Point of view is, put simply, who the narration is following. Let’s say Alice and Bob have a conversation about their devious plot to assassinate Charlie. If the scene is from Alice’spoint of view, the reader will be informed of her thoughts and feelings, and when she leaves to go home and sharpen her knives, the narration will follow her. The reader will not be informed of Bob’s super secret plan to betray her, his super secret romantic affection for Charlie, or the fact that Charlie has been hiding behind a conveniently placed potted plant the entire time, unless Alice is privy to these things. The reader knows what the point of view character knows.
Point of view is not the same thing as narration. Even with a third person narrator, there is still a point of view character.
There are three common issues that stem from misunderstanding point of view. The first is saying too much. This is when, even though most of the story follows Alice, the narrator constantly interjects the private thoughts and feelings of other characters, which Alice could not possibly know. When this happens, the point of view seems to slip from one character to another in a way that tends to be disorienting to the reader.
The best way to fix this is to read through and consider what your POV character would and would not know about how others feel. Any time you find yourself delving into someone else’s thoughts, keep the subtext but remove the non-POV character’s interior monologue. Trust your readers will infer what is happening on their own. Another option is to make the extra insight explicitly the POV character’s opinion of how they believe the other person feels. . If you can’t remove the non-POV character’s thoughts and feelings without significantly changing the reader’s understanding of events, it may be a sign you need more than one POV character (discussed below).
The second problem is saying too little. This is when the reader is not given all of the relevant information that a character has. The author unfairly withholds information so as to trick the reader, and rather than resulting in a badass plot twist, it usually just leaves everyone feeling a bit cheated. Let’s say that Alice wants Charlie dead because she is (also secretly) next in line for the throne, and he is all that stands in her way. If the reader is following Alice’s point of view and she knows the entire time that she is the missing princess but fails to mention it until the big reveal, that leaves the reader feeling like Alice (who is unaware of the fourth wall) has intentionally lied to an audience she did not know existed. This is reads like seven different types of nonsense and leaves almost everyone with a bad taste in their mouth.
The main fix for this one is to make sure that Alice does not intentionally keep secrets from the audience. Whatever she knows, they know. If that would absolutely kill the plot twist you’ve got three options: 1. Change the plot twist 2. Choose a different POV character or 3. Set up the expectation that readers are not in on Alice’s secrets. This could mean making her notably unreliable, establishing a framing device so that she is aware of an audience who she could logically attempt to deceive, or allowing the narrator to observe her actions without access to her private thoughts.
The third issue is when the narrator delivers opinions that do not belong to the character. This includes the narrator telling us that Alice is beautiful. I’ve already discussed the problems with narratorial judgement statements in two separate articles now, so an in depth discussion of why this is bad can be found here and here.
Outside of expunging all such statements from the story, the other way to fix these is to make them all the opinions of your POV character. Saying “Alice is beautiful,” is an entirely different animal from “Alice considers herself beautiful.” Likewise, “Charlie is a sexy beast,” tells readers about what the author wants. “Alice thinks Charlie is a sexy beast,” tells them what Alice wants. Nine times out of ten, people are not reading a story to learn what the author wants.
Writing like a boss: Multiple POVs
You can have more than one point of view character. In fact, some stories need more than one. There is no hard limit on how many POV characters you can have, but as a rule, each POV character should bring something new to the story. This does not mean a new interior monologue; it means new information. If a POV character cannot provide information about the plot or significant insight into character relationships, they probably don’t need their own point of view chapters. If the POVs provide information but don’t comment on or intersect with each other, you might just be writing two novels in a shared world.
Also, it helps to bear in mind that however much time you spend with one POV character, you spend that much time away from all the others. So if you have four POVs, that means that the reader spends three quarters of the story away from each character. If you divide a 100k word fantasy novel among them equally (it’s worth noting that you absolutely can favor some POVs over others), each character essentially gets their own novella. And for the genre, four isn’t even that many. Too many POVs slows the story down and makes it feel like a waiting game.
If you do decide to write multiple POV characters, one of the best things you can do for your story is delineating the different points of view. Unless what you’re writing is intentionally experimental, multiple POV does not mean that the POV can drift between characters within the same scene. Each POV shift should be denoted by a section break, if not a chapter break. Otherwise it becomes difficult to tell who’s POV the story is in at any given time (does Alice think Charlie is sexy or does Charlie think Charlie is sexy?) and leads to things becoming muddled. Keeping your POVs crisp will keep your story crisp.
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