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What’s Your Perspective?

posted in: Writing Craft | 6

Good morning everyone!

Our world is made up of millions of different perspectives, and when it comes to writing perspectives, POV (Point of View) styles often come to mind for me.

CP Bialois
CP Bialois

As many of you may recall, I’m a huge fan of writing in Third Person Omniscient (No scene breaks between POV shifts). It’s a writing style that’s one of, if not, the oldest in the profession and is often saved for the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres.

Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it much as it fell out of favor about twenty years ago and has since been labeled with the derogatory term “head hopping” (True head hopping is having multiple POVs in the same paragraph) to dissuade people from using it. The reason being, we’re told readers want to get into a character’s head and feel for them and it’s shocking or takes them out of the story when the POV shifts. Sounds reasonable as everyone is different, but doesn’t that mean we’re unable or unwilling to care about what happens to the other characters?

What I mean is, as readers, we’re told who to follow and who to care about. We’re supposed to like or hate other characters, but we’re basically told to love the character in POV. They’re often the main character and it helps to put them in the spotlight, which they richly deserve, but what about the others? Do we not like them as much because of choice, or through the direction of the author?

Think of it this way: if we have an ensemble cast (Four or more characters), who deserves the limelight more when two to three POVs are said to be the maximum we should have in a story?

See what I mean? That’s an easy question if we’re writing a Mystery or Thriller where we want to focus on the protagonist and maybe the antagonist (Depending on what we feel works best for our story). In these cases, Third Person Limited or First Person is generally preferred.

The difference is, with Third Person Limited and First Person, the story is often told through a single character per chapter or scene (Meaning, whenever we experience something through a different character, it’s separated from the other POV by a scene break or new chapter). Sometimes the chapter will have the character’s name as the title (Personally, this drives me insane as I feel it’s insulting my reading comprehension abilities, but that’s just my opinion so feel free to disagree).

With this style, you can only see and know what the focused character does. Whether we want to admit it or not, our thinking is manipulated by what their thoughts are. Take Harry Potter for example. How many times do we feel for Harry simply because he’s suffering or agree with his conclusions by what he experiences? This also can be infuriating when they (And us, thanks to their perspective) guess wrong. That’s happened to me a few times (This admission goes no further than this blog. Lol Just kidding 😛 ).

It’s a beautiful thing when done right, but it’s pretty hard to hold back when writing in this style. I guess the best way to say it is it depends on our self-control.

To better explain their differences, here’s an example of Third Person Omniscient: Harry shook his head. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t bring himself to forgive the person sitting across from him. “Why’d you do it? I thought we were friends?”

Nathan sneered at his friend. He only wished Harry had the balls to do it himself instead of waiting for someone else to do it. “Don’t play dumb. You wanted her dead more than me. I just followed through with it. What are friends for, anyway?”

Third Person Limited example: Harry shook his head. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t bring himself to forgive the person sitting across from him. “Why’s you do it? I thought we were friends?”

Harry’s heart flutter when Nathan sneered at him.

“Don’t play dumb. You wanted her dead more than me. I just followed through with it. What are friends for, anyway?”

Notice the difference? It’s subtle, but in Omniscient, the POV can shift from one paragraph to another. You can tell as we enter a new character’s head, the paragraph starts with their name or an action usually involving their head, such as Nathan sneering.

In the Limited example, the scene is from Harry’s point of view, including his reaction to Nathan’s sneer. We’re only allowed to know what Harry knows, and if the scene is done through Nathan’s POV it’d be strictly from his perspective.

While both can be effective, one of the advantages with using Omniscient is that we can literally get a bird’s eye view of everything. We can either observe the events like a fly on the wall (Objective Omniscient: Easy way to tell this is being used is when thoughts are not in italics and the tags he/she thought are used. Example: What was he thinking, Paula wondered while shaking her head) or as a god-like figure where we can enter each person’s head (Subjective Omniscient: Thoughts are in italics and he/she thought tags are not used. Example: What was he thinking? Paula shook her head).

By: Jacob Bøtter

The funny, and often confusing, thing about these styles is that they are interchangeable in an Omniscient book or story. You can have entire scenes and chapters from a single person’s POV (Making it appear Limited), yet the rest will be written in Omniscient. The trick that can be hard to master is knowing when switching to another character adds and moves the story forward. If we want to have a character have a flashback because we think it’s a cool story, it shouldn’t be used. That’s when it can be confusing for most readers.

