Close

June 4, 2015

Point of View: What Does Your Character Know?

Signpost with text: Confused about POV?

Yesterday, I happened upon a blog post about head-hopping and the confusion we can feel when told our writing suffers from this problem. It doesn’t help when half the information out there about head-hopping is confusing as well, not to mention contradictory.

Some call head-hopping the worst ever, others defend it because the big authors can get away with it, and still others say there’s no such thing. Sometimes the feedback is outright wrong, as some confuse head-hopping with multiple point-of-view (POV) or don’t understand the difference that our POV style can make.

Several years ago, I wrote about the different POV styles and head-hopping, but I’ve learned a lot since then, so I figured it was time to revisit the subject. Hopefully, I’ll be able to share tips that won’t add to the confusion. *smile*

POV Types: From 1st to 3rd

Most of us are probably familiar with the different POV types, levels, whatever we want to call them:

  • 1st Person: Uses I or me for the POV character. Emotions, thoughts, and perceptions shared with the reader are limited to what this character knows.
  • 2nd Person: Uses you for the POV character. (Note: The POV character being you is different from addressing the reader as “you,” which is merely breaking the fourth wall in a “dear reader” way.) Uncommon in fiction, but when used, the thoughts, emotions, and perceptions shared with the reader would be limited to what this character knows.
  • 3rd Person: Uses he or she for the characters. The emotions, thoughts, and perceptions shared with the reader depend on the type of 3rd person POV style used. (See Note #2 below.)

Note #1: Multiple POV Characters are Possible in One Story

Any one of those types could have multiple POV characters over the course of the story. I’ve seen stories with multiple 1st person POVs, where the POV character is named in the chapter title to make it clear who “I” is.

There are so few 2nd person stories that I haven’t seen one with multiple POVs, but it’s theoretically possible. Many readers might find it confusing, however, as 2nd person is often confusing for readers as is, much less with the complexity of multiple POV characters.

We’re probably all familiar with stories that follow multiple POV characters around in 3rd person writing, each scene or chapter focusing on a different POV character. I’ve even some stories that combine multiple POV types, such as the main character’s POV scenes in 3rd person and the villain’s POV scenes in 1st person to hide their identity.

Just because we have multiple POV characters does not mean we’re writing in omniscient or head-hopping. There are several ways to change the “ownership” of the story from one POV character to another and avoid problems.

Note #2: 3rd Person POV Encompasses Many Styles

The confusion about POV often lies in the many different approaches to 3rd person POVs. All these styles use the he/she 3rd person POV words, so it can be hard to tell which style applies to our writing—or to an example held up to “prove” that something is or isn’t allowed.

Yet it’s important to understand these differences because techniques that are acceptable in styles at one end of the range are less acceptable at the other end of the range.

Think of a range along a line, and what changes from one end of the line to the other is how close the reader’s “camera” is to the main characters. Within a story or scene, it’s possible to shift the writing along this line in certain ways, but it’s important to not confuse the reader, as that will take them out of the story.

At one end, we’re meant to feel very near to the characters—experiencing their story from the inside, as if we were them. At the other end, we’re meant to feel removed, like an audience member watching a story play out on the stage of the story’s pages.

Going from near to far, we can define the main points on the line:

  • Deep 3rd Person:
    Written at the same depth as well-done 1st person POV, just with different pronouns. Because the “camera” is deep inside the character’s head, hearing their thoughts and feeling their emotions, the writing cannot share perceptions that the POV character isn’t aware of. It is 100% subjective, focused from the inside of the POV character.
    This style has become the new default for many genres, as it gives readers the immediacy of a “close up.”
    In this style, we…:

    • Avoid all filtering words (saw, heard, thought, knew, wondered, etc.).
    • Use showing most of the time to let the reader experience the story along with the POV character.
    • Include the POV character’s visceral reactions to make the reader feel as though they’re sharing the character’s body.
    • Use the character’s voice for all sentences, and share only their perceptions. (Would the POV character notice the chair’s fabric or know the name of that flower? Would they think about xyz at this point in time? If not, don’t include it.)
    • Italicize the character’s internal thoughts only when changing to I/me and present tense.
      I hate this. She kicked the rock across the driveway. If only Roger hadn’t been such an idiot.
      That last sentence could be her direct thoughts but wouldn’t need to be italicized because the tense and POV don’t change. In deep POV, most sentences would be near-direct thoughts (using their voice), so italics aren’t appropriate unless needed.
    • Thought tags such as “he thought” or “she wondered” should not be used for internal thoughts. They add distance, which undermines the goal of this style.
  • Limited 3rd Person:
    Sometimes called “close,” “subjective,” or even just “normal” 3rd person, this style is still deep enough that the writing can’t share perceptions the POV character isn’t aware of. “Limited” means that the writing is limited to this one POV character’s experience for this scene.
    However, some sentences (such as for action or descriptive narrative) might not be strictly in the character’s voice, more telling might be thrown in to provide context to the reader’s understanding, some filtering words might add distance, etc.
    A character’s internal thoughts might be italicized even when still in 3rd person and past tense, or they might be tagged with “he thought,” similar to dialogue.
  • Omniscient 3rd Person:
    This style can share perceptions beyond the POV character’s knowledge. Other than certain genres (childrens’, middle grade, some fantasy, etc.), omniscient is less popular than it was during the time of the “classics.”
    This style can include lots of telling and a narrator character, but it would include few (if any) deep emotions, thoughts, or visceral reaction of any character. If subjective thoughts, emotions, or visceral reactions were included, the sentence would use filter words or add distance in some way. In other words, the reader’s “camera” is outside of the main character.
    The writing would be in either the author’s voice or a narrator’s voice. Insights into characters would be shared objectively (or subjectively from the author/narrator’s opinion).

