Author: Mark Walton
Writing offers an opportunity to do something that filmmakers and artists can’t. You can allow your reader to get into the head of your characters.
Unlike TV, where you are a casual observer, writing permits you to weave a spell over the reader so that they become the character. They get to share their hopes and fears, experience the highs and lows – and at the very end of the book, walk away.
Despite this gift, too many writers throw it all away by committing basic point of view errors.
These errors can be obvious – and the reader winces when they see them. Or they can be subtle. The reader may not even recognise them as an error, but they jar anyway.
At the very best, a point of view error will pluck the reader out of the head of the character and put them in the narrator’s viewpoint. At worst, they will be confused and be unsure as to what the character does and doesn’t know.
Either way, the reader will be less able to identify with the character and that will ultimately weaken the story.
The following common errors are written from the point of view of John.
1. ‘John stared at Jane. She was thinking about last night.’
This seems quite obvious. How does John know what Jane is thinking? There are no clues given and it isn’t even speculative e.g. John hoped she was thinking about last night.
2. ‘John stared at Jane. He didn’t think he’d noticed how blue her eyes were before.’
How could you not know if you’ve noticed before? A narrator could speculate. You can speculate about a non-point of view character, but if you’re inside John’s head, you know if you’ve noticed something before.
3. ‘John stared at Jane. He barely suppressed a smirk.’
For a start, we tend not to know if we’re pulling faces. Smirks are something that we tend to do involuntarily. The second point is, how does he know he was a) going to smirk and b) that he suppressed it.
4. ‘John stared at Jane. She stared back with an angry frown on her face.’
If we’ve established that John knows Jane really well, then there is some mileage in this sentence – but it would still be better to indicate that it is an assumption e.g. ‘John knew that look…’ If they do not know each other intimately, I would suggest that John might a frown, but he couldn’t deduce it was an angry one. It could be from frustration, or she could be faking it.
As a side note, if you say someone is angry – they have to be angry. If you want to fool the reader into believing they are angry, you have to leave all the clues but let the reader deduce the ‘fact’ for themselves.
5. ‘John stared at Jane. He marvelled at the platinum and topaz earrings she wore.’
This is one that could be fine or could be really wrong. If John is in the jewellery trade, he could possibly know exactly what the earrings are made of. Or he could have bought them of course. Otherwise, it’s not something he should know. Giving a character knowledge outside his established frame of reference is sloppy writing – especially if the composition of the earrings is important later on. If it’s necessary, give him a reason to know.
6. ‘John stared at his wife Jane. She had short, blonde hair and was slim and athletic.’
When was the last time you looked at someone you know well and actually thought about their features? You just don’t do it. Again, you’ve leapt out of John’s head and become the narrator. If she’d died her hair, or lost lots of weight since he last saw her, he would notice. Otherwise, it’s a cheap writing trick to describe a character.
This isn’t a definitive list, but it represents the main ways that writers – even seasoned ones – make point of view errors.
Don’t let your readers disengage with your characters. Point of view is a powerful writing tool. You have to work hard to get the reader inside the character’s head. Once in there, make sure you keep them there.
About the Author
Mark Walton is the author of 26 Tips to Write Perfect Point of View, a self-help guide for writers. If you want to improve your chances of getting a story published then visit http://www.betternovelwriting.com/Point_of_View.htm and see how quickly and easily your writing can advance.