Thank you to Writers in the Storm and to Marcy Kennedy for this article.
One of the most common writing challenges is avoiding point-of-view errors. It doesn’t seem to matter where we are along the writing path—from newbie to multi-published—point-of-view errors crop up like many-headed hydra. Just when we think we’ve got them all, there’s another head coming around to bite us from behind.
When we start out writing, we’re most likely to head-hop, but as we understand point of view better, head-hopping usually disappears. The point-of-view errors we start to make are sneakier, harder for us to see in our own writing.
These POV errors happen any time we’re in a limited point of view—where we’re supposed to stay inside one viewpoint character at a time—and we write something that our viewpoint character couldn’t know, wouldn’t have experienced, or wouldn’t be thinking about. (My friend Jami Gold, who shared her excellent NaNoWriMo tips here earlier this week, calls them out-of-POV phrases. That’s a great way to describe them.)
So how do we avoid them?
We become the point-of-view character.
That might sound simplistic, but if we actually embrace this, we won’t have point-of-view errors in our book. Let’s look at what it means if we think about our point-of-view character in terms of ourselves.
We know our own thoughts and feelings, but we don’t know anyone else’s.
I can’t know what anyone else is thinking, or even if they’re thinking about anything at all. I can’t know how someone else is feeling. They might be smiling on the outside and in agony on the inside. Or the scowl I interpret as anger toward me might simply be gas pains.
I also can’t know why someone does an action. I can’t know if they turned toward me because they heard me enter the room, because they caught a glimpse from the corner of their eye, or because they were going to turn that direction anyway.
So, if we have a female POV character, and we write something like this…
Bob grabbed the signed baseball, angry she’d moved it from the shelf.
We’ve created a POV error. She can’t know Bob is feeling angry or what the source of his anger is.
Understanding that our point-of-view character is just like us in that their perception is limited to their own thoughts, feelings, and motivations is foundational to avoiding point-of-view errors. We can only write what our point-of-view character knows. If they’re making a guess or interpreting based on the evidence they see, then we need to make it clear through internal dialogue how they’ve reached their conclusion.
We can’t sense things outside of our sight, earshot, or smell range, and we can’t experience things before they happen.
Sounds obvious, right? But sometimes we forget to think about how we perceive the world around us.
I can’t see something that’s happening behind me or that’s happening when my eyes are closed. If I don’t notice something happening, I can’t tell you about it. I can’t normally see my own face.
I don’t know what my future holds, and I can’t experience something before it actually happens (including the tone of voice someone else will use when they speak).
So if our point-of-view character can’t see it, hear it, touch it, taste it, or smell it at that moment, we can’t include it. If we do, it’s a point-of-view error. I’ll give you a quick example for this one. Let’s say our viewpoint character is Andrea.
POV Error: Andrea’s face turned red.
Andrea can’t see her own face. This is from the perspective of someone looking at Andrea, but if we are Andrea, we don’t experience it this way.
What We Experience As Andrea: Heat rushed up her neck and into her cheeks.
If we’re Andrea, we experience it from the inside—what we feel.