The Pox of POV

As many of you know, I offer my detail-oriented passion as a freelance editor. (You can see my rates and other things here)

If you’re wondering why this post is entitled the ‘pox of POV’, it’s because I kept mistyping ‘POV as POX’ and so I thought I’d use the error to my advantage.

Something I’ve noticed everywhere (in published books as well as unpublished manuscripts) is a lot of confusion about POV. There are many different shades and definitions of POV, which is why it can be so confusing– and why this post exists. POV, in its various forms, is the backbone of your story– and if you do it wrong or sloppily, readers will not forgive you.

What is POV?

“POV” stands for “point of view”. Basically, it means the perspective of whoever is telling the story at a certain point. It might be the narrator, or it might be one of many characters. The important thing to know is that the POV character(s) are those who tell the story.

But what does POV mean?

POV is not just the ‘person’ (i.e: first person[I heard] or third person [she heard]); it is so much more.

Here’s a great example of what I read ALL THE TIME:

I paused in the vestibule, considering my options. Was it more beneficial to be the rat or the clam? Martin had betrayed us already, but what if there was more to it? What if he wasn’t the only one?

I saw a guard glance at me out of the corner of his eyes. What an idiot, this son of a prince.

I actually had a hard time coming up with this because how to do POV correctly is a big part of my editing focus and it was hard not to use a specific example I’ve seen before. So…

What I’d like to focus on is that switch of character. Our MC is caught between two options, he pauses, and then notices a guard regarding him, at which point we hear the thoughts of the guard.

Maybe he can see the guard’s face, full of scorn. Maybe he knows this particular guard doesn’t like him. But as long as we are in the MC’s point of view, we cannot know what someone else is thinking, plotting, or ‘going to do’. We can’t do that. (Unless you are writing in “third person, omniscient”, or your “first person” character is prescient or a mind reader, which needs to be understood off the bat)

Ask yourself: How does my character know this?

How does this MC know the guard is thinking that exact sentence? He can’t. But a writer can get across the same sentiment without breaking POV.

I paused in the vestibule, considering my options. Was it more beneficial to be the rat or the clam? Martin had betrayed us already, but what if there was more to it? What if he wasn’t the only one?

I saw a guard glance at me out of the corner of his eyes.  He had a sneer on his face– an expression I’d increasingly seen from the castle help.

Ta-da, problem solved. We’re still in MC’s POV and we can go on and wonder if Martin has been spreading rumors about him as well as betraying the people.

vintage-technology-keyboard-old

Things POV can do:

  • Be unreliable. After all, a POV character could be unreliable, a liar, or have a hidden agenda. He could be lying to himself.
  • Tell us things that are happening inside our POV character’s head. For instance:Third person: Saen-ji eyed the mountain ahead of him. Just a few more miles. Just a few more. (in Saen-ji’s POV)
    Third person: Saen-ji eyed the mountain ahead of him. Just a few more miles, he thought. Just a few more. (in Saen-ji’s POV; this doesn’t change much, but do notice the difference in tone)
    First person: I eyed the mountain ahead of me. Just a few more miles. Just a few more.

Things POV can’t do:

  • Tell us things that the POV character is not experiencing, hearing, seeing, or knowing firsthand.
  • Tell us things that the POV character does not already know, has not already seen, heard, or experienced. Again, ask “How does my character know this?”

Note this:

  • A character doesn’t care about repetition. Therefore, he is not going to refer to his mother as ‘the woman’ or by her first name when he is thinking or referring to her. (Okay, I know you’re disagreeing, but how many times do you think or refer to your mother by her first name?)
    When I see a first person character refer to another character in very general terms, it causes me to roll my eyes. Why? We don’t think about our friend Charlie as ‘the boy’ simply because we think saying ‘Charlie said’ one more time is going to be repetitive.

So, how do I craft POV? I don’t get it.

Okay, as a baseline, we’re going to talk about three different available POVs with regards to ‘person’.

  • Narrator (This example is written in third person; omniscient first is not often utilized). A narration section often comes at the beginning of books/ chapters and is kind of an omniscient storyteller.

    The wind swept down over the mountains that had stood unchanged for ten thousand generations. Upon that wind came the light scent of promise– of spring. The people in the land of Axiom stepped out of their houses or poked their noses out of windows to smell the hint of green, of melting snow, and the stirrings of growth deep in the ground. What they didn’t know was that when the snow finally melted, spring would turn out to be everything they never dreamed.

    You can see that this is told by an omniscient narrator– someone who knows what the people are all doing and why, and who also knows the future. He’s also rather casual, rather than staid and formal.

  • First person: This POV is very limiting because we only know what the MC is thinking, feeling, understanding, and doing. It’s like what you are, in real life. You don’t know what the random guard is thinking or planning unless he says it to you or you intercept a message, for instance.
  • Note: Some books will change first person POV characters in order to get another perspective. This often happens in a format that switches chapters between the characters.
  • Third person limited: Third person doesn’t judge. It allows you to switch back and forth between characters in a chapter, or less often, a scene.
  • Note: You’ll want to be careful, though, switching characters too often is called ‘head-hopping’ and is frowned upon by the literature community because it can be difficult to follow if done sloppily.

That’s all for now. I’m going to go find some books you’ve probably read in order to see these concepts in action, for right or wrong. We’ll continue this series with specific examples of all types and sorts of POV.

Have you ever been confused in a story because of a POV switch? Have you ever struggled with POV in your own story?

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