There are several variations between those of course, but those are the main styles to understand for my point here.

Note #3: Sliding from One Style to Another Is Possible If…

We’ve probably all read stories that have most paragraphs in deep POV and then they throw in a telling phrase for a bit of backstory context. Other stories even go from a subjective POV to add in an objective sentence to increase reader tension. (If he only realized what was to happen next, he might have made a different choice.)

When a story makes a slide from deep to shallower in a way that improves the reader’s experience, there’s nothing wrong with this technique. However, too many of these shifts in depth are the result of authors who don’t know how to share information any other way, or they simply don’t think about what would be best for the reader.

As with all aspects of writing, we should make our choices deliberately. If we’re adding distance between the reader and the story, we should have a good reason.

Understanding Feedback about POV

Let’s take a look at some common issues we might receive in feedback from critique partners, beta readers, contest judges, and editors, and how this understanding of POV can help.

Is This Really Head-Hopping?

Many people use this term incorrectly, referring to issues with multiple POVs or out-of POV phrases. To understand the correct meaning, let’s go back to the “camera” idea.

Head-hopping is when the camera hops from inside one character’s head (meaning that it has access to their thoughts, feelings, perceptions, etc. without filter words) to inside another character’s head without using an appropriate transition.

Unless our POV character is a mind-reader, the writing can’t simultaneously share their emotions and know how another character feels. In other words, the camera can’t be inside two characters at the same time without potentially confusing the reader and creating distance. Those dangers are the reason to avoid head-hopping, not just because it’s a rule. *smile*

The use of filter words for omniscient keeps the camera outside: Sally knew Roger was lying. The filter word “knew” adds distance, so if the next sentence is a filtered insight about Roger, we’re not hopping from inside one head to inside another.

However, unless we’re trying to write in omniscient, we should avoid filter words in most cases, and we would need to transition from one character’s POV to another.

What Does Out-of-POV Mean?

The actual feedback for out-of-POV will call out the issue by many names. Some will call it head-hopping, some will say it feels too “told,” some will question how a character knows something.

The vast majority of POV problems comes down to this out-of-POV issue. The easiest way I’ve found to identify and fix the problem is a two-fold question:

Can the POV character know this?
And if so, is it clear to the reader how they know it?

If we keep these questions in mind, it doesn’t matter if we understand head-hopping or the different types of POV styles. These questions get to the heart of all POV issues.

From this perspective, head-hopping is a result of us not keeping the POV character clear to the reader by using transitions (or filter words in the case of omniscient) or by us sharing information the POV character can’t know. If we fix those, we fix the head-hopping.

But out-of-POV issues are also tricky because they can hide in innocent looking sentences:

Sally took deep, calming breaths as Roger loaded the rifle to get ready for the next set of zombies.

In omniscient, this sentence would be fine. There’s no obvious “inside” camera work here. That lack of inside camera work also means this technically isn’t head-hopping.

However, if it’s meant to be 3rd person limited or deep, there is a problem with an out-of-POV phrase (that’s also telling and not showing). Sally can see Roger load the rifle, but how can she know his motivation of “to get ready” for the zombies? Maybe he’s getting ready to kill her for all she knows. *grin*

Obviously, no matter the POV style, most readers would skim over that phrase and think the motivation clear enough if they’ve seen the characters just survive one wave of zombies and they’re regrouping now. But an editor skilled at catching these issues would flag this for out-of-POV. (Marcy Kennedy is genius at finding them.)

Even if we don’t think these slips are a big deal, they’re also often telling issues as well. So if we’re trying to use a deep POV, these are a double whammy of problems and should be avoided.

