Friday, February 12

View to a Skill: Understanding Point of View

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week’s Refresher Friday takes a heavily updated look at understanding and using point of view. Enjoy!

I still remember the moment when point of view (POV) clicked for me. I was talking to a writer friend of mine, (Juliette Wade), and she was explaining one of her comments in a critique she'd done of my WIP. I’d written:

She came around the corner and saw the rowboat tied to the dock piling.

Juliette had asked, "Did she know the rowboat was there? Because "the" implies prior knowledge, and I don't think she was looking for it or knew it was there."

Now, back then I’d no clue what she was talking about. Prior knowledge? Huh?

She went on to explain that the word "the" implied that my POV character knew there was a rowboat there. It wasn't "a" rowboat (which implies generality, just something she happened to see) but "the" rowboat (which implies it's a known thing to her before she saw it). If she didn't know it was there, she couldn't call it "the" rowboat. She'd have had no prior knowledge of it. It would be no different than any other object around.

Point of view is showing what's known to a character.

That's the holy grail of point of view. It works in first person or third omniscient, close or far narrative distance.

If my POV character had been looking for a rowboat, then "the" would have been the right word. The rowboat was known to her, she expected it, she was looking for it.

If my POV character had no idea a rowboat existed, then "a" would have been the right word. She didn't know about it, wasn't expecting it, wasn't looking for it.

When you're writing a character, what she knows is different from what you know, or even what the other characters in the scene know. What words you use to convey what a character knows affects point of view.

A rich girl who lived her whole life in a mountain palace probably has no clue about the basics of a poor fishing village (and vice versa). She won't refer to things by slang terms, or even proper terms. They aren't known to her.

Do they know it? If so, they'll refer to it however they feel about it. If they hate it, that'll show. Fear it, that'll show, too. Don't care one whit—that will also show. It also allows you to show what's normal in that world, because anything not remarked upon in any special way is obviously not special. Something your POV character finds amazing is a clue that it really is amazing in that world.

Do they not know it? They'll have to decide how they feel about it. Try to make sense of it. Judge it, categorize it, whatever they do when they see something new. That might be noticing it and never thinking about it again, or it might be a life-altering experience.

Once we understand this simple, yet mind-blowing fact, point of view gets a lot easier to work with.

How Point of View Helps With Description

What the POV character knows, sees, and interacts with is what she’ll describe, which makes it easier for writers to pick and choose which details to share. If the POV character doesn’t care about the waitress at the cafe, she’s not going to spend two paragraphs describing her. But the guy in the back she’s about to throw down with? She’ll notice a heck of a lot more about him.

(Here’s more on point of view and description)

How Point of View Affects Our Characters

Characters (especially the protagonist) show our readers what’s known and not known in our story worlds. No character is going to react the same way, which allows us to show all the varied opinions and potential problems in our stories. If our descriptions and character reactions are the same no matter which character sees or reacts to something, that’s a red flag we’re not taking advantage of all POV has to offer.

(Here’s more on understanding point of view and character reactions)

How Point of View Works With Internalization

POV allows us to convey our characters’ thoughts and feelings to our readers. This is where our voices shine, and where all the emotion in our stories comes from. It’s how we let readers get to know our characters and show why they ought to follow them in the novel and worry about them. Description shows what characters see, and internalization shows how they feel about it.

(Here’s more on internalization) 

Point of view is the strongest tool writers have in their toolboxes. Everything in our novels is filtered through our POV characters, and those personalities and knowledge color our stories. Change a character, and the whole novel feels different.

As writers, we know everything about our stories, but telling readers everything steals the enjoyment of reading the novel. POV allows us to show only what’s known, and the desire to know more is what keeps readers reading.

Forget write what you know. Write what the character knows.

What’s your favorite point of view style? Is there a difference between what you like to write vs. read?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those    with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter(Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Whoa. I see what you're saying and a I 'get' it. Writing just got a whole lot more intimidating, though if I need to keep a watch out for those itty bitty words.

  2. "Write what the character knows." As always, brilliant advice.

  3. It seems intimidating, but once you notice it, it actually makes it a lot easier. They start jumping out at you and you start using judgment words without thinking. Just like noticing adverbs or to be verbs.

  4. Whoa... I think I'm in love with your writer friend *sigh*

    Seeing it like this makes it so obvious, but it's like you say, Janice. Once you notice it, piece of cake. The trick is forcing yourself to stay consistent in spotting those POV switches, as well as understanding why critique partners call you out on them. Practice and patience go a long way :D

    Great post!

  5. I'd never heard this side of POV, but it makes great sense. Thanks!

  6. I never really thought about POV this way. Thanks for pointing it out. "A" and "the" can make a big difference now that you mentioned it. There is a lot to think about. I'm glad you do and share with us.

