Point of view: whose world are we experiencing?

Stories are always told by someone: the narrator. As the person reading (or hearing) the story, we experience the story through the narrator: what their senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste) tell them about the world, how they’re feeling, what their biases are, the kinds of things they notice around them. We see things from the narrator’s point of view (POV).

In real life, we can tell only from cues given to us by other people what they are thinking or feeling. Such cues could be their body language, their facial expression, what they say – or their silence. Similarly, when the narrative comes from within the head of a POV character, that character doesn’t have access to the thoughts and feelings of other characters, except by the conscious or subconscious cues the POV character picks up from them.

Authors typically limit the number of POV characters to one per chapter or section, sometimes having the same character tell the whole story. To have more than one POV character per chapter, section, paragraph or even sentence is called head-hopping. Head-hopping can be confusing for the reader and can prevent them from forming an emotional attachment to the characters.

Omniscient narrator

There is one narrative style in which head-hopping is permitted: omniscient, where the narrator does have knowledge of everyone’s experiences, thoughts and feelings. However, it is difficult to do omniscience well, and it is no longer favoured in many fiction genres.

An omniscient narrator can’t be one of the characters in the book – unless they have genuine mind-reading skills. Instead of becoming fully immersed into the mind of one character, the reader gets a shallow sweep of several characters. Crucially, if the reader is deep in a character’s head, they start to care about that character, even if they don’t much like them. A shallow sweep of multiple characters doesn’t allow the reader to build that relationship up, to care about any of the characters, and they might even lose interest in the book.

Head-hopping

Let’s invent a POV character called Sam. When writing from Sam’s POV, try to think about what she can sense. What can she feel, taste, hear? During dialogue, how is the other person, let’s say Phil, reacting to what Sam says? Sam can interpret Phil’s expression, but cannot know exactly what Phil means. Consider:

`It’s true, I swear.’ If Sam couldn’t convince Phil, she was on her own.

Phil raised an eyebrow in disbelief.

She rubbed her face, looked through her fingers at the floor. There was no hope.

The narrative hops into Phil’s head: we can tell because only he knows what he’s thinking, whether he believes Sam or not. We can’t see this from Sam’s perspective because she doesn’t know. Let’s fix it:

`It’s true, I swear.’ If Sam couldn’t convince Phil, she was on her own.

Phil raised an eyebrow.

She rubbed her face, looked through her fingers at the floor. He didn’t believe her. There was no hope.

The meaning of Phil’s eyebrow raise has moved away from his action and into Sam’s head as an interpretation of his action.

A more extreme case of head-hopping puts us in the heads of more than one character at once. Imagine Sam and Phil have been joined later by Dan.

Sam leapt to her feet, startling Phil and Dan.

Even though Sam is the POV character, we learn that both Phil and Dan were startled.

Sam leapt to her feet; Phil and Dan jumped.

Now we see how Phil and Dan reacted, which we can interpret as surprise.

Did you notice that when we hopped into Phil’s head, we were told how Phil felt, but that when we stayed in Sam’s head, we were shown how Phil reacted? Head-hopping breaks the writing maxim to ‘show, don’t tell’, whereas keeping to one POV character follows it.

How to fix what you’ve already written

If you’ve already written a lot or all of your draft, it’s a good idea to go through each chapter to determine whose POV comes across from what is written, rather than from your knowledge as the writer. The POV is indicated by who is experiencing the world, by whose internal monologue and thoughts we’re hearing, especially when using free indirect speech. Would Sam know what Dan is doing when she isn’t looking? Would she know how deep the furrows are in her brow?

If it helps, use different coloured highlighters (either electronically or on paper) to indicate at a glance who the POV character is at any one time. We could use green for Sam, pink for Phil and blue for Dan. Ideally, each chapter will be only one colour. If you’ve done that, well done! If not, which colour is dominant? Is that character a good choice for this chapter’s narrator?

Whose thoughts are the most important? Who has the most to hide? Is there someone who you would like to show saying one thing, but thinking another? Is there another way of letting the reader know what a non-POV character is thinking? Remember that you can’t see your own face unless you’re looking in a mirror.

Once you’ve coloured everything in and worked out who the best POV character is, you can go through again and fix all the out-of-POV moments. Let the POV character interpret what the other characters are doing and saying. Once you’ve finished this, you’ll end up with a tighter story, with more emotion, more realism, more turned pages.