How to Fix Out-of-POV Issues:

So we’ve established that Sally can’t know Roger’s motivation (unless she can read his mind—I write paranormal, so that possibility exists *smile*). That’s a failure on the first question above, but what if we shared evidence to explain how she could know it? That is, what if we provide an answer to the second question?

That second question is the key to the two easy ways to fix this problem. Both require us to show the evidence for Sally and/or the reader to reach the right conclusion:

  1. Show How the POV Character Reaches Their Conclusion:
    Sally took deep, calming breaths as Roger loaded the rifle to get ready for the next set of zombies. His gaze repeatedly flicked to the barricaded door. No sign of them yet.
    With that extra information, the reader understands that Sally’s not reading Roger’s mind about his plan, but rather she’s making an educated guess based on actions she can see and interpret (and the reader would likely agree with her guess).
  2. Cut the Conclusion and Show Just the Evidence:
    Sally took deep, calming breaths as Roger loaded the rifle. His gaze repeatedly flicked to the barricaded door. No sign of them yet.
    This leaves the motivation of why he’s loading the rifle in the subtext, but if all the clues are there, readers will pick up on it. This is usually the technique I use to fix these issues because telling and showing is a form of repetition, and I write in deep POV most of the time, so I avoid telling unless I have a reason to include it.

Resources for Learning More about POV

Want Feedback on Potential POV Issues?

Because these issues are so tricky to find and because many are confused about whether these problems exist in their work—or about whether the feedback from others is valid—I want to try something different…

If you’ve received feedback about a line in your story being head-hopping, out-of-POV, or suffering from a POV problem (or you’re worried about a potential problem), feel free to paste your example (up to a paragraph or two) in the comments. We can all take a look through the comments and compare notes.

Maybe we’ll learn that the feedback was wrong or mistaken. Maybe we’ll learn more about how to fix the problem. Or maybe we’ll get better about finding these issues in our work. No matter what, hopefully we can all reach a better understanding of this confusing issue. *smile*

Do you find head-hopping and the different kinds of POV confusing? Do you have any questions about the concepts covered here? Do you have any additional tips or insights for others? Have you ever been told that you’ve head-hopped in your writing? Or that you’ve included out-of-POV information? (If you wish, share your example below for feedback.)

Pin It

What do you think?

21 Comments on "Point of View: What Does Your Character Know?"

Click here to learn more about Lost Your Pants workshop
Notify of
avatar
5000
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Glynis Jolly

My novel is mostly in 1st person although I have a few scenes where the POV is more like a fly on the wall showing what is happening in the situation. Is this limited 3rd person?

trackback

[…] ever-helpful Jami Gold has posted a concise but comprehensive discussion of POV (Point of View: What Does Your Character Know?) on her blog. The post covers different types of POV (what they look like and how they are used), […]

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Oh very interesting post! Especially as I write in omniscient, and one reason why I write in that style is because it’s the norm style in my genre (Chinese martial arts stories.) And when something’s the norm, no reader used to that genre will look twice at it, lol. It’s great that you explained the head hopping issue. I thought it was just because readers would feel dizzy from zooming from inside one character’s head into another, and I can feel dizzy too, but I see now that it’s more about being unclear on whose thoughts we are now hearing. (Switching heads without using transitions, haha.) Since I value clarity very highly in my stories, I almost always use filter words (he thought) before a character’s thoughts, because I want the reader to absolutely know whose internal thoughts these are. Yet sometimes I put the character’s thoughts in directly without any filter words, lol, to confuse the reader intentionally so they don’t know if it was the narrator saying that or the character thinking that, haha! But that’s just me being a poltergeist of a writer, lol. (Like Peeves! :D) During the editing though, I’ll pay attention to these parts where I evilly confuse the readers on purpose, lol! And decide whether this confusion is really necessary or will lead to some good effects, or if it’s simply me being mean and immature. XD And edit accordingly. It is sometimes very hard to resist teasing your readers, though. I’ve seen… Read more »
Sophie
Sophie

Point of view is not fun at all… I thought I’d mostly gotten rid of head-hopping, but it looks like I have a long way to go… See, I tend to write in Limited 3rd Person, but I still notice moments of head-hopping (“Wait, when was I in her head?”) on rereading stuff. I guess POV is another weak point for me. OH well. It’s something to work on.

Like, in one of my fanfics I’m writing, the focus is on the canon character (he’s called Kira. Yes, I know) but I sometimes catch myself later having jumped into Yumi’s (the potential love interest) head. Gah.

trackback

[…] list the name of the of the main POV character in this scene. This is a good reminder not to “head hop” or change POV […]

trackback

[…] blogged before about how fixing POV errors often comes down to better showing, as we might want to show how the POV character comes to their conclusion, or we might just cut the […]

wpDiscuz