Reader Knowledge Versus Character Knowledge: Struggles with Point of View, Part 1

It’s summer, and things are kind of slow on the blog. So in lieu of more interesting fare, I decided I might as well post some recent thoughts from my own writing and reviewing of other people’s writing…

One of the conventions of contemporary writing is that you stay within the head of your point of view character(s). This seems to be generally true across both genre and mainstream fiction, popular and literary, first person and third person. Basically, the expectation is thus: if the point of view character knows something, you as a reader should have access to that knowledge; if the point of view character doesn’t know something, you as a reader shouldn’t know it.

This hasn’t always been the case. And even now there are some time-honored allowable exceptions. For the most part, though, violations in point of view are considered by many readers as something of a literary sin: signs of amateur writing and inadequate editing.

They’re also among the easiest mistakes to make (speaking as someone who has both made them and noticed them in other people’s writing), particularly I think among many beginning writers. I don’t know why that’s the case. Maybe it’s because we’re a cinematic age, used to roving cameras that show anything that may be of interest, regardless of whose line of vision it appears within. Maybe it’s simply because as storytellers, we view the story complete within ourselves, and thus struggle to confine ourselves to the restrictions of a more limited viewpoint. Maybe it’s because many of the writers we read — our conscious or unconcious literary models — fall short of absolute fidelity in this area. Whatever the reason, challenges related to point of view are widespread, and often surprisingly hard to detect and correct.

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King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon informs us that he cannot list all the ways we may commit sin, “for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them” (Mosiah 4:29). It is perhaps equally true that there are innumerable ways for writers to sin with respect to point of view. Nonetheless, I’d like to outline a few of the major categories I see, both in my own writing and that of others — in the spirit of adding to the discussion with my own fully fallible point of view, not laying down the law for others.

Most basic is the unsignaled point of view switch. It’s possible to have multiple points of view, even within the same scene. However, modern literary conventions require that such switches be signaled: typically with a an extra paragraph space, and