how clever you are.

Personally, I prefer to follow three or four characters over the whole course of a novel told in third person multiple POV. If authors start to add in minor characters here and there to add to the plot or show us a twist, and don't follow them up, I get frustrated. It seems like a lazy way to write, to grab a minor character and make them work for you. I like to get to know the people I'm on the reading journey with. Again, though, that's a personal choice to be made by you, the author.

Whatever you choose to do, I can't say it too often: make your POV consistent.

 

 
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Looking for more writing help like this? We deal with Point of View and much more in our Write Your Memoir course. Check it out here.