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?
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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 and find more information about Jim and his books at .