“What is point of view anyway?” I wondered. I thought all I had to do was pretend that as the author, I knew everything and I could see into every character’s head and tell what each one thought and felt.
That may have been all right in times of old, but apparently it is frowned upon in modern times, and aspiring authors certainly don’t want to be frowned upon before they even make their debut.
Point of view, usually called POV, is not, as some might at first think, someone’s opinion. It refers to the character through whom we are seeing the story unfold. As the writer, I can pretend that my main character has a camera mounted on his or her head, and whatever this magic camera can see, hear, touch, smell, feel, or know is allowed to be told. The “camera” cannot know what another character is thinking, unless the thoughts are spoken aloud in dialogue. So I am limited in what I can tell about another character’s emotions. I’ve had to become more skilled at letting the reader know what a secondary character might be feeling, through dialogue and by showing that character’s body language. Are his fists clenched? Is his jaw working? Are his eyes filling with tears? Are his eyes narrowing and his brow furrowing?
POV can be a problem if the POV character is not present in a scene that needs to be told. For that particular scene or even a chapter, the main character may be someone else, and the camera can be in that person’s head for the duration of that section. Just be sure the reader can immediately identify the POV character in the first sentence or two. The writer needs to stick to one person’s POV for each scene and not go “head hopping” throughout the scene.
Some of the most popular POVs used are first and third person (“I” and “he” or “she”), and can be in the past or present.
I would like to give you some short examples of some POV types.
First I want to show you something really, really horrible that I discovered in my novel, Marlie — a blatantly obvious (to everyone but me) POV error. In the section marked in red, I had slipped into first person when I should have been in third person POV. I have fixed that error and now I can sleep at night.
He took hold of both my upper arms and looked into my eyes. “Is it so hard to see that I really care about you?”
She swallowed hard. “I do too … care about you, I mean.” That was an understatement. She was totally lost, in love with this beautiful man.
Brent hugged her and muttered, “Clancy is going to pay.”
In spite of the warmth of Brent’s hug, she groaned and shivered in fear for him.
In this excerpt from “Marlie” we have the POV in third person, past tense, and we are in Marlie’s head. This is how third person should be done, with no slips into first person.
“You were going to show me your carvings,” she said.
“Oh yeah.” Clancy took a swig and set the beer down on a wooden crate that served as coffee table. “But first, I need a little kiss.” He pulled her close and kissed her with that horrible beer breath.
She pushed him away, but he kept an iron grip on her upper arms.
“Clancy!” She hit at his shoulders and twisted away. “That’s not funny.”
He grabbed her wrist tightly. “No, not funny,” he said, “but it’s fun.” He laughed and yanked her closer and tried to kiss her again, groping at her breasts with one hand. “Told you we’d have fun.”
Now she was scared. She was all alone in the bush with a guy she hardly knew. What ever had possessed her to come here alone with him? She must have been crazy. She didn’t know Clancy. She’d only met him two weeks earlier and the comments from people who knew him had nothing good to say about him. Why hadn’t she listened? She was only trying to be polite, coming in to see his artwork. Suckered! She couldn’t believe she was so stupid.
Clancy grabbed the back of her hair. “I love your hair, Marlie. There’s so much of it.” He pulled it back so hard that her knees buckled and she fell backwards onto the couch, just as he must have planned it. She scratched his face to make him let go, but he threw his bloodied head back and laughed like an insane man, taunting her with a sound like a cat yowling. “Bit of a wildcat, eh?”
When she bit his arm he jumped back, shocked, and then slapped the side of her head with the back of his hand. Her head roared inside like blood rushing around in her skull, and her ears were ringing. Clancy reached up and grabbed a coil of rope that hung on a nail by the door.
This section from Orion’s Gift is in first person, past tense. We are in Sylvia’s head.
I asked directions and learned that the Banamex was only a few blocks away in the business part of town. As I entered the bank, the security guard gave me a disapproving look. He stole frequent glances in my direction as I sat in the row of chairs in the waiting area with my queue number in my hand. A woman sitting at the far end of my row gave me the same disapproving look.
Do I have a smudge of dirt on me? For sure something was wrong. I felt very uncomfortable, as if I didn’t belong here. I settled back to wait my turn. The young Mexican woman sitting next to me leaned over and said, “Is your way of to dress.”
I looked down at my shorts and T-shirt and realized I had dressed like a camper, not a business person.
“Is not the custom to have the arms and the legs so … not covered,” she whispered. “Not in the bank. Maybe … en la playa … the beach.”
“Oh, dear.” I felt my face get hot. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”
“I know. Is why I tell you. For next time.” She patted my hand.
“Thank you so much. Muchas gracias.” I winced and gave her a little smile as I curled my shoulders, trying to shrink inside myself.
I couldn’t wait to escape. When my queue number came up on the digital display, I paid my tourist card fee and changed more dollars to pesos. The teller, a woman about my age, with her black hair pulled straight back and fastened in a chignon, was all business. She raised her nose slightly higher in disdain, brightly painted orange lips twitching disrespect. I scooped up the pesos she shoved through the wicket at me and rushed out of the bank. As I glanced hastily over my shoulder, I saw the security guard craning his neck for one last look at my legs.
Some stories are better told in first person and some are better in third person. Some lend themselves to the present tense while others are better in the past tense. If you’re not sure which is best for your novel, why not try a few paragraphs in both and compare? Just don’t leave any loose threads like the ones I confessed to earlier in this post.