Friday, January 18, 2013

Clarifying Point of View

Recently I’ve come across quite a few of you who have had either questions about or problems with point of view in your novel. So today I’ll be delving into a subject that’s drier than British humor, but more fundamental than many of my other posts.

Type of Narration
In order to understand a character’s viewpoint, you must know the different ways of narrating a book. Below are the three types of narration:

  • Fist Person Point of View
  • Third Person Point of View
  • Omniscient Point of View

All three types of narration fall on a continuum from the most intimate to the most objective perspective.

First Person Point of View
First person is considered the most intimate of viewpoints, but loses objectivity, as the world and people around them are filtered through your main character’s perspective.

Omniscient Point of View
Omniscient narration falls on the other side of the continuum. As you word nerds might have already known, this is an all-knowing narrator. Different industry insiders debate whether, in order to be classified as “omniscient,” the narrator has to be completely outside of all characters’ heads or if the narrator can jump between characters within a scene. Regardless, omniscient narration is the most objective and least intimate point of view.

Third Person Point of View
This falls somewhere in the middle of the continuum, depending upon the writer. It’s not quite as intimate as the world framed by “me,” as we see in first person narration, but it’s also not nearly as objective as omniscient narration.

Writing Multiple Points of View
Now that you know the different narrative frameworks, lets talk about writing multiple points of view in your manuscript.

There are some obvious benefits with switching the character viewpoint in a novel. Often writers need to insert information into their story that the main character does not know about. This is the most obvious benefit of adding in a scene or scenes narrated from another perspective.

There are a number of problems that can arise from shifting the character viewpoint. For one, overuse can weakened the amount of empathy readers feel towards the main character.

Two, too many points of view can become confusing. Confusion is never good, as it can often lead to frustration, which can then lead to a bad overall impression of your book.

Three, writers sometimes do not have a great enough grasp of each character’s personality to accurately portray them. This only gets worse as writers include more and more points of view. Readers can quickly spot a writer who has a bad grasp of their characters personalities. This is also bad, for if your reader feels the portrayal is unnatural, then they might find other, resulting aspects of the story to be unnatural as well, and you the writer will lose credibility.

Lastly, and this is the biggest mistake I see, writers get sloppy. Many times I’ll be reading a scene told wholly from one individual’s perspective, and then it will shift for a line or two, and then back again. This is neither an omniscient point of view, nor is it first or third person point of view. And often this POV switch is not necessary.

How to make it Work

Visually Set POV Apart
It’s extremely easy to change the point of view by visually setting it apart. Insert a line space between the two points of view to offset it.

How Many Points of View is too Many?
This is one of those vague questions that does not have a single answer. It depends on several factors. For instance, thrillers are often excellently crafted when the point of view switches between several people. Outside of this genre, that number should be a bit smaller.

Two points of view is often the safest number, but three won’t confuse anyone if you make sure to be clear. Having four or five points of view is venturing into rocky territory, and if you must include all of these personalities, then I suggest focus at least an edit or two developing their characters.

A Few Last Words
In conclusion, if you are going to break the rules, make sure you do it consciously. The point of view of a story is a fundamental building block, and once you understand its basic features, you can utilize it to create incredible narrative effects.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services

1 comment:

  1. My first novel was easy, I just used first, from one character's view. The only time I wondered about my choice was when I had a secondary character have to relate some events. Part of me wanted to switch into her POV and do it as a flashback, but as it would have been one short chapter 2/3 of the way through the book, I thought it might be a bad idea.

    My current WiP is more difficult; it's 3rd, but I had to fight head-hopping. One of my betas tagged me for some POV issues that I'll have to clean up in the next go-round. Most of the story comes from 2 people's views, but there are a couple more sprinkled in.

    I noticed you don't mention 2nd person. I know there are a few novels written in 2nd, but I don't think I've read them. It can be quite effective in a short piece; I don't know if I could handle a full novel in 2nd, though.