What is POV and How Do I Get One

 So, what is POV?

Point of View is the way the story is told. It’s which character is speaking, relating the scene/partial scene/chapter, through his/her point of view. You can have omniscient POV, which is the narrator as all-knowing and all-seeing, a sort of god-like figure looking down from above who is able to tell the what the protagonist doesn’t know, i.e. the bad guy hiding behind the door. Why would the narrator tell you (the reader) this? It creates suspense – you know what could happen and you’re wondering if it will, if the protagonist will figure it out, if the protagonist will get attacked, etc. Omniscient gives the author a lot of ability to inform the reader of things the character(s) can’t know in order to create a certain emotion/reaction.

The light craft bobbed along the waves of the North Atlantic, calm for once, toward the distant horizon, its passengers immobile on the deck, their skin burnt a searing red by five days at sea. They wouldn’t last much longer. But surprisingly, one of them stirred.

Third person POV is: he said/she did. This is the point of view you’ll find most often with fiction, but nothing is set in stone and first person is definitely out there and effective. Third person takes you into the characters’ heads. Purists say you can’t switch POV in a scene, but there is another class of thought that you can. I say, if the scene merits knowing both characters’ (or more) POV, then go with it, but make sure it’s a seamless transition.

When writing third person, if you’ve built your characters’ voices well enough, you (usually) won’t need dialogue tags for them. If each has a distinctive speech/thought pattern, as each of us does, you should be able to “hear” the character’s voice. Also, when writing from that character’s narration, be aware of unnecessary words such as “John felt, John knew, John realized, he thought, etc.” Why? Because if John is telling the story, we know that John felt it or realized it or saw it by virtue of the fact that he’s narrating it. Conversely, you can’t have John narrate something he’s not aware of. If John is the hero and he doesn’t know there’s a bad guy behind the door, you can’t write:

John opened the door and fumbled with the light, completely unaware that Lex Luthor waited just behind the door.

You could do:

John opened the door and fumbled with the light. He had a thing about entering darkened apartments. That, and the fact that the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up. 

With this, you get his uneasiness, but he doesn’t know why – nor do you, so you’re right there with him wondering what’s going to happen. Or you could have him enter the apartment completely oblivious to the threat, which will then surprise the heck out of the reader – if that’s what the author wants to do with that scene, then mission accomplished.

Also, be aware of what a character can and can’t know.

Bob lifted the rock. Bingo. The box with the coins. He reached in. This was it. His blue eyes widened. He was set for life.

Bob can’t see his eyes widen, so he can’t narrate that. He also isn’t going to think “my blue eyes widened.” Most of us rarely think about the color of our eyes and certainly not in that context. We don’t say, “My blue eyes are really tired.” We say, “My eyes are tired. I should have gotten more sleep.”

Besides being aware of how a character would think/refer to him/herself, also be cognizant of what the character would know for their age/gender/life station/experience. Princess Leia is not going to think about her Manolo Blahniks. Little Orphan Annie won’t want a Rolex and the eight-year-old telling the nice police lady what she saw isn’t going to say, “The perpetrator jumped into his Porsche 944 and sped off like a bat out of hell.” (Okay, I’m being cheeky, but you get the idea.)

Telling words, like felt, saw, realized, recognized, knew, etc., are “telling” words (versus “showing”) and remove you from the deep POV you want to create. It sets us back from the action, whereas, if you just give us the thought, we’re right there in the characters’ heads. See the difference in the two sentences below:

Dana watched Kal as he bent over his work, sweating. She realized he needed to have this talk. She knew she sure did.

Kal bent over his work, sweating. He needed to talk to her—and she needed him to.

In the second example, we’re actually in Dana’s head, not Kal’s, empathizing with her, feeling her desperation as she sees Kal’s, and it pulls the reader into the story more. You want your readers invested in your characters and their story so they (the readers) can’t put the book down. You give a reader the chance to put the book down, and they can go to sleep for the night. They might not pick it up again. But, invest them in the story/characters and even if they have to put the book down, it will prey on their mind and they’ll pick it up at the first opportunity. This is hooking the reader and the way to get them reading all of your stuff, and, therefore, creating the demand for more of your work.

