Point of view (POV) is a challenging element in fiction writing. The fact that trends change both complicates this and urges writers to continue to study the craft of writing, while staying current on what’s being published.
Following are some essentials of POV that may help you in your writing:
~ Decide how many point-of-view characters (POVCs) you are going to have in your book. Romances usually require only the hero's and the heroine’s POVs. This way we can experience them falling in love from both perspectives. If you’re writing a romantic suspense, you might also include the villain. Women’s fiction novels might only include the heroine’s POV, and you might choose first person (I/me language), rather than third person (he/she language). Some novels have an ensemble cast, if you will, of multiple characters’ POVs. If you choose to do that, be sure to keep every voice specific so that readers don’t get lost. I will say that as a reader (not necessarily as an editor) I’ve seen this done well and I’ve seen it done poorly, meaning I was lost. As you’re deciding how many POVCs to include in your book, be strategic. Think about it ahead of time. Please do not include extraneous characters who don’t have high stakes in the story.
~ Choose a POV character for each scene. Preferably the person with the most to lose in that particular scene, because then you can milk the conflict and tension (and yes, they are often two different things). Once you’ve chosen a POVC (point-of-view character) for a given scene, remain in that person’s head the entire scene. No headhopping over to another person’s perspective.
~ Only show us what that person can see or know. Think of POV like this: your POVC is the camera for the movie you’re playing—a camera with feelings and introspection and senses. So, during their scene, show us what they feel, what they know, what they can guess, and/or what they experience with their senses. It’s natural for people to make assumptions about why others do what they do, but it must be obvious that your character is assuming. For example, if Fred is the POVC for a given scene, he can’t know why Sidney slammed the door. Fred can guess it had to do with their argument. But you mustn’t write, “Sidney slammed the door in anger.” Better would be to use: “Sidney slammed the door.” Readers will understand what’s happening. Another key under this point is to not leave readers in the dark about elements the POVC would know, whether it’s the environment around him/her, or the character’s names around him/her, or specific secrets. Stringing readers along on secrets (though it is possible if skillfully done) will not endear readers to you. Yes, keep secrets, but do it skillfully. Make it believable why the POVC isn’t sharing the information. Only keep one secret (and be strategic about it), not a slew of them. If we’re in her/his head, we should know what s/he knows.
~ Put yourself in your POVC’s head. This is the best way to remain in purist POV. Limit yourself to just that person’s experience, even though, you as the author, know everything (generally speaking) about the story, the other characters, what’s coming next, etc.
~ Do not use omniscient POV. As I alluded to, you’re the author. You know what the characters may not know. You are overseeing their world and putting them into place, creating your story, and moving them around for your purposes. But, readers will engage better with a story if they are allowed to remain in one person’s POV during a scene. That’s why purist POV is so important. This technique allows readers to really engage, to deeply sympathize with characters, and to keep track of what’s happening better. Omniscient POV (sometimes doubles as author intrusion) is when the author brings in a sort of wide angle on the scene before zeroing in on the POVC for that scene, like an old-fashioned narrator. But, as I alluded to with trends earlier, this is no longer what readers are expecting. The narrator for any given scene is that scene’s point-of-view character. If that character doesn’t know something, it doesn’t get shared. This is limiting, yes, but key in current publishing trends.
~ Author intrusion defined: when the author includes something that is perhaps pertinent to the setting, but isn’t coming through the POVC’s perspective. So, you as the author know how high Pike’s Peak is, but the character is new to the area and wouldn’t know it. Don’t include it in narration/introspection. There are ways around this, but be wary of including what might read as brochure copy. Again, be strategic. Does the height of Pike’s Peak matter to the story? If not, don’t share it, even though you know it. Again, it’s a kind of purposeful limitation, but it’s necessary for the sake of the story and your readers.
~ Do not use what I call “collective POV,” or “group think.” The narration should never switch to what a group of characters thinks at any given moment. Be specific and strategic with your POVC and remain completely in his/her head.
There are exceptions to these rules. Some genres will permit more point-of-view infractions than others. And there are a lot more factors where point of view is concerned than what I’ve listed above. I encourage you to read current novels in your genre as well as non-fiction books on point of view.