I recently stopped reading a novel because, among other things, the point of view was weakly written. For me, the handling of point of view is crucial. It’s what makes me feel I’m encountering a vital character. The good news is that writing it well is teachable. Here are some examples of what I’m talking about.
Examples of weak point of view
Let’s start with a weak example.
The room fell silent. Ann twisted her hands together. Mother and daughter stared at one another. Cathy looked away first.
Let’s assume “mother” and “Cathy” are the same person. So who is the point of view character here, Ann or Cathy? I can’t tell, and even in a segment that short, I should be able to.
Here’s a rewrite that at least strengthens the point of view:
The room fell silent. Ann twisted her hands together and met her mother’s unblinking gaze. Her mother looked away first to glare at the clock as if it had offended her.
Here we are clearly in Ann’s point of view because the other woman is rendered as “her mother.” Also, note that Ann doesn’t know what Cathy is thinking or feeling, only that Cathy looks “as if” the clock offended her. Ann is inferring Cathy’s feelings from the outside.
Here’s another pitfall to watch out for. If you’re in a character’s POV, they experience their own reactions from the inside.
Ann stumbled and crashed to her knees on the gym floor. Everyone turned around to look. Ann’s face went red.
That little passage is acceptable until the last sentence. Ann can’t see her own face. Her embarrassment would be better rendered by writing “Ann felt heat rising in her cheeks.”
Add voice for a strong point of view
Voice is closely related to point of view. By “voice,” I don’t mean the writer’s characteristic way of writing. Every writer has such a voice, though it can be difficult to pin it down. It’s what people refer to when they say that a book sounds like Douglas Adams or Cormac McCarthy.
Instead, I’m talking about the POV character’s voice. Like living human beings, each character sees, thinks about, and talks about the world differently. For example, I’m currently writing about a girl who lived on the streets for three months, though she’s now safely living as an attendant for the lord’s daughter. One of the things she notices is escape routes in case danger erupts unexpectedly. Her fellow attendants don’t see those routes.
Here’s an example of characteristic voice, this one from Cinda Chima’s The Demon King. It’s the opening of Chapter 2 and the first time we are in the POV of Princess Raisa.
Raisa shifted impatiently on her saddle and peered about, squinting against the sunlight that dappled the trail.
“Don’t squint, Raisa,” her mother snapped automatically. It was one of a collection of phrases that stood in for conversation with the queen, including, “Sit up straight,” and “Where do you think you’re going?”
Notice how the last sentence gives us Raisa’s judgment of and attitude toward her mother. Not one other person in the scene would think that same thing. They wouldn’t have Raisa’s experience of the queen, and the queen wouldn’t have been nagging them with the same relentlessness.
Here’s an example from the opening of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Warrior’s Apprentice.
The tall and dour non-com wore Imperial dress greens and carried his communications panel like a field marshall’s baton. He slapped it absently against his thigh and raked the group of young men before him with a gaze of dry contempt. Challenging.
All part of the game, Miles told himself. He stood in the crisp autumn breeze and tried not to shiver in his shorts and running shoes. Nothing to put you off balance like being nearly naked when all about you looked ready for one of Emperor Gregor’s reviews—although, in all fairness, the majority here were dressed the same as himself. The non-com proctoring the tests merely seemed like a one-man crowd.
Miles is the one seeing the non-com as a “one-man crowd.” The other recruits around him might be watching the non-com, but they’re unlikely to see him or think about him in the exact same way.
Ideally, readers should be able to tell from voice alone who the POV character is even before the writer tells them. And that’s true of third person as well as first.
For me as a reader, point of view and voice are the keys to the kingdom of enjoyable fiction. They let me get into someone else’s head and experience their life, which is one of the major reasons I read fiction.
The Wind Reader (Inspired Quill 2018) by Dorothy A. Winsor is available in e-book and paperback. E-book only $3.99.
Marooned in a city far from home, Doniver struggles to earn enough to live without selling his soul in the process. Unfortunately someone wants him dead. He’ll need all his courage—and glib tongue—to survive.