Switching to first person POV now. First person is “I.”

There’s a naked man in my kitchen.

The thought registers just as the terse, “Who are you?” has me spinning around faster than a figure skater on speed.

I mean, really. A naked man. In my kitchen.

First person has its constraints: you can only have “I” narrate what “I” knows. “I” can’t know that on the opposite side of town, a clothing designer is out to thwart her view of the naked man by designing a wardrobe just for him. (Okay, being facetious here, but you get my drift.) “I” isn’t in anyone else’s head.

That isn’t to say you can’t switch POV in a first person story. Julie Kenner does an awesome job in The Givenchy Code of doing first person for the heroine and third for the hero. Others have done first person from several characters – it’s all in the delivery.

POV, as I’ve said, allows you to have the reader connect with your characters. It allows you to SHOW more about the characters without telling. For example, look at how much more we learn about our narrator in the second paragraph:

She sat in the boardroom as everyone filed in. All the department heads chose their special seat at the table, awaiting her presentation. She knew they thought she couldn’t do it. And she knew she’d show them.

All the geeks filed by her, taking their pre-destined seats at the board table – the freaking knights of the corporate round table. Well, she’d show them she wasn’t some blonde bimbo who filled out a sweater. All her life she’d been fighting that image and won. She was going to once more.

You get her contempt at their perception and how she feels about them in the second one, whereas the first is more scene setting – you’re removed from what she’s feeling/thinking. The second gives us a physical description and from her thought we can see her determination and strength of character.

Deep POV lends itself to showing instead of telling. The actual thought a character has is much more powerful than the character telling what that thought is

She put her hands on her hips and wondered just who the hell he thought he was to ask her what she was doing in the kitchen.

She put her hands on her hips. Who the hell did he think he was? What did he mean, what was she doing in the kitchen? He’d hired her, for Pete’s sake!

You get more “oomph” from the second one and if you write the novel that way, you’ll draw the reader in more.

Some things to know about POV – you don’t need to underline internal thought. If we’re in that character’s POV then that’s their thought/their narrative. When should you underline it? When the character hears voices – supernatural, his/her conscience, a particularly wistful memory/thought, the devil/angel on their shoulder…

Use punctuation and sentence structure to show feeling rather than telling us:

Surprise:  “I…see.”  Her legs were…wobbly?  Ohmygodohmygodohmygod. 

Anger: “I WON’T!” She ran and ran and ran after the bastard! 

Dejection. “Um… Oh.” Great. Freaking great.

A good way to transition from one person’s POV to another’s is to do something like this:

Character A’s speech/internal monologue.
Narrative/action that isn’t POV specific.
Character B’s reaction/thought.

That’s not a scientific method, but a generalization. For example:

She poured her heart into the kiss, surrendering to him, letting him take what he needed. (Dana’s POV)

Kal answered her body’s plea with his, leaning into her, over her. His arms tightened. (this could be either’s POV – nonspecific)

“Dana…” God, she felt better than he remembered. Hell. He was an ass. How could he let anything get between them? Between this?  (Kal’s POV)

Then continue the scene from there in his POV.

POV is a device to not only tell the story, but to convey the story. Emotions, that gut reaction, that’s what connects with the reader. Effective use of POV and knowing how to transition to different POVs, when to use deeper POV makes POV one more tool in your writing arsenal.



About the author

Judi Fennell. Author of “fairy tales with a twist,” pun-filled, tongue-in-cheek, contemporary paranormal romances about Mermen and the Humans who love them: In Over Her Head, Wild Blue Under, and Catch of a Lifetime, and her new Bottled Magic series: I Dream of Genies, Genie Knows Best, and Leave It To Genie, Judi enjoys hearing from her readers. Dive into the romance on her website, www.JudiFennell.com, for excerpts, deleted scenes, reviews, contests, and pictures from reader and writer conferences!

»» 8 Responses to “What is POV and How Do I Get One” »»
  1. Hi Judi. Excellent post. I like your examples and remembered a couple of the lines from reading your First Chapters entry. POV can be a tricky topic, but the examples illustrate how to use various techniques such as deep POV to get the reader closer to the action.

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  2. Vivian A says:

    Great, Judi. I love the transition between POVs example.

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