It’s a Matter of Perspective

Before I get into this post on perspective in fiction, I will start with this: You do you. I am not the literary police here. Also, since I did not invent fiction writing, I am not an expert on what should or should not be done. But, if I have been paid by your publisher to edit your manuscript and a perspective issue comes up, I will call you on it, because that is my job.

The following is not an exhaustive treatise on perspective in fiction. People have written books on the subject. I have gone the route of brevity.

The perspective you choose for a piece of fiction is part of the voice of the story. I do not have to tell you this, but here it is. Authors write in first person, close third, distant third (often omniscient), and even second person. I also don’t have to tell you this, but here I go anyway: when you’re in first person, you’re following the perspective of the narrating character. Unless you’re writing sci-fi/fantasy fiction and your character is Professor Xavier who can read minds, you are presenting only the thoughts and motivation of the “I” character. In close third, the author still follows the perspective of one character at a time in a scene or possibly a whole book. The Harry Potter novels were written in close third. We follow Harry’s perspective for the most part, though there are times when J.K. Rowling :provides a perspective that is not Harry’s (chapter one of the first and fourth books, for example).

Omniscient narration has an unseen narrator who is privy to the thoughts and motivations of all of the characters. Many of Terry Pratchett’s (photo below) Discworld novels have this sort of narration. Chronicles of Narnia author C. S. Lewis also went the narrator route.

If while describing what Harry sees, feels, and thinks Rowling were to suddenly tell us what Cho Chang or Hermione thought (outside of dialogue), we would call that head hopping. Author and former agent Nathan Bransford describes it this way:

Sometimes people try to create an omniscient perspective through an assemblage of third person limited perspectives. . . . We see what this character is thinking, then we see what this character is thinking, then we see what this character is thinking.

Now, many authors with multiple third-person limited narrators might switch narrators from scene to scene as Bransford mentions in his article, which you can read by clicking here. That’s common. But Bransford is referring to a sudden switch of perspective within the same scene. The perspective is muddied when we know we’re following Sally’s close third perspective in a scene but we’re suddenly told what another character  thinks—information Sally couldn’t possibly know (but the author knows). Here’s what I mean:

Sally darted into the elevator. She heaved a sigh of relief as the doors closed, then glanced at the elevator’s only other occupant—a man whose gaze seemed fixed on his shoes. What was his name again? Phil? Frank? She knew him from Accounting.

The man glanced up, noticing her gaze in his direction.

Aside from the hasty writing, you might wonder, what’s the big deal? Seems pretty straightforward. But I would call your attention to the word noticing. That tells me we are now in the man’s head, rather than Sally’s. Why? Because only he would know what he noticed.

I have looked at someone sometimes but my thoughts were completely elsewhere. So while I was seeing the person in theory, I wasn’t really seeing him or her. Authors slip up in perspective when they assign an exact motivation or action to someone outside of the perspective of the point-of-view character (i.e., telling us what the man noticed).

This post is a bit long, so I will stop here. For a good craft book on perspective, you might check out The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley (Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2008).

Terry Pratchett photo from Wikipedia. Other photos by L. Marie.

35 thoughts on “It’s a Matter of Perspective

  1. I’ve never understood what people don’t like about what you are calling “head hopping”. It’s a technique that Donald Westlake, for example, uses constantly–describing how a scene appears from the perspective of different characters. It is particularly effective in a comedy of errors, or in a large action scene where everyone is reacting only to what he or she can see.

    I agree that it’s important for the reader to know when the shift in POV occurs, but that can be handled fairly easily.

    • Writing about writing is a very subjective business. I also can point to well-known books where head hopping occurs. That’s why I mentioned Terry Pratchett’s books. So I understand what you mean. Usually those comedy of error works are omniscient and therefore not exactly head hopping, because we are given everyone’s perspective throughout. I’ve seen third person close/limited texts where an author maintains the perspective for the most part, but then suddenly darts into the head of another person in the room but no one else’s. Inconsistencies are what trigger editorial comments from me.

  2. Thanks for the title, which sounds like an exhaustive exploration of point of view.

    Last week I finished reading a novel titled Empty Seats by Wanda Fischer, which featured three minor league baseball players. All three could be considered protagonists, but I noticed that the narrative of one, Jimmy, was told in first person, while the other two, Buddy and Robbie, were told in third person. It made a difference in how I understood their individual stories and how more invested the author seemed in telling Jimmy’s story. Great post, L. Marie! ;-D

    • Thanks, Marian. I’ve also seen books where one character’s POV was told in first person and other major characters were told in close third. The thought behind that was the I character is the titular character while the others (the third person close characters) are also key to her story.

  3. Good old POV. Seen it cause so many fights, especially in college. It’s funny how people think there’s a right and wrong method. I tend to go with 3rd Person omniscient, which does run the risk of accidental head hopping. It’s tough to avoid when you’re trying to describe everything because you want to include pieces from everyone. This is why I avoid writing out what characters are thinking. I figure if none of them have the main POV then nobody will know what’s going on in their head.

