It’s common for stories to be told from multiple points of view. It allows you, as a writer, to explore and show different sides to a conflict. It can be as simple as the back and forth between detective and villain in a mystery novel or as complicated as the wars and politics of A Song of Ice and Fire, but points of view are a great tool in an author’s toolbox.
While you can write multiple POV with first person, the most frequent case is the use of close third person. That’s the perspective where you are along for the ride with a character, with insight into their thoughts, but not hearing them tell the story. The use of this type of perspective has certain pitfalls that you need to watch out for. Here’s what to look for when editing your own work.
Whose perspective is this?
You can change POV scene by scene, or chapter by chapter, but no more often that that. Each time you start a new section, figure out whose perspective you are in. If you need to, leave yourself a note (Word and Scrivener both make this easy). One of the easiest ways to fall out of a point of view is for a section to run long, and you forget who your central character is.
Sometimes, though, you’ll find yourself writing from a fairly neutral POV and not make a conscious decision whose perspective a scene takes place from. In this case, making a note of it can tell set a guideline for instances where you need to know. It is certainly valid to write some scenes from a more distant third person, where you don’t get into the head of any character, but you should still make sure you are aware that you are doing so.
Who knows what, when?
The more complicated a story gets, the more likely you are to run afoul of this one. Often times, multiple plot-lines can run simultaneously in the story’s chronology, but scenes in subsequent sections may rewind the timeline and tell about something happening away from the previous action.
Scene 1 – Mary shoots Bill. Rick witnesses the crime, steals Mary’s car, and drives off.
Scene 2 – John drives by Bill’s house, sees Mary’s car parked outside. As he turns the corner, he hears a gunshot, followed by a squeal of tires. He doesn’t know that it’s Bill who was shot, and he doesn’t know that it’s Mary’s car whose tires were squealing, with Rick at the wheel.
Scene 3 – Rick calls John and tells him what happened. Now you’re all set to have John think about the shooting.
Even without delving into first person, it’s fine to have judgmental narration. But you have to make sure that you keep within the POV character’s head when expressing those opinions. Also, bear in mind that the POV character’s view of the world will be colored by his or her own expertise.
Scene – Walking into a classroom with a blackboard filled with equations
POV #1, Professor Jackson: Scrawled across the blackboard was the proof of the quadratic equation, the frequent erasure marks the sign of a student’s handiwork.
POV #2, Danny (student): There were equations all over the blackboard, probably something the class had gone over while he had been out sick.
POV #3, Rob (janitor): Someone hadn’t erased the blackboard before leaving for the night. He gave it a quick wipe with a rag before getting out a wet sponge.
In theory, the three of these characters could have been in that classroom at the same time, seeing the same blackboard. But in each case, the POV colors how that information is conveyed to the reader. If you find yourself with a jarring description, based on who your POV character is, you need to either smooth out the description, or rewrite the section from the appropriate point of view.
Examples of jarring POV opinions/priorities:
POV #1, Professor Jackson: There were equations all over the blackboard.
POV #3, Rob (janitor): Scrawled across the blackboard was the proof of the quadratic equation, the frequent erasure marks the sign of a student’s handiwork.
It is certainly possible that the janitor might be up-to-date on his basic algebra, but it’s unlikely that his first thought on seeing the blackboard would be to try to identify the equation by name.
There’s a different between experiencing an emotion and showing one. When dealing with the emotional state of the POV character, you can be fairly straightforward. Crying can be happy or sad, teeth can be gritted in anger or frustration, and so forth. When it comes to the emotional states of other characters, you need to make sure that you’re only using observation. The POV character can’t tell if someone is silent because they didn’t hear a question or because they are being ignored. It’s fine for them to make assumptions, but the act of making that assumption should be conveyed to the reader.
Filtering out emotional conclusions drawn from non-POV characters’ actions is important for maintaining POV. You can look inside one character’s head per section. Any more than that will be confusing to the reader, and nothing will throw them off that precipice faster than jumping from one character’s head to another without warning.
From Mary’s POV:
Wrong: Bill froze in terror, staring at the barrel of Mary’s gun, pointed at his chest.
Better: Bill froze, wide eyed and trembling, as he stared down the barrel of Mary’s gun.
You can convey the same emotion from Bill, but with the context clues available from Mary’s POV. (side note: this is also better storytelling, since it allows the reader a better picture of what’s going on)
Education and professional background will influence the vocabulary of a character. While it’s fine to have the narration include words that the POV character wouldn’t use in casual conversation, it’s better to have the narration flavored by the character. When writing from the POV of a child, or someone who never received an education, you wouldn’t want to be including long or obscure words. Simple sentences and commonplace language would be preferable. If you had a POV character with a scientific background, you shouldn’t narrate with layman’s terminology for subjects of their field of expertise, even if they dumb down their language when talking to laymen. This is a great way to show a technical expert with interpersonal skills; show the nitty gritty details in the narration, but have them explain it to another character (and hence, the reader) in plain language.
You don’t need to go to extremes for this. Incorrect word use can be amusing in dialogue to show ignorance, but in narration you should generally try to be technically correct. But egregious violations of character/narrative agreement in terms of vocabulary can be jarring.
Vocabulary agreeing: Professor Jackson drew a simple crystalline metallic structure on the blackboard. “You see, when a metal cools, the molecules pack together like ping-pong balls in a box.”
Jarring vocabulary: Professor Jackson drew a bunch of metal atoms on the blackboard. “You see, when a metal cools, the molecules pack together like ping-pong balls in a box.”
The explanation in the dialogue may be the same, but the latter fails to stay in the professor’s point of view (it also hurt my engineering background to write). Keep your POV character in mind, and try to see the world as they would. Narrate accordingly.