Many writers struggle with choosing a point of view for their novel. Should they tell it from first person or third person? Once they’ve decided that, they still have to decide whose point of view the novel will be told from, through which character’s eyes we will witness the events unfold. There is no right answer; it all depends on the story they are trying to tell.
When deciding on point of view, you have many things to consider. Who do you want your readers to sympathize with? How close do you want them to get to your character? Do you need them to know what is going on in more than one character’s head? A discussion of choosing a point of view could take up a couple of blog posts in itself, but that’s not my goal today. I want to talk about what happens after you’ve decided which point of view to use. How do you make sure you are maintaining that point of view throughout the novel?
Maintaining a consistent point of view is important because falling out of your selected point of view pulls your reader from the story. It is jarring and confusing and can make it hard for readers to connect with your protagonist. That doesn’t mean you have to tell your story from only one character’s perspective. Many books have more than one point-of-view character. But you should only change point of view at the chapter or scene level, never in the middle of a scene, and you need to make it clear to your readers quickly whose head you’re in. And make sure that you have a specific reason for switching point of view, one that it is vital to the telling of your story. For example, maybe you need readers to see your protagonist through another character’s eyes so they can learn something about them that the protagonist doesn’t know about himself. If you don’t have a strong, story-related reason for using multiple points of view, stick with one.
So, you’ve chosen your point-of-view character and started writing. How do you make sure you are keeping a consistent point of view throughout the book? Here are some things to look out for:
1) Be careful how you describe your character. Your character wouldn’t talk about their own eye color. They wouldn’t comment on the fact that their brow furrowed when they heard troubling news. You can describe the way your character feels when they hear that news, physically or emotionally, but stay away from descriptions that imply that someone else is looking at your character. And try to avoid the “character looking in the mirror” scene to give us a physical description of your character. Give us a description that comes about organically and serves the story. For example, “Lacey looked at Annoying Popular Girl from across the room and thought again how stupid boys were. When would they learn that blondes may have more fun, but brunettes were superior in every other way?"
2) Don’t describe scenery that your character wouldn’t see or notice. Obviously, if your character can’t see it, they can’t tell us about it. But even if they can see it, you still have to consider if it is something your character would notice? The curtains may be brocade, but would your character care? The things we each notice when we enter a room says a lot about who we are, so only describe things that would be important to your character. For example, your protagonist might not care that the carpet is Berber, but they might notice the one thing that is out of place in a room that is otherwise immaculately clean. In addition to describing the space, this could tell us that the character is a neat freak, or perhaps a bit judgmental. If your character is a laid-back slob, they might marvel at the cleanliness, but probably wouldn’t notice that one crooked book in the bookshelf.
3) Don’t allow characters to know something they wouldn’t be able to know. This is a common mistake. Most authors understand that their character can’t know what is going on in another room or another state, but many of them miss the smaller things. I frequently read things such as, “A beautiful Jamaican woman smiled at me from across the bar.” Your barfly would know the woman is black, but there is no way for him to know her nationality. You could have him guess at her nationality based on her accent or clothing style, but he can’t know it unless she tells him. Make sure you only relate things your character can see or know.
4) Don’t tell us what a non-POV character is thinking or feeling. If your protagonist kisses the girl next door, catching her off guard, he can describe that she jumped back and squealed, but he can’t say she was pleasantly surprised (or aghast) because there is no way for him to know what she is feeling. If your leading lady breaks up with her boyfriend, she can tell us that his face went blank and he stared at her without speaking, or that he burst into tears, but she can’t say that he was angry or heartbroken. She could certainly guess what he was feeling and share her deduction with us, but she can’t tell us exactly what he is feeling because she’s not in his head.
Keeping your eye out for these common point-of-view slips will strengthen your writing and keep your readers firmly planted in your story. If you have any other questions about point of view, leave a comment!