Point of View, Yes, POV!

Well, I’m doing it. I’m throwing my two cents worth into the ring labeled “POV.” It’s something I’ve considered blogging about for a long time, as it’s one of the biggest, gangliest, toothiest, hairiest, wartiest, most frequent, and most significant technical issues I come across when I am editing and teaching. Some of what I am going to say is absolutely personal opinion, but it’s a studied personal opinion, developed over years of being a kid and a reader, a lifetime of reading kids’ books, and many years of editing and teaching.

Ok. So. I rarely feel that an omniscient POV works in books for kids. I am personally not a fan of omniscient POV’s in books for kids. (Note that: books for kids. Bold. Italics. Underline. Fiction for adults is another matter entirely.) BUT, there are notable exceptions.

Reading as the kid I used to be (which is partially how I approach all kidlit) and reading as an avid adult reader of kidlit (as I am now), plus reading as an editor (which I get paid to do), I almost invariably feel a greater connection with the protagonist of a story when scenes in which he/she is present are written in either first person or limited third person. I think I’m far from alone in this, and I’m certain this is why you really don’t see omniscient POV’s all that often in kidlit today, even in fantasy.

POV? Huh? Limited whatsit? Ok, let’s back up a bit.

Point of View, POV for short and when scribbled in the margins of manuscripts, is the technical term for describing who is telling the story and what their relation to the story is. This person, if a character in the story, is called the viewpoint character. The only other person it can be is the author.     ~ Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft

First Person:  “I” is the viewpoint character. All information comes through “I”’s perspective. We can only know what "I" thinks, feels, sees, hears, etc. We infer what other characters think through what they say, how they behave, and through what “I” thinks about them.

Limited Third Person: “he” or “she” is the view point character and tells the story. Only what they think, feel, perceive etc. is told.  We infer what other characters think through what they say, how they behave, and through what “he” or “she” thinks/observes about them.

Tactically, limited third is identical to first person. It has exactly the same essential limitation: that nothing can be seen, known, or told except what the narrator sees, knows, and tells. That limitation concentrates the voice and gives apparent authenticity. ~ Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft

Omniscient: Numerous viewpoint characters. Writer can tell us what anyone is thinking/feeling and interpret that behavior. Sometimes narrator has a strong voice.

Sometimes the omniscient narrator has a strong voice… in fact, unless the narrator has a strong voice, I really don’t feel an omniscient POV works. Yes, that’s my opinion.

In fact, I think POV shifts are fraught with danger and must be done with skill and complete awareness—if at all.

It’s also very easy to slip outside the viewpoint character’s POV without realizing or to hover half-in and half-out—to not be deep enough inside that POV. ALL INFORMATION (unless using omniscient) must come through the viewpoint character’s emotional, physical, cultural, psychological etc. filters. Yep, in my opinion.

I feel that:

  • When your main character is present, everything should be seen through his or her or its limited third person POV. Or first person, of course. Other POVs are acceptable in scenes when your protagonist is not present, but there should be far less of them.

Why?

  • To go from protagonist’s POV to those of secondary characters is actually “head-hopping."
  • We may never manage to fully and completely connect with your protagonist. You may relegate your protagonist (whom the reader expects to know inside and out) to a minor character at times.
  • POV changes and many characters’ POVs may make an your story unnecessarily frantic or confusing at times. Your young reader may have trouble keeping track.
  • When you step outside your character and refer to them as the girl for example, that also has the effect of taking us even further outside her POV, away from her experience, as he doesn’t think of himself as “the girl.” She would think of himself (in third person) as “she” or by her name.
  • As a (young) reader, I don’t want to go right into an antagonists’ POV. I don’t want or need to go into minor character’s POVs, and if I do, I may be confused about their importance to the story.
  • I want to stay in the head of the protagonist (when he/she’s in the scene), and that’s where my greatest empathy wants to lie. I want that chance to feel empathy for the protagonist, but it takes contact and consistency of POV (when he/she is in the scene) for me to care about him/her. I want to experience the story through the hero, so I can be the hero for a little while.
  • If you go into the mind of another character when your protagonist is in the scene, you distance me from your protagonist. You don’t give me a chance to see the world, other characters, and the action through your protagonist’s eyes, so I lose that connection with him/her. Just as he/she has to do, I want to be able and should be able to infer what other characters are thinking and feeling by the way they act. If their feelings and thoughts are ambiguous, that forces an even greater empathy with your protagonist, as we are fully immersed in his/her experience—even if his/her experience is one of confusion or lack of full knowledge. We get the chance to be a confused, troubled young person/animal-person/alien creature/etc. under great duress.
  • By extension, I would rather view an antagonist from an external view and make up my own mind about what he/she is thinking and feeling by the way he/she behaves, just as the hero has to do.
  • As a (young) reader I don’t care what most adults think and I don’t want to be inside their boring grown-up heads. I am interested in the concerns of kids my own age. I don’t care very much about politics or grown-up relationship stuff like that unless it’s all part of an exciting plot, which is presented very clearly to me in a way I can conceptualize through my young perspective, without too much boring background or stuff about the weird, boring stuff adults do, talk, and think about. Again, that means don’t let me inside adult heads. I care more about what kids (especially the protagonist) are thinking and feeling.     

In my opinion, this is one of the things that makes Harry Potter so incredibly successful. Rowling (after some interesting POV stuff as she establishes character and voice in the first book) is a master of POV. And she does extraordinary amounts by staying exclusively in Harry’s limited third person POV (except when he is not present in a scene…and that’s quite rare, but she handles the POV change in a separate chapter). We never go into Hermione’s head or Ron’s, but we know what they’re thinking and feeling through Harry’s experience of them. And we especially don’t go into Snape’s or Voldemort’s heads…but that does not limit our understanding or experience of them in any way. It does, in fact, enhance it while keeping the tension between protagonist and antagonist high. 

For a very successful example of limited third person with two protagonists, take a look at the first in The 39 Clues series, The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan. The two characters are a brother and sister and their two POV’s are handled in separate alternating chapters.

If you stay in your protagonist’s POV when he is present in a scene, that means we cannot know what your other characters are thinking or feeling unless they show us by what they say in dialogue, or by what they do physically: facial expressions, movements, reactions etc.

In scenes in which your protagonist is not present, then you might take a more third person omniscient approach, but really I’d aim to avoid what’s called ‘head-hopping,’ even in those scenes, and mainly just show (yes, show, not tell) us how the characters are feeling or what they are thinking by what they say in dialogue and how they act.

Omniscient POVs are VERY tricky to do well, and they’re something you don’t see that often, really. There are some books with omniscient narrators on the market and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a fairly well known example, and then there’s Kate DiCamillo’s brilliant The Tale of Despereaux—at least those are the two which spring readily to my mind. One thing you’ll notice about those books is that the narrator has a very strong and distinctive voice.

If a writer wants to develop an omniscient POV, then they would be (again, in my opinion) advised to develop a stronger narrator’s/storyteller’s voice, but they should be be wary.

Will an added voice detract from the story and style? Is it something that the story doesn’t actually need? Is there already quite enough going on (including a lot of characters and subplot points to keep track of), without needing an additional speaker’s voice into the mix?

I recently posted on my Facebook page an article about head-hopping (http://www.floggingthequill.com/flogging_the_quill/2004/12/an_executive_ed.html) and I expressed my feelings about successful omniscient in children’s fiction, which some very well-known editors and agents immediately went on to share on their pages, agreeing heartily that head-hoping has no place in kidlit. So, as you see, it’s widely felt.

Here are some links about POV in general:

Now, I expect a bit of spirited debate about this. What do you think?