Points of View: Switching Around

(Note: The contest is over. Thank you, everyone who entered. I'll announce the winner in a special post tomorrow. That's right, you have to check my blog on Thanksgiving to see who won.)

Before I talk about switching viewpoint characters, here's table reviewing the advantages of the first person, third person omniscient, and third person limited points of view.

First PersonThird Person, OmniscientThird Person, Limited
Puts the reader up close and personal with the characters.X
Feels as though the action is immediate, rather than in the past.
Immersive. No barrier between the reader and the story.

Can give a lot of information in fewer words.
Feels less like fiction and more like an eyewitness account.X

Highlights the story over the writing (the narrator's voice).

Highlights the writing (the narrator's voice) over the story.XX

Got all that? Keep that in mind when you're choosing how to tell your story.

Now about switching viewpoint characters in third person limited.* You can do it, but you shouldn't do it mid-scene. You can, however, switch the viewpoint character when you change scene or chapter -- anywhere there is a visual break in the text. But there are guidelines you need to be aware of:

You should be consistent. If 90% of the novel is from one character's POV, then you switch to another character in chapter 28 of 30, it won't work.** And if you write only the first chapter from the villain's POV, that's not a POV switch, it's a prologue.

Likewise, if you decide to switch POVs at chapter breaks, don't suddenly switch mid-chapter (even at a scene break) later in the novel. The reader won't be expecting it, and they probably won't like it.

You need to clue the reader in to whose POV it is. Once the reader gets the idea that each scene (or chapter) may mean a POV shift, you need to begin each scene (or chapter) with some clue so the reader knows whose head they're in. This could be as simple as titling each chapter with the name of the POV character. Personally, I don't do this in my books because I'm fond of chapter titles. Fortunately, there are other clues you can use:
  • The name of the POV character. If it's the first name the reader encounters in a scene, or it's connected to the first internal thought presented, the reader will get the idea they're in that character's head now. "Hagai had never seen an uglier man in his life."
  • Setting details. Suppose one character has gone to war in the cold northern wastes, while his twin brother stayed at home in the castle. After a couple of scenes with these characters, the reader will know that any reference to fighting, blood-stained fields, snow, or wastelands is an immediate clue they are in the first character's head. Likewise, references to warm weather, nobles, courtiers, and torch-lit corridors will imply the second. This clue isn't always availabe, but you'd be surprised how often it works.
  • Plot details. Are the POV characters traveling with different characters? Are they carrying unique, important items? Do they have a distinctly different knowledge of events? Basically you can use any major difference that the reader is likely to remember as a clue. Just remember it should be both important and unique. Don't expect the reader to remember that one character has an eye patch on his right eye and the other on his left, for example.
  • Make your own clue. Maybe a chapter quote from the character, or a page from someone's diary that gives the appropriate hints. Use your imagination. In Air Pirates, for example, I preface every Sam chapter with the place and time the chapter starts in, while the Hagai chapters (because they tend to be more continuous in time and place) have no such demarcation and so use the other clues listed here.
POV shifts are always jarring. You want to minimize the reader's whiplash. Help them know what to expect and don't be tricky unless you have a really, really good reason (and even then...).

This is mostly based on what I've read. Does anyone have examples of unique POV shifts, even ones that break these rules? And did they work for you or not?

* While I'm sure it's possible to switch first person POV characters, or to switch between first person and third, I've never seen it done. I imagine it would be hard to pull off. Also, you can't switch POV characters with third person omniscient by definition -- unless you do something weird.

** PROBABLY won't work. Everything in writing is a guideline. But still, don't do it unless you know what you're doing.


Matthew Delman said...

The ANIMORPHS books switch first-person POV character from book to book -- and there's also big multi-POV books where they switch from chapter to chapter. However, they do this using the characters' names as chapter titles. So it works.

Joshua McCune said...

Great rundown. GRRM does multi-POV really well, IMO -- though perhaps he's gone a bit too multi recently.

Natalie Whipple said...

Great summary, Adam! I just wanted to point out that first-person isn't always in the past—I've read several that are first-person present. I've even written one. These "feel as though the action is immediate, rather than in the past."

Megs said...

The chart has slight simplification, but works fabulously as a rough guideline. And to add to what Natalie said, not all first person is nonimmersive. Sometimes I get caught up in a first-person story (esp. YA) and feel totally in the story and the moment and...yeah. Thanks for the post. This is a writing-notebook-printout post. :grins:

Adam Heine said...

Bane: If too many POVs is what's keeping him from finishing book 5, then I agree :-)

Natalie and Megs: Good point about present tense. I can only think of one novel I've read that used it, so I don't have a lot of experience with it.

And yes, the table is very generalized. Certainly you can feel close to the characters with omniscient, or become totally immersed in first person. It's mostly a matter of degrees -- e.g. it's easier for the reader to forget about the narrator in third limited.