When starting out on an adventure into a new writing project, a writer tends to decide on the POV (a.k.a point of view) in the pre-production phase (a.k.a the hell before the actual writing). Selecting the POV prior to writing the first draft will help the story flow in the direction that writer has defined. The chosen point of view is vital in rendering all aspects of the story, pulling the characters, scene, setting, and plot together in a nice package. Most writers, especially novice, tend to lean towards one specific POV. While it is good to be a master in a specific area, utilizing varying viewpoints keeps writing fresh and it also helps hone the writing craft – making the writer a more experienced.
Try shifting POV within your story. Here are a few thoughts to chew on:
1. The story can be told from one limited perspective, but the story does not have to revolve around this specific character. Take one character’s perspective, keep it limited, and use that view to stay outside of the story. Tell a story as though the viewing character is watching a film. As we read a story through one character’s limited perspective, over time we tend to trust that character’s view. At the point that the character is believed to be reliable, readers can relate and sympathize with other characters as they are seen by the POV character. The Saga comic series / space opera written by the famed Brian K. Vaughan (Runaways, Y: The Last Man) is a fantastic example of this scenario. The story in Saga is told by Hazel, the daughter of Marko and Alana. Hazel narrates the story, which starts with her POV of her family and the universe before she is born. She does a retrospective history of interstellar society and events prior to her actual birth and how it affects her… um… conception. From her viewpoint, we sympathize with her parents who are hunted mixed-species lovers. Had the viewpoint been of another character’s, say Gwendolyn (Marko’s ex-fiancee) or Prince Robot IV, both who view the Marko-Alana relationship as vile, the reader would believe that the relationship between the two main characters is unacceptable — an abomination. Yet, with Hazel’s POV, the Marko-Alana relationship, though sometimes toxic, is actually a beautiful love story. Using a single character’s viewpoint, as an outsider who is watching the story unfold where they themselves are not the main character, can make for an epic story – when written correctly. If this limited POV does not hold true or the reader cannot trust the character’s viewpoint, then the story will languish.
2. Perspectives can shift. A story does not have to remain with the viewpoint of one character. A story can be told through the view of other characters. However, caution must be used when switching perspective. Heard of the phrase “head-hopping”? This occurs when a writer switches the POV from one character to another and gives no indication that the shift in view is about to occur. Anytime the viewpoint is going to shift, give a clear indication of the change. There are a host of actions that can be used to show this shift. One action is to have a secondary character touch or indicate towards his or her head. That is a signal to the reader that the POV is about to shift to that new character’s head. However, the action is a little overused and I suggest coming up with something a little more unique. The next (and simplest) option is to use a scene or chapter break and change the character POV during that transition. Another option is to have clearly distinguishable voices for the characters that will be having a viewpoint.
3. Carefully play “God” with omniscience. Through an omniscient viewpoint, a writer can use many different POVs. If this POV is done correctly, the reader will be able to see all thoughts and feelings of several characters at one time. With this viewpoint, the writer can freely choose which head to “talk” from. However, this can prove difficult for a reader to digest. Again, head-hopping is a threat and the reader can easily become lost. A reader may also lack establishment with the book and is unable to connect with the characters. Sacrifices need to be made that worked well with only the Limited view (i.e., point #1). Limited criteria can be dismal to the omniscience, so think carefully about how to establish this multi-view narration. However, as a writer, if you can balance out the multiple POVs effectively, you will have a masterpiece.
Joyce Carol Oates wrote a phenomenal book in 2001 called Middle Age: A Romance. This book uses a multitude of character POVs, intertwining the lives of the character and their views. If you want to read a book that expertly executes the use of point of view, I highly recommend Oates’ book.
Be experimental and expand your horizons. Play around with POVs and don’t keep to one type. Remember to keep true to the perspective that you have taken on, whether it is in that moment or for the whole story.
Here are just a final few tidbits from other members of The Sarcastic Muse that will help your POVs:
1. Don’t cheat on your tense. Ensure you don’t break tense as this tends to happen with multiple viewpoints. Click here for Chris’ post on tense.
2. Pick up all detached body parts. Sometimes a character’s view will… um… make “disembodied” body parts. Read Michelle’s post on how to keep those pieces attached to an actual body (she didn’t specify if the body had to be living). However, if you are writing a story about possessed body parts, maybe a detached hand that sharpens its fingers in a pencil sharpener to make razor sharp bone points to stab innocent high schoolers, then please feel free to skip this post.
As usual, I found this a really thought-provoking presentation of the issue. I’ve used first person and third person, and even, in one or two stories, second person, which was kind of fun. I’ve never used multiple perspectives in my fiction, but I haven’t done many pieces long enough that it would seem worthwhile. I’m really interested, though, in third person omniscient that has a strong voice. I’ve seen it in some of Garcia Marquez (in “Love in the Time of Cholera”) and Borges stuff, a bit in Faulkner, and some in Vonnegut. It’s third person but not neutral sounding, an obniscient voice that comments. Do you know what I mean?
Second person is something I want to try one day. How did you arrive at that POV for your stories, as I believe that is the rarest POV.
My current novel is in third omniscient – a first! I know exactly what you mean as I have been doing a lot of research on this POV to figure out how to make it work. Too many narrators can be boring or confusing, so that is what I am struggling with to keep it in check. Borges is my go to on this topic 😉
Hey Amanda – First-person is my fav POV, but I wrote in third-person as well. I think the book is the boss and dictates the best POV for that particular story.
Hi Marcy! I struggle with first person, only because I feel like I say “I” too much (just as I did with this sentence). So that is the one I try to break to and work on.
Thinking on what you said about the book POV, that does make sense. Sometimes I start in a POV that I want, but then the story morphs it into what it wants. That is a very good point.
I tried the “You” perspective once but didn’t work for me. It felt funny. I don’t know if I’ll ever use it. I did the All-seeing, All-present one the other day with a story called The Tunnel. Only one character made it through, though. I think the God-perspective is the best. The narrator has a lot of freedom.
I like that story and you used that POV well. I am enjoying writing in the “God-perspective” at the moment. Definitely a lot of freedom!