pov in a nutshell

Someone wrote to me from my professional organization, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, asking about POV, among other things. It occurred to me that this might make a good post. While basic and probably won't appeal to my regular readers, feel free to direct anyone here if they want to see Point of View (POV) described.

1st  - Narrator is telling the story, uses "I"
2nd - Reader is telling the story (this is a sort of wonky, omniscient voice which is not in vogue)  uses "you"
3rd - Narrator telling the story is refered to as s/he - most used.
--There's distant 3rd and close 3rd. Distant, to be brief, will basically just show the narrator doing stuff with little/no internal thoughts revealed. Close 3rd will include what's going on in the narrator's head, his or her thoughts.  (You can have a few running 3rd person narratives at a time, but for clarity it's best to separate them with scene breaks, at least. In my current WIP, I have four and each gets their own chapter. My next book is slated to have a 1st person and a 3rd person POV, based on the characters)   Choosing distant or close can depend a lot on genre, voice, and personal style.
Omniscient - in which a "narrator" is offscreen telling the story but does not participate (often not named, consider it God or something) and it can get into the heads of every character.  Definitely not in vogue, but broken sometimes.

Most popular is written in 1st and 3rd. I recommend 3rd for beginning writers. 1st is much harder to do well than it looks. So in that case, the POV character tells that section of story  ( in my current WIP I have 4 running POVs. They each get their own chapter and we watch that section of story unfold through their eyes and viewpoint. More specifics on that in a moment.)  Whether the action revolves around that POV character is moot; but they must be present in the action and the reader watches it unfold through their eyes and their eyes only. This means, for the sake of argument, that they can't read the thoughts of those around them. They can't witness things happening behind them or "off-screen". They can't hear things that are logically too far away to hear. They walk through the scene and the reader only sees/hears/feels as much as they can humanly see/hear/feel.  They can't, for instance, say another character is lying if the writer knows they are but the POV character can't. They could suspect it, but they can't know for sure without evidence because they can't read the other character's midn. In other words, imagine yourself walking through real life. A POV character can only know what you could know.

It's currently in vogue to keep POV real-time, too. Even though a narrator/POV character might be telling a story past-tense, it's annoying cliche to insert overt references to it (Like, "I didn't know it was going to be such a bad day when it started."  Or "What I didn't know then...")

Other tricks include really getting into POV character's heads and limiting it strictly to what would be on their radar.  For instance, I have a character who is a soldier. He's not going to notice someone's hair color or eye color or the dress a woman is wearing. He IS going to notice what kind of armor another soldier is wearing, their size relative to him, and if they look like they know their way around a fight.  Most of what how he views the world revolves around threat to him and those he protects.  I also have a Bishop who's concerned with propriety.  So she notices when things are dirty, when people don't pay her proper homage, when her soldiers need a wash, and how their behavior reflects on her.  She might notice what someone's wearing.

Common POV mistakes include stuff like lengthy physical descriptions from a POV character regarding someone they've known forever (writers think readers care what their characters look like. Generally, readers can make their own picture), or, for instance,  having a character focus on something unimportant when a bomb just went off.  Also head hopping might trip you up: from line to line we hear various characters' thoughts.  The current style to POV is to stick with one viewpoint for at least a scene or until some natural break.  Helps with clarity.

Most of what I can tell you, though, is that regarding POV, once you get it you'll have it forever. It's riding a bike.  But the balance takes a little bit of time.  I think a good exercise would be to take some scene from your book and rewrite it according to someone else's POV. Maybe there's  a maid standing there, maybe there's a friend that the main character is talking to, whatever. Rewrite the scene through their eyes, inserting their thoughts and only what they can see/think/hear/feel.  That character can only report what the other characters say and do. Resist, for the sake of exercise, having the character tell the reader via narrative that the other character is lying or in love, or whatever. The same exact lines and action can happen, but think about what that character would notice about the situation and skip what they wouldn't. This can be a great character exercise, and hone your skills in showing over telling, too. 

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