Point of view is a basic and crucial decision every writer has to make at the start of any project. The POV you choose has an enormous impact on the story you’re able to tell. Would Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books be anywhere near as entertaining without that sassy, snarky, in-your-face first person perspective? Sure she could bring it out in dialogue and action, but we get so much more out of being in Stephanie’s head. Would Katie MacAlister’s books be anywhere near as funny without first person POV? I don’t think so. Would Tami Hoag’s thrillers be quite so thrilling without those extra perspectives? Probably not.
The list of options for perspective is, thankfully, a short one:
- Straight first person
- A rotating first person that changes characters with some natural break in the story, such as starting a new chapter (I know it’s done, but I can’t think of any examples at the moment)
- Third person limited, which could be either a single character’s perspective in the third person for the entire story or a rotating single character perspective in third person that shifts per scene or by chapter (probably the most common POV)
- Third person omniscient–otherwise known in some circles as head-hopping, where the author has the option to be in any character’s head at any given moment and shifts around in order to give varying perspectives on the scene
However, there are still a great many things to consider and weigh when choosing the perspective that will best serve your story. Back in the Dark Ages when I began the very first draft of HOC (then a different working title and a very different sort of story), it was in straight first person from the heroine’s POV. I was about 200 pages in when a critiquer suggested that it would be better served by third person. Those were the days I was still scared of a rewrite. So I held off a while. Eventually, I got frustrated by not being able to impart information from other characters, so I did some funky bastardized combination of POVs…most of the book was in the heroine’s first person POV, but there were scenes throughout in third person from the hero’s. Frankly I can only think of one author who has managed this sort of mix successfully–Diana Gabaldon in her Outlander series. Miss Gabaldon, I am not. Eventually I took the plunge and started a third person limited rewrite–of the rotating variety from scene to scene (each full scene was in only one person’s head). Turns out that critiquer was absolutely right. And as it turns out, this is the POV I choose for almost all of my work. I like the ability to use more than one character. At times I do miss the intimacy of first person, but for the most part, this serves me well.
And then I read a Nora. I can’t say whether she always did this or not, but all of her more current books are written in that tantalizing third person omniscient. To be perfectly honest, until my friend Jen pointed it out, it never actually occurred to me that she head hops. Jen can’t deal with head hopping. Drives her nuts. Me–I don’t even notice the head hopping because she does it well. She is, however, in the minority, I think. I’ve read a number of books that simply pulled me out of the story because the head hopping was poorly done (I shan’t name names, as we’ve all read some). The lure of head hopping for me is the fact that we get multiple perspectives on the same event at approximately the same time. So you get a love scene and you know what’s going on in both the hero and heroine’s heads. I like that. But I think it’s a real challenge to do well. It’s a perspective I always consider and never actually use. I don’t know if I’d be any good at it or not, since I haven’t really tried (not intentionally anyway–Pot occasionally busts me as the POV Police when I slip). One of these days maybe.
I noticed a post by Helen Kay Dimon from Monday where she was offering up suggestions about contest entries. Number 2 on her list:
2. Some of you are making point-of-view (POV) harder than it needs to be. I know you’ve read books where the POV bounces around. I know. Believe me, I know. Still, I think you need to go with the general plan of not doing that. Stick to one POV per scene. Do not get caught up with all of these characters you may want to use in future books you’re thinking about writing once you sell. Focus on selling this one first. Don’t get lost in telling us how every person and animal in a scene feels. I know you think it’s effective. You’re wrong. It’s confusing. More importantly, fair or not, bouncing POV suggests you don’t know the writing basics. That gives editors and agents one more reason to give your manuscript only a cursory look. Don’t make your job harder.
And I think this hits a lot of the high points about why a lot of people don’t do head hopping well. I confess, I avoid head hopping for many of these reasons. I don’t want to confuse my reader. And until I figure out how to make it work (yeah how am I going to do that without trying?), I hate to spend a lot of time writing a book that way that will wind up needing to be re-written in that third person limited, I’m more comfortable and familiar with. And there’s nothing wrong with having a particular POV that’s your preferred style. Do what you do and do it well and you’re more likely to get that representation and be published. One of these days I will step outside the box–but probably not until I’m published with an established name and can maybe get away with it!