There are several points of view (POV) that can be used for writing fiction, but only two are normally used: first-person and third-person.
First-person is when you write a story from the POV of one character in the story. For example:
The alarm woke me out of a deep sleep. I stumbled out of bed, flicking on the TV on the way to the kitchen.
Third-person is when you write the story from outside one or more characters. For example:
The alarm woke Bob out of a deep sleep. He stumbled out of bed, flicking on the TV on his way to the kitchen.
In this post, I am going to talk about third-person because that is where I see the most mistakes. There are two kinds of third-person: omniscient and limited. An omniscient narrator knows everything about every character while a limited narrator only sees the perspective of one character at a time. How is this a problem, you ask? It’s a problem because some writers think they can use both omniscient and limited in the same book, while the truth is that, most third-person books are limited. Why? Because omniscient can be dull. People generally read fiction because they want to experience one character’s life, not because they want to watch several character’s lives, but experience none of them.
So how do you know if you are acting like an omniscient narrator, rather than a limited one? A limited one would only ever see things through one character at a time. Yes, it’s possible to change characters in different scenes, but you can still only be in one head at a time. If not, you get something like this:
Bob sat down at the table and looked at Susan. She wondered why he was staring at her. He picked up his coffee mug and took a sip. Susan did the same, choking on the disgusting liquid Bob passed off as coffee.
My reaction to this kind of paragraph is, WHAT THE HELL? The writer is trying to be in two heads at once, but the reader can’t do that. The reader can either “see” the scene from Bob’s eyes or he can “see” it from Susan’s eyes. He can’t see it from both. If the writer wanted to see the world from outside both of the characters (omniscient), it would sound like this:
Bob sat down at the table and looked at Susan. He picked up his coffee mug and took a sip. Susan did the same, choking on the liquid as it oozed down her throat.
Notice that we aren’t in anyone’s head in the passage above. We are watching it, like TV. If this same paragraph were TRULY third-person limited, it would sound like this:
Bob sat down at the table and looked at Susan. Why was she frowning again? He picked up his coffee mug and took a sip. She mimicked him, only she choked as she took a sip. Probably her way of telling him he’d used too much grounds again.
This last example is written from Bob’s perspective. The ONLY difference between this and first-person is that Bob is not “I”. If he was, it would say:
I sat down at the table and looked at Susan. Why was she frowning again? I picked up my coffee mug and took a sip. She mimicked me, only she choked as she took a sip. Probably her way of telling me I’d used too much grounds again.
See? The perspective of third-person limited is the same as first-person. This is a REALLY REALY REALLY (did I mention REALLY?) important lesson if you are writing third-person limited. You have to remember that you are still writing from one character’s perspective. You are NOT writing from your own. Why? BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT IN THE BOOK!
If you are writing third-person and are worried that you are crossing into omniscient or, worse, head jumping, take a section of your manuscript and re-write it from the perspective of one character. If you find any text that your character cannot know or does not experience, DELETE IT! NOW! Do not pass GO. Do not stop for a Grande, non-fat, Tazo Chai. Actually, I take that back. But get me one too…