    Except for telepaths. Those characters make the whole thing a pain.

  4. It’s a pet hate of mine when a first person narrator knows what’s going on in other characters’ heads. I probably don’t pick up on a shifting perspective so much when it’s written in third person, which is a good reason for authors to use it… 😉

    • I’m not a fan of it either. I can understand wanting to convey some information. But if you’re writing in first person or close third, there’s only so much that person knows.

  5. Thanks for this explanation. I write from the *I* point of view because that’s what personal blogging is all about, but it is fun to contemplate how I might present my posts using a different point of view. Or multiple points of view. 🤔

  6. Thank you for this post and the link to Nathan’s (yes, I went and read it :-)). I was definitely head-jumping in an earlier draft of my novel which was written in third person omniscient, although I didn’t realize it until a friend pointed it out. He offered what seemed like a simple solution: keep to one POV per scene, don’t mix it up within paragraphs, and definitely not within sentences. Now I’ve gone to the other extreme. My revised POV is now first person, but for three characters. Oy. I’m coping with that by separating the POVs through chapters. My writing workshop last summer actually supported this approach, although they only read three chapters.

    Also, I, too, would love it if Ally wrote her blog in different POVs 🙂

    • Marie, perspective is such a tough issue. What made you change to first person? Do you like your WIP more now?
      Have you read The Poisonwood Bible? I believe that book has ten first-person characters separated by chapters.

      • I had a prologue that I wrote in first person; the rest of the novel would have been third-person limited. But my class really liked the voice of the first person that I went ahead and did the same with two other characters. Three women. Sigh. They are very different people, which is good but definitely challenges my creativity. Yes, I read The Poisonwood Bible and loved it. I consulted it when I started revising my novel, see how Kingsolver structured the chapters.

        That kind of goes back to why reading is so important to writing, at least for me. Studying how successful authors structure their novels has helped me a lot with my own writing.

  7. Head hopping can be done seamlessly, but it takes skill and the right story. I noticed one author who did a good job. I think it was Elizabeth George, who writes crime mysteries. (I read it a long time ago.)

    I usually write in close third person or first person, more often in third. I wrote my first novel, Tiger Tail Soup in first person for what is probably a strange reason. All the characters are Chinese, and I thought it would be easier for an English speaker to read it if there’s less use of the main character’s name. Now that I think of it, I don’t know that that mattered.

    Until now, I’ve only written each piece from one perspective. At the moment, though, I’m trying a rather long short story in four perspectives. I hope it works out because it’s really fun.

    • Nicki, I have three POVs in one novel and four in another. It’s challenging, isn’t it? But yes, it is fun to explore the perspectives of different characters. I’ve noticed that a lot of classic authors go the head hopping route.

  8. I’ve read books with omniscient, head-hopping perspectives, which were a lot more common in previous centuries. It’s a POV that’s hard to do right, and an author has to have a very good reason to do it. One of my favorite recent examples in a children’s book is Kate Albus’s historical novel A PLACE TO HANG THE MOON. The author made the choice to hop into the heads of her three main characters (and sometimes other villagers) in order to evoke the sensibility of the time and the narrative tone of the books her protagonists were reading.

  9. Oh, I do love an expository blog post article! Thank you L.Marie! Funny, I came up with a more in-depth article about my own work, too. Maybe it’s a February thing!
    ps-unless multiple POVs are done well, it often comes off as a confusing mess to this reader and I find myself tossing the book aside unfinished.

  10. I’m currently working on an oral history project where everything is from the POV of the people I’m interviewing.
    In the end nothing of me will appear in it, no questions or introductions. Just these wonderful, elderly people sharing their stories.

    • Are you publishing this, Andy? Such a great project. And you have wonderful photos. (Though this is oral history so are you recording this? Vlogging?)
      My nieces and nephews have been interviewing older relatives to preserve their stories.

      • It’s meant to be published as a book. It’s been time consuming as first I record the interviews, then transcribe by hand, then type up in some kind of order. It would have been finished by now but then something called Covid came from nowhere and all the people I was going to interview were deemed ‘at risk’ and so had to isolate. So it’s been a couple of years.
        The woman I was about to sit with sadly died during this period, and three been a few whose stories are gone forever 🙁 Initially I’d volunteered to capture the oral history of the local church for its 50th anniversary, but I opened it up as of equal interest is the personal stories of its congregation. How all these people, of different denominations, from different places in the country, all come to belong to a (then) new Anglican church on a new housing estate.

      • Sounds like a great project. But how sad about the passing of the person you mentioned. Makes the project you’re working on all the more precious.

  11. Perspective and POV are the two things in writing that always challenge me. David Jauss has an essay on this in his book Alone With All That Could Happen. It blows my mind.

Your Turn to Talk

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s