Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Importance of Point of View

By James M. Jackson

I once took it as an article of faith that when an author employs multiple points of view (POVs) in a story, the character with the most at stake in a scene should be the POV character for that scene.
I have no idea where I learned that “truth,” but it made sense to me—until it didn’t.

Exceptions to the Rule:

1. The character with the most at stake is not a POV character.

Well shoot, now what? I’ve recently read a novel with ten or twelve POV characters. That author solved this issue by creating a new POV character, even though that scene was the only one narrated from that person’s perspective.

I prefer to limit the POV characters to the fewest number that makes sense for the story, and I would do everything in my power to avoid a one-time POV character. I’d start my rewrite process for that scene by reminding myself what its goals were.

I might be able to achieve those same goals by adding information to an already written scene. If not, I might employ other characters to describe the actions and body language of the individual most impacted, conveying the import to that person (as perceived by the POV character). I could possibly accomplish this by adding a POV character to the original scene. Alternately, I could have two individuals discuss what happened, providing their insight into the matter.

If none of these approaches work, I need to examine whether there is a bigger issue with the story I need to address.

2. It creates a spoiler.

Say the book is a mystery in which our protagonist is trying to discover the killer’s identity. If a scene written in the killer’s POV lets the reader know who the killer is, it will spoil the mystery. Either change the book into a thriller (in which readers can know the killer) or change the POV character to keep the mystery alive.

3. Authorial needs for the story dictate a different character.

Sometimes I choose a POV character because I want to reveal something about another character (often the protagonist), and I can do it in a more active manner using a different POV. If I need to describe the protagonist, I can go with the mirror routine (which I personally dislike) or have the character worry about what someone else will think when they see whatever it is the protagonist is worried about. I prefer to bring out the issue in dialogue and have the protagonist reluctantly divulge what caused the problem.

But if you just want readers to know your protag is a 6’2” hunk, sometimes the best way is to have another POV character provide the description, especially when the protagonist is not in the scene and two other characters are talking about him.

Sometimes the “normal” POV doesn’t have the necessary physical or mental attributes or interests to notice a clue, but the author wants the reader to “see it”. Another character can come to the rescue. In my Seamus McCree novels, Seamus might watch a video and know whether a particular bird should be heard in that setting. His son, Paddy, would have no clue about that, but Paddy would know if someone moved the flour on the shelf, whereas Seamus wouldn’t. If Seamus broke his glasses, he couldn’t see, and if something needed to be seen, it would have to be by another character. While that other character could report what (s)he saw, maybe that doesn’t work well for the plot and it isn’t as active.

4. Giving POV characters a fair share of the story.

I took a plotting course in which the instructor suggested POV characters should appear in a predictable order so the reader knew what to expect. I will never be that structured, but if you are, and if you want to write scenes that go AB, AB, AB, etc. or ABC, ABC, ABC, etc., it dictates who your POV character needs to be for each scene. You may have to carefully structure the order of your scenes to pull this off.

Even if you don’t go that far with multiple POVs, you might want to avoid the orphan POV character who only appears in one or two scenes. Either rewrite those scenes or find some others in which to tell the story from that character’s perspective.

In writing romances, both parties need sufficient time on the page for the reader to root for the happy ending.

5. The person with the most at stake changes in the middle of a scene.

Something happens in the scene to switch who has the most at stake. Perhaps character A has a secret she has been dreading to tell character B. A is so relieved to unburden herself, she’s emotionally done for the scene. After that cathartic release, B’s feelings about this secret are the most important consideration.
To solve this problem, consider switching POV characters midscene. Some authors are so smooth at POV switches they can do it midsentence and readers don’t notice or care. My choice is to break the scene and start another one.

Sometimes I pick-up the action immediately following the revelation; sometimes I leave out several actions the reader can intuit and restart the scene later in the action. Or, I will go back a few lines and retell the last part of the broken scene from B’s POV, using the same dialogue, but changing tags and beats to reflect B’s thoughts and feelings.

As readers and writers, how do you feel about an author’s choice of Point of View characters?
* * * 
James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. Empty Promises, the fifth novel in the series—this one set in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—is now available. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at


  1. Ann Cleeves has the remarkable ability to sustain a narrative with multiple POV's and in mid-chapter, change POV without a hiccup.

    I've learned not to head hop, and find it distracting.

  2. Margaret -- Readers don't much care if they are invested in a story about shifting POVs as long as it doesn't pull them out of the story. The masters have no problem. We lesser mortals need beware

  3. Richard Stark who writes the Parker novels is a master at changing POV without skipping a beat.

  4. I read in awe as some authors manage to switch POV's without a skip in the beat of the story.

    I tend to write completely in one POV, either first person or a very close 3rd person.

  5. My books have two main characters, Catherine Jewell and police chief John MacDougal. They meet in my first book and become the prominent characters especially now that they're engaged. Every book brings new characters in. While they don't have major roles, they do often come back in other books unless they are the murderer or a victim or someone not all that important. For instance John's mother comes in the first book and shows up in every other book, too, as well as Catherine's friend Maggie, and John's police officers. Sometimes in books one or more of these police officers will have important parts, too. I don't write in first person because I'm using so many different characters. In the book I'm working on now, I've started including Amish characters mostly because in the area I live the Amish are moving into it, and the place of my books is in N.E. Ohio that has quite a few Amish families. Will they be involved in a murder? Except that an Amish man and his son discovered a body in his woods while collecting maple sap, not really. Also Catherine needs some help in her business Roses in Thyme because the woman who has worked for her is out of town, she hired a teenage Amish girl.

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  7. You make an excellent point--it all depends on how well it done. I always said I didn't care for books in present tense. I was half way through one of Hank Phillippi Ryan's books before I realized it was in present tense. It was so well done that I didn't realize it. I'm currently reading, for the first time, a book in second person. Well done, but the jury is still out on that one.

  8. Grace -- I find second person fine for essays and short pieces, but I don't recall any novels I've enjoyed that were written in second person.

  9. I tend to write in close third and use one or at most two POVs. I have also written in first person. As a writer, the needs of the book seem to dictate which will work best for that particular book. For a cozy, it can often be first person. For a more traditional mystery, close third. A romance needs two points of view, his and hers and often one needs to be in first person while the second in close third.

    As a reader, it's a function of the author's skill to use more than three separate POVs. Some can do it quite well, and it seems natural, other's have a more difficult time making it work. same with writing in the present tense. I've not yet found a novel that worked for me in second person.

  10. Excellent post, Jim. To be honest, I think writers care way more about POV than readers do--if it works well, it would not be noticeable. You'd go with the flow of the story, no matter the POV.

    I am working on a multiple POV story. It's a challenge, no doubt.

  11. Second person: A.S.A. Harrison The Silent Wife. Terrific read, though I kept tripping over the POV.

  12. The book that I'm reading that's in second person is "The Light We Lost" by Jill Santopolo.

  13. Ramona -- you probably are correct -- although unless an author chooses to self-publish, the other group that seem to care a lot about POV are the gatekeepers: agents, publishers, editors.

    Thanks for the heads up on the 2nd person POV -- not sure I'm motivated to read something just to find out I've been wrong.

  14. RE: number 2--Some authors (besides Agatha Christie) manage to include sections from the killer's POV without actually revealing that the person is the killer. So that can work for a mystery if you are careful.