Of all the craft issues that bedevil new writers, point of view may well be the most mysterious. Novices frequently receive critiques that accuse them of the dreaded sin of “head hopping”, without really explaining what this is or more importantly, why it can be a problem. Blog articles about point of view natter on about “deep first person” and “third person omniscient”, confusing things further.
Even experienced authors sometimes mess up, producing slips in point of view. For example:
Horrified by her faux pas, Maria stumbled through an apology, her cheeks reddening and her lips curving into an embarrassed smile.
What’s wrong with this sentence, you might ask?
The problem here is that Maria, who is the focus character – the character whose point of view we’ve adopted – would not be able to see herself blushing or smiling in an embarrassed manner. Only an outsider, another character, could perceive these details. The point of view has momentarily slipped away from Maria. I could have said that Maria felt her cheeks getting hot, without violating point of view. But as soon as the narrative steps outside Maria’s head, the POV has shifted.
Why is this undesirable? We’ll discuss that shortly.
You’ll find many technical discussions of point of view on the Internet. These may be helpful, but in fact the whole issue can be distilled into a single question:
Through whose eyes are we looking as the story unfolds?
Characters provide the emotional energy in a story. In romance, especially, we authors want our readers to understand and to identify with the protagonists. A common way to heighten this sense of identification is to show readers the world as the character experiences it, that is, to tell the story from the character’s point of view. Strong and consistent point of view can bring the reader into the character’s world, enhancing the sense of sympathy and connection.
Clean and controlled use of POV also supports plot development. Plots often turn on various sorts of secrets. If a POV character doesn’t know about a secret, neither does your reader. When events conspire to reveal the hidden information, your reader vicariously feels the same sense of surprise or dismay as the character.
Does this mean you should have only a single POV character? Not necessarily. Decisions about POV characters should be based on the story you are trying to tell and the reactions you are trying to evoke. A common strategy in romance is to alternate the POV between the hero and heroine (or between two heroes or two heroines – the different members of the romantic unit). This makes it possible to show how each character’s feelings are developing. It also helps reveal misunderstandings or differences in expectations, upon which the plot often depends.
In contrast, a story with a single POV character focuses the reader’s attention exclusively on that individual’s inner life. Other characters act as external forces. Their behavior and their motivations can only be understood based on the main character’s observations, assumptions and judgments.
If you do decide to alternate point of view characters, you should generally avoid switching the POV too frequently. This is what we mean by “head hopping” – when POV shifts from one character to another on the same page, or (heaven forbid!) in the same paragraph.
An extreme case of head hopping can introduce serious confusion. The reader loses track of what each character is perceiving and feeling. I’ve read books with such chaotic POV management that I truly couldn’t tell what was going on.
Even if the story flow remains more or less clear, head hopping usually has a negative effect on reader engagement. As noted above, we want our reader to identify with the POV character, to feel what the character is feeling. Frequent POV swings yank the reader from one character’s perspective to another, interfering with the development of empathy and understanding. This diminishes the depth and intensity of the reader’s experience – usually not something we want.
A rule of thumb is that if you want to switch to a new POV character, you should introduce a section or chapter break to signal this. Rules are never absolute, of course. If you have a good reason to violate this heuristic, then go ahead. However, it’s important to consider your intentions and goals when you make this sort of decision.
What about the question of first person versus third person narrative? Authors sometimes mix up this grammatical issue with the topic of point of view, but in fact the two considerations are mostly orthogonal. Just to clarify, a first person narrative uses the pronouns “I” and “me” (or occasionally, “we” and “us”). A third person narrative uses character names as well as pronouns “he”, “she”, “him”, “her”, “xe”, “hir” or whatever. The selection of first versus third person definitely affects the feeling of a story and possibly the level of reader identification, but you can have either single or multiple POV characters using either.
As an illustration, here is short passage from my erotic romance The Gazillionaire and the Virgin, in its original first person mode, then revised as third person. This novel is told in the first person with POV alternating between the hero and the heroine on a chapter by chapter basis.
First Person Excerpt (Rachel)
I decide to drive myself, and choose the BMW for its aura of unobtrusive luxury. One look at my red Lamborghini, I suspect, and Theo Moore would run away screaming. Cruising up to his attractive but unremarkable building at exactly six, I pull into one of the parking spots labeled “Visitors”. My pulse, I’m annoyed to notice, is elevated, and my cheeks feel hot. Do I look as flustered as I feel?