  7. That's a good one, Janice. Think I got the point. Those tiny details that make the difference ... >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  8. Such a small change in wording makes such a huge impact. Thanks for giving us wisdom to ponder.

  9. Little things, and words, make a huge difference. Great post as always. :)

  10. This post couldn't come at a better time for me! The problem is, I'm totally stumped on how to relay some info to the reader that's essential to my story. I'm writing in first person-the main character is the only POV.

    There is an event that occurs in her world, something horrible that the reader needs to know about. My problem is that my MC is very familiar with this event(she wouldn't just think about it out of the blue--she would probably avoid thinking about it), it's shaped her entire life and who she is. So how do I bring it up and expain it to the reader without "telling"? There is no way it could come up in converstaion--everyone she comes in contact with also knows about this event, it's intrinsic to their society. What do you do in that sort of situation? I'm having a really hard time with it since it's a major part of the story. It's not something that I can "show" happening either(it only happens every 10 years). Any ideas?

  11. Janice, I love this post - and I remember that conversation we had. What fun!

    Candace, if you'll forgive me jumping in with my thoughts, I think the situation you describe is very interesting. This major event might have some influence on things around it. Maybe it would change how time is measured (five more years/five years past). Or since you say it has influenced who she is, there may be things about your character that she measures in terms provided by "the event." She can refer offhandedly to "the event" (which "the" suggests she knows) without explaining what it is, and that will help to pique reader curiosity. An event that is known and which has consequences will often be referred to or thought of offhandedly - or deliberately avoided as a thought ("I lost it at the event - but let's not think about that"). Though it's not explained, each instance of it will give readers more hints to expand their concept of what it might be.

    Those are my thoughts; I hope they help.

  12. Thanks Juliette, that actually does help! Dropping subtle hints and building on them might work better than one long passage anyway. It could even be a good way to keep a reader interested and turning the page hoping to pick up on more info that can help them figure it out. You're so smart!

  13. One of the reasons this blog is so useful for me is that it goes beyond basics (POV: first or third person?) to more detailed ideas about craft (POV: a way to add detail and worldview!) and that is really, really useful to think about. :)

    If I might brag for a moment, so far my favorite line from my WIP (which takes place in a desert culture) is when the Leading Romantic Gentleman thinks the protag has a smile as rare and beautiful as rain.

  14. Amparo: Yeah, she's awesome. We make a great crit pair because our strengths and weaknesses are opposites. It really is easy once you train yourself to notice it.

    Elle: I just adore POV because it does so much, and can do it with so little. My writing really improved when I started studying it.

    Natalie: I think it's those little things that can take a manuscript from good to great. I know in books I read and love, the stuff I admire almost always falls under something subtle.

    Cold As Heaven: Little things do mean a lot. And they're easy to overlook. But they add so much.

    Karen: Most welcome. I love these kinds of revelations when I discover/read/hear about them. They just make things click.

    Angie: Thanks!

    Candace: Juliette has good advice (as she usually does) and I'd say the same thing. In The Shifter, Nya makes offhand references to the war and her family and you see the results of that past, but you find out what happened over the course of the series.

    Also, I assume this event is going to affect your protag and her problem at some point in the story? If so, then you might even foreshadow that by having someone else go through something similar that they hear about/see/etc. It doesn't have to be a full thing, but a hint of what's to come that can trigger than memory and fear in your protag about what's in store for her. That would allow you to talk about the event a little more and show how it's going to hurt your protag.

    Becky: Love that line, and it's a perfect example of POV In action.

  15. This is the explanation I've been searching for!!! I've attended classes re: POV and spent good money for them, too. All I got was a comparison between what the author started with and what she changed it to with the explanation of, "it sounds better." Thank you!!!

  16. Most welcome, glad this clicked for you :)

  17. Ah yeah! So I just did a grammar class last December and learnt about "a" and "an" as an indefinite article and "the" as a definite article.
    I like to remind myself of the meaning by referring to my fave writing pen: This is A pen...but this is THE pen!

    Learning grammar can suck but it can get interesting, I won't lie.

    1. Very true :) I like your example, too!

  18. Such an amazing post. Just think what one word, "the" taught you. Thanks for sharing. This will stick.

    1. It was eye opening for sure. And it's helped many a writer since :)

  19. Janice really enjoyed these helpful tips and I will be more aware now when I am writing. I still struggle with POV in my stories but I guess practice and experimenting is the only way through.

    1. It is, but the more you do it the easier it will get. POV is a tough technique to learn, so don't worry if it takes you some time to get it all figured out. :) You'll get there.