Point of view is a tricky thing to get right, and it takes a lot of practice. As a general rule, you should be inside only one character’s head per scene, and you should make it crystal clear to the reader which character that is. While you’re inside that character’s head, only what he or she can directly observe should get reported to the reader (therefore, no seeing what’s around corners that your character can’t poke his or her head around.) Also, any commentary on the action should be filtered through the viewpoint character’s perceptions and attitude.
First person, and single-viewpoint tight third person, are good points of view to use when part of the impact of your story depends upon keeping some plot elements secret from both your POV character and the reader until the time is ripe for them to be revealed. Try to avoid writing yourself into plot situations where your first person narrator knows something that the reader doesn’t; it’s a tour de force if you can pull it off, but the failure mode isn’t pretty, and even a successful attempt is going to leave a certain number of resentful readers in its wake.
True omniscient point of view is fiendishly difficult to do well, and it’s a good idea to master multiple-viewpoint third-person first. The longer the novel, and the more ground it covers, the more point of view characters you may need — but when in doubt, err on the side of parsimony.
3 thoughts on “Random Thoughts on Point of View”
I was re-reading an early (1965) Dick Francis the other day, For Kicks, and it really stood out to me when Francis was dodging around letting the reader in on something the first-person narrator knew. I’m not sure you can be more skillful about it than he was, but I could still notice it and get a bit of an inner grumble.
I feel like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers occasionally put big blinking signs around their not-revealing-it-yets, even though theirs were in third person.
It may be time to re-read Steven Brust to see if Vlad tries to pull that particular fast one.
If you can track down a copy of Brust’s novel Agyar, you should.
I’ll just say that Brust is very good at doing the point-of-view fan dance.
It’s been a long, long time since I read Agyar, and I think my ex got the copy in the divorce. We made a deal: he got the Brust, I got the Patrick O’Brian. Which was funny, in a way, as it was Steven Brust who pointed me at O’Brian in the first place, the one time I met him at a con. What could I do? He told me about the debauched sloth! I’ve replaced some of the Vlad books, and we had two copies of Cowboy Feng’s, at least, but not Agyar.
But, thinking back, I remember some of the fan-dancing going on in Agyar. It was good, but at least some of it was a different sort; a character being cagey about himself isn’t the same as the author making the character be deliberately vague about discovering what he’s been investigating for the whole damn book. I don’t remember the rest of it.
It does make me realize where I originally picked up the evasions that a character of mine used in a much more lighthearted story to conceal something essential about himself. He wasn’t the narrator. But clearly that coffee made a bigger impression on me than I’d thought.