Elements of Writing: Point of View

Originally posted September 17, 2008

Hi, all. Thought I’d actually start doing some stuff related to writing over here. As you may know, I’m also an editor. I spent about 13 years in publishing–mostly academic, but I also did mainstream freelancing, which I’m doing all the time now. I edit for academic and mainstream presses as well as individual clients. So yeah, fiction AND nonfiction.

So let’s talk a bit about fiction writing and point o’ view (POV).

Wanna know more? Click and go!

POV is just what it sounds like. The point of view of the person who’s telling the story. That is, the character through whom the reader experiences the narrative. Here’s a rough break-down of the different types of POV.

First person central: The main character (MC) is told with the “I” pronoun.

I grabbed the frying pan and smacked the hell out of the intruder. Or so I thought. The metal clanged against the guy’s skull and made a sound like a gong. Shit! Another damn robot!

Third person central [“limited”]: The MC is told with a she/he/it pronoun and with the character’s name. Generally, if you’re writing in this viewpoint, it’s like writing first person because you keep to one person’s head. That is, you stay with one character–your MC–and tell the story consistently through that one person. Now, it is okay to switch into another character at scene or chapter break, as long as you consistently stay in one head at a time during the scene. We’ll talk about that in the next part of POV, which I’ll post next week.

Tanya grabbed the frying pan and smacked the hell out of the intruder. Or so she thought. The metal clanged against his skull and made a sound like a gong. Shit, she thought. Another damn robot!

Third person omniscient: There’s an all-seeing narrator, hovering overhead, who describes each scene as it might unfold in a movie. An omniscient narrator may or may not get into a character’s head.

Tanya grabbed the frying pan and brought it down as hard as she could onto the intruder’s skull. A sound like a gong resulted, and she knew he was a robot, and consequently she was in some deep shit.

There’s also what’s called “second person”: MC is told with second-person pronoun (“you”).

You grab the frying pan and bring it down as hard as you can onto the intruder’s skull, but the sound it makes–like a gong–freezes in your blood because you know, at that moment, you’ve just smacked a robot.

You probably won’t see this viewpoint very often, but I have seen it in some literary fiction and science fiction. It’s there. It’s just not as common as others.

Let’s now think a bit about what a POV can do for you, your characters, and your plot. If you’re writing in first person or third central (sometimes called “limited” because you’re LIMITED to that one character at a time), for example, then you’re writing through ONE character’s perspective. You’re conveying to your reader what that one character sees, feels, thinks, smells, hears, senses. If your main character is skulking around a parking garage, for example, waiting to jump the evil accountant as she emerges from the elevator, how can your MC possibly know that the evil accountant’s brother just landed his helicopter on the roof of the corporate headquarters across town? She can’t. Not until she jumps the evil accountant and the evil accountant laughs and says: “Too late, wench! Randolph, my just-as-evil brother, landed his helicopter on Capitalist Pig Headquarters on the other side of town! Your skimpy save-the-world plot is undone!”

And therein lies a problem that lots of authors have to deal with, even the really good ones. That’s what often trips writers up. Especially writers who are just starting out. Sticking to one POV at a time means you’re like an actor, in the head of one character, experiencing the world as that one character. That means you really need to think about your plot arcs and your story to make sure they’re logical and something that the MC would experience either through direct encounter or through hearsay, like through another character. You need to think about how your MC gets her information and how secondary characters might play into that and reveal it to her. Too often, you’ll find an author will jump out of the head of the MC into the head of someone else in the scene, revealing to the READER what’s happening, but not to the MC. That’s called “head-hopping” and we’ll talk about that next week.

Anyway, the benefits, I find, to sticking to one character’s head, are that you’re able to really focus your story and maintain a hold on your plotlines. It forces you to think about where your story is going and how it’s going to get there, thus ensuring that every scene you write and every bit of dialogue has a purpose in moving that narrative forward, toward the conclusion. It also forces you, as a writer, to really think about your other characters and how you portray them. Because if you’re in ONE POV, you as the MC have to reveal other characters’ motivations through the MC’s POV. That is, the MC is going to REACT and INTERPRET what the other characters are saying. Remember, your MC is not privy to the thoughts of the other characters (psychics on Planet Alderian in the Volton Galaxy notwithstanding), so your MC–like YOU IN REAL LIFE–has to come to understand other characters through what those characters SAY and what they DO.

And that can be a tricky thing to convey–to help your readers come to know your secondary characters through the POV of one person. It means you really have to think about your choice of words. It also means you need to think about dialogue, and HOW a secondary character says something and what his her body language/demeanor reveals to your MC, through whose eyes your reader is watching the story unfold.

But sticking to one POV like that can also build tension in the story for the reader. After all, the reader is experiencing the story as it happens and unfolds for the MC. Is the robot just around the corner? Your MC doesn’t know. She has to creep along the wall and find out for herself. And you, dear reader, are creeping with her, wondering if the MC is making the right choice, feeling her uncertainty and fear, thus heightening your reading experience, and hopefully keeping you turning pages.

POV, thus, can help a writer focus a story, and also create a strong bond between the MC and the reader. It’s a vehicle for building your MC’s personality and motivation, and it’s a way for a reader to experience the world through someone else’s eyes, which is why I recommend that you stick to one POV consistently in a story, book, chapter, or scene. And we’ll talk more about switching POVs and when it’s okay to do that.

Want a little more info? Try these.
Elsa Neal’s fiction writing tips
Vickie Britton, on Suite 101, links genres to POV
Marg Gilks, on Writing-World (great resource, that site)

And as always, feel free to drop me a line.

Cheers and happy writing/reading!

2 thoughts on “Elements of Writing: Point of View

  1. Pingback: Say What? Tips for writing (hopefully) good dialogue « Andi's Land

  2. Pingback: Writing tips, redux | Andi Marquette

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