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Maintain Point of View

on October 11th, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on October 12, 2010

You can find lots of information on point of view—what it is, which to choose for your story, how and when to switch between points of view.

But one POV issue I find in manuscripts has less to do with choosing a point of view and more with maintaining it. I often find writers switching from a limited third person to an omniscient point of view, one in which characters know much more than they should, but only because the writer knows what’s going on. Not because the character has figured out all the intracacies of the plot by page 14.

There are the obvious problems:  How could Jack know about the getaway car, since he wasn’t there and the newscast didn’t report details? Why is Letitia mad at Eleanor for her lapse of judgment when Eleanor’s been angsting about it—mentally only—for 50 pages but has yet to find the courage to mention it to her friend?

Just because the reader knows what’s going on doesn’t mean every character does. Or can.

Then there are the subtler errors: Annie thinking about her luxurious black hair curling down her back; Elliot wondering how his manly six-pack is affecting Tina as he walks by.

Yes, Annie could be a narcissist. She could think, I’ve got it all over Renee. My hair is thicker and longer and Tony already said he preferred dark hair to blond. But almost no one, including narcissists, thinks something such as this about his or her hair—my thick, auburn tresses cascaded to my hips. Not even—She caught her reflection in the glass door. Her thick, auburn tresses swayed with every smooth step.

However, someone may legitimately complain, It’s coming off today. The damned curls make me look like Little Orphan Annie. Or, She whipped out a barrette from the collection on the car’s console and twisted her shaggy mess up and clipped it away from her face. She would take her own damned scissors to it today if Mr. David wouldn’t make time for her.

The word choices must reflect how the character would think and speak. It’s not only about what the character knows, but how he expresses himself.

It’s about who he is.

Sometimes a shift in POV is even subtler, just a shade off. But if you’re in first person or even limited third, you’ve got to restrict your character’s thoughts to what he would actually think.

Does he think in words his character would use? Do his thought patterns match his personality? Does he think of realistic concerns for his character? Does he have silly conversations—aloud or in his head—sharing information only because readers need to know it, not because that’s what or how he’d think?

Marcus would kill his best friend, Tobias Marchand, for the scratch stretching from hood to tailgate on his new—his 24-hour-new—F-150.

Would Marcus think his friend’s full name? Would he think best friend? Or might he actually think—He would kill the asshole, do it for real this time, if only for not telling him about the scratch stretching from hood to tailgate on his new—his 24-hour-new—F-150.

If you’ve taken us into a character’s head—and we can see, hear, and feel what he can—then remember we also can’t see or hear or feel what he can’t.

That deep point of view, where the reader identifies with a character, where he climbs inside the character’s skin, can do so much for your story. It can keep the reader imagining himself as the lead character, saving the world or the girl or his job. It can pull the reader so deep that he doesn’t realize that two hours have passed in his real world while a week has gone by in the imaginary one.

A consistent point of view keeps the plot real and can make fictional events urgent. It can rattle the reader, making him feel, making him think, making him react to your story as if it were really happening. Because, in a well-written story, one in which the reader can immerse himself, the story events are real. The emotions are true—they create physical responses in the reader. The reader uses his mind, his feelings, and his body to experience the story.

An inconsistent point of view stops the reader cold. It makes him realize the events on the page aren’t really happening. He may even be resentful, especially if he was into the story and was then jerked back to reality.

The reader reads to be entertained. To explore a world unlike his everyday one. To touch and experience what is strange to him. When he becomes lost in story, he accepts everything the writer puts before him. When he either cannot immerse himself or he is yanked from the fiction, he is disappointed, maybe even at odds with an author who tried to trick him into believing his world existed when it so obviously didn’t.

Don’t give your reader a chance to be pulled from the story you’ve created for him. Instead, keep giving him reasons to believe your words, to imagine himself as a character other than who he is. To live in a world peopled with unusual characters who say wildly improper things and get away with them.

Maintain the fiction. Maintain a consistent point of view.

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8 Responses to “Maintain Point of View”

  1. ~Sia McKye~ says:

    Some good points here, Beth. I like the thought that each character needs to reflect only those things they would actually know at this point in the story. It irritates me when they do that. :-) It’s also a struggle, at times, to maintain. Food for thought.

  2. Hi Beth. POV really does have a profound impact on the story being told. The story really does work better if the characters talk and think realistically and avoid filling in backstory in an awkward way. Fine post and a useful reminder for authors who want to dig in and fine tune their stories.

  3. Kat Sheridan says:

    Great article, and I especially love the points you make about a person thinking of their own hair, or their own eyes or whatever. It makes me nuts every time I read this kind of thing.

    On a side note, I’m telling Mr. David you’ve immortalized him. He’s going to do a little happy jig!

  4. Beth says:

    Sia, it’s so easy to slip, to introduce information a character couldn’t know. But trust a reader to find a slip like that.

  5. Beth says:

    James, I find a character’s thoughts to be one place a writer can really have trouble with this. While the character’s words might reflect the character well, his thoughts often sound more like the writer. Those thoughts are well worth a second and third look during rewrites and edits.

  6. Beth says:

    I couldn’t resist using him, Kat!

    There are definitely other ways for a writer to get across a character’s looks. And I’m not suggesting having him or her look in a mirror!

    Reading poorly devised self-description sets me off too.

  7. Vivian A says:

    I sin so often. The problem is when all the voices talk to me simultaneously I get distracted.

  8. Beth says:

    If that’s sin, Vivian, we all need to go to confession.

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