Please welcome return guest Jordan Rosenfeld, author of seven books, most recently Writing the Intimate Character: Create Unique, Compelling Characters Through Mastery of Point of View (Writer’s Digest Books). Her freelance work has been widely published in The Atlantic, New York Magazine, The New York Times, Salon, Scientific American, The Washington Post, Writer’s Digest and many more.
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Perception and How to Identify POV Leaps
For many writers, point of view (POV) is an afterthought—an element of the craft you consider only after you’ve written a book to see if it’s working, or in frustration when it isn’t. Perhaps this is a failing of how POV has long been taught as a dry and dusty aspect of writing, considered nothing more than how you handle your pronouns, when in fact it is the foundational framework of writing strong characters, and something worthy of careful consideration in the first few drafts of your story.
POV is not only the storytelling engine, but the way you signal to the reader a character’s perception of the world around them through the senses, emotions and thoughts. It’s how you tell the reader: THIS is whose mind and heart you’re inside now. It’s also where you can learn to train your inner eye to catch POV leaps. If you’ve ever been told that you’ve made a POV error, or “leap” into another character’s head, and you’re not sure why, the answer is usually quite simple: You’ve moved from the perceptions of one character into the perceptions of another.
To break this down even further, let’s look at what I call “perceptual words”—signifiers that tell us who is having the experience, thus, whose POV we are in:
Whenever you offer up observations, perceptions, beliefs, feelings, sensations or thoughts of any character, you have dropped into their POV (and these are just a few, mind you):
- He: observed, thought, felt, saw, heard, tasted, smelled, reflected
These are mostly sensory words that refer back to what one character in a given scene can experience through his five senses.
- She: wanted, knew, understood, realized, concluded, decided, pretended, etc.
These are a different kind of perceptual experience; they include opinions and decisions, all of which are internal to a character’s experience.
If your character perceives something in a way they cannot express in physical action or dialogue alone, then you’ve entered their POV. Perception = POV.
Let’s talk for a moment about internal and external positions, which I call “intimacy.” If the information revealed to the reader comes from within a character: thoughts, observations, opinions, sensory experience, and so on—you’re internal to your character, i.e. very intimate. If information is revealed externally, it is as though you are looking at the character from the outside in: describing how they look, making judgments about them, offering information the character can’t or doesn’t know, you’re less intimate, more distant. I always recommend if you’re struggling with POV to ask: Am I inside the character looking out, or am I outside the character, looking in?
When you have opted to write in a limited, internal POV—first person, third person limited, even second person—you can only reveal to the reader the perceptions of one character per scene or chapter; ideally the protagonist, but you may have co-protagonists, and sometimes even antagonists get their own POV chapters. So if you’re hearing feedback that you’re “jumping heads” when you thought you’d chosen a limited POV, either you’ve fallen into using perceptual words for more than one character in a scene, or you’re writing in some form of omniscient.
Omniscient POV is that “all-knowing” narrator who knows more than the characters, often can project forward and backward in time, can leap in and out of multiple characters’ POVs as needed, and can offer up plot information that isn’t revealed directly through a character’s experience. There’s nothing wrong with omniscient when you’re using it on purpose, and skillfully, but many writers fall into it out of habit or lack of understanding. Many narratives don’t require the wide scope of omniscient, and a basic third person or first person, which are limited in scope, will suffice.
Omniscient is great when you need latitude—perhaps historical scope, the ability to zoom in and out of time periods; in science-fiction or fantasy where complex worlds or technology must be described; in a story with multiple non major characters, where you need to dip in and out of their heads to offer valuable information without developing an entire character arc for each one. These sorts of conditions offer themselves well to omniscient. For the rest, sticking to a limited/internal POV can actually force you to reveal only so much about the plot at a time, which is key to good tension and pacing.
Remember, strong POV is how you grant your reader access to the deepest heart and mind of your characters. And characters are the engines of great plots.
When do you consider POV? How do you use POV to get to the “deepest heart and mind” of your characters?