Most of the time, a book that starts in Limited style stays in it throughout. It’s a consistency that many have come to expect over the years.

First person is mainly used in a Limited style as we’re seeing events through the character’s eyes and use I, me, we instead of he/she, him/her, they/them. In many ways, it’s the ultimate method of getting into a character’s head and taking the reader for a ride they won’t forget.

One thing to watch out for when using this style or Third Person Limited is to keep it in the proper POV. I know, it sounds simple, but it can be easy enough to get them crossed.

An example of First Person: While I didn’t know it, the big guns and their cohorts were preparing for my arrival.

While this seems fine at first glance, it is often tweaked by an editor to add a final sentence to explain how the character knows of another’s actions they didn’t witness.

New example of First Person: While I didn’t know it, the big guns and their cohorts were preparing for my arrival. Too bad they had no way of knowing I wouldn’t arrive the way they expected.

Notice the difference? Sometimes a little tweak like that solves all our problems. The hard part is spotting it instead of claiming it’s apparent the character learned of it later. For me, it’s a fine line between trusting in our reader’s reading comprehension and being lazy.

As with anything, our enjoyment or execution of a technique comes down to our own abilities. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned since studying writing as an author and editor is roughly 95% of what are termed as “the rules” are opinions on a subjective topic. Nothing more.

As I always say, accept helpful critiques and keep what works best for you and your story. There’s no shame in staying true to your vision as long as you’re willing to fine-tune it to be the best it can be. Remember, to continue trends, we must follow what others dictate. To set trends, we must follow our hearts.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What style do you prefer? What has worked best for you to convey your thoughts and feeling?



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6 Responses

  1. Susan Dambrell
    | Reply

    Yay! Finally an article that gets it! As a new writer attempting a novel, I’ve read so many descriptions and examples of POV. Not sure I found one that encouraged the use of third person omniscient. Of course, that’s how I was writing. You described it perfectly. Thank you, thank you. I have printed and saved your words for posterity, or maybe just until I can spout them back from memory.
    Always enjoy and benefit from your articles.

    • CP Bialois
      | Reply

      You’re welcome. To be honest, I’ve been told I’d sel a lot more books if I wrote in Third Person Limited, but I love Omniscient and trust my readers’ ability to understand the switch. If they don’t, they don’t. No harm done. 🙂

  2. Anne
    | Reply

    I have used both third person and third person omniscient in my novels. The latter is more natural for me. The dialogue and action take place at the time the event happens and doesn’t have to wait until later to be resolved or to know the response. I prefer third person omniscient. My critique group prefers third person.

    • CP Bialois
      | Reply

      We have to stay true to what we feel works best. 🙂 I’ve used both as well, and it only served to make me appreciate Omniscient more. It’s just more free flowing and feels like natural story telling to me. I’m happy to see it picking up more supporters within our community. 🙂

  3. Tony C
    | Reply

    I’ve just joined the FWA and will be attending the Conference tomorrow. I’ve had a hate/hate relationship with POV rules since I handed my first writing assignment into a teacher and she returned it with so many red slashes that I figured she had Dexter make the corrections for her. Third person omniscient has always been my natural style since I sometimes want my reader to know what a second or third character is feeling. I refuse to see anything wrong with this if done properly. I recently asked an agent/author if she was bothered by POV switches and she said not as long as there aren’t too many. Then I asked about omniscient voice and I thought her head was gonna explode. NEVER USE OMNISCIENT VOICE. I eschewed soliciting her.
    I applaud you CP Bialois. As an aside, it is with no pleasure that I reveal I violate six of Elmore Leonard’s ten rules. Oh well.

    • CP Bialois
      | Reply

      Thanks, Tony. I learned early on that a majority of agents and publishers are in this business to make money and that involves pushing authors to conform to the industry standard. Even if we wrote the best book ever, if they don’t think it’ll sell, they usually won’t take a chance, and I honestlydon’t hold it against them as it is a business. I just prefer to trust in my readers’ reading comprehension skills than not. I also try to look at as if we all do things the same way, what is there to set us apart from one another? I don’t want to do what everyone else does, and if we’re doing it right, what’s the difference?

      Hope you have a great time at the conference! 🙂

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