A quick check in the rear-view mirror reassures me. My understated make-up enlarges my eyes and shrinks my rather prominent nose. Gold-plated combs sweep my unruly curls away from my temples into a semi-elegant cascade. Matching gold earrings dangle from my earlobes almost to my bare shoulders. My strapless gown of teal satin hugs my bust and hips like it was made for me—which of course it was. I practice a confident but non-threatening smile. Good evening, Theo. I’m so glad you decided to come.
The minutes tick by, but there’s no sign of him. Should I climb up to his door and ring? Or wait for him to work up the courage to come out by himself? Does he realize I’ve arrived? Is he watching out his window? Or cowering in his room?
I get more annoyed by the second. I am considering honking the horn, which I know will embarrass him, when he appears on the second floor landing. I recognize him by his height and bulk. Otherwise, he’s transformed.
In the custom tailored tuxedo, he’s distinguished and elegant. The sleek black trousers cling to what are obviously powerful, muscular legs. The jacket highlights his broad shoulders and trim waist. Not fat, oh no! He moves with unexpected grace, as if the formal clothing bestowed a sort of gravitas to subdue his usual gawkiness. With his dark hair slicked back from his forehead, he looks like some international man of mystery. The spectacles just heighten the impression of intelligence and sophistication.
Third Person Revision
Rachel decided to drive herself, choosing the BMW for its aura of unobtrusive luxury. One look at her red Lamborghini, she suspected, and Theo Moore would run away screaming. Cruising up to his attractive but unremarkable building at exactly six, she pulled into one of the parking spots labeled “Visitors”. Her pulse, she was annoyed to notice, was elevated, and her cheeks felt hot. Did she look as flustered as she felt?
A quick check in the rear-view mirror reassured her. Her understated make-up enlarged her eyes and shrank her rather prominent nose. Gold-plated combs swept her unruly curls away from her temples into a semi-elegant cascade. Matching gold earrings dangled from her earlobes almost to her bare shoulders. Her strapless gown of teal satin hugged her bust and hips like it was made for her—which of course it was. She practiced a confident but non-threatening smile. Good evening, Theo. I’m so glad you decided to come.
The minutes ticked by, but there was no sign of him. Should she climb up to his door and ring? Or wait for him to work up the courage to come out by himself? Did he realize she’d arrived? Was he watching out his window? Or cowering in his room?
She got more annoyed by the second. She was considering honking the horn, which she knew would embarrass him, when he appeared on the second floor landing. She recognized him by his height and bulk. Otherwise, he was transformed.
In the custom tailored tuxedo, he looked distinguished and elegant. The sleek black trousers clung to what were obviously powerful, muscular legs. The jacket highlighted his broad shoulders and trim waist. Not fat, oh no! He moved with unexpected grace, as if the formal clothing bestowed a sort of gravitas to subdue his usual gawkiness. With his dark hair slicked back from his forehead, he looked like some international man of mystery. The spectacles just heightened the impression of intelligence and sophistication.
As you see, I can describe exactly the same scene in either first or third person. In both cases, Rachel, my heroine, is the point of view character. Everything described is through her eyes. In particular, when she’s evaluating her own appearance, she can do so only while looking in a mirror.
Note also the way she describes Theo, the hero. She has theories about his feelings and the reason for his lateness – but they’re just that, theories. When he does appear, she doesn’t have much insight into his inner state – that can be revealed only when we switch to Theo’s perspective. On the other hand, she can explain how he looks and communicate her own feelings in response – an obvious attraction.
The observant among you may have noticed that there’s another difference between the original passage and the revision – verb tense. The original is in the present tense. We are in Rachel’s head, and she is describing her observations and emotions in real time. The revision is in past tense, which is a more traditional choice.
I personally like first person present for erotic romance and erotica, because I find it imparts a sense of vividness and immediacy. It’s tricky to write, though, and some readers object to stories told this way.
I switched to past for the revision because third person present stories are rare and generally sound – well, weird. If I’d retained the first person, the excerpt would have started as follows:
Rachel decides to drive herself, choosing the BMW for its aura of unobtrusive luxury. One look at her red Lamborghini, she suspects, and Theo Moore would run away screaming. Cruising up to his attractive but unremarkable building at exactly six, she pulls into one of the parking spots labeled “Visitors”. Her pulse, she’s annoyed to notice, is elevated, and her cheeks feel hot. Does she look as flustered as she feels?
I don’t think this would be an effective way to tell a story, but I hope this demonstrates that not only is point of view independent of the first versus third person dimension, but it’s also independent of time.
Next time you’re worrying about point of view, simply take a deep breath and ask yourself: through whose eyes do I want the reader to be looking? Let the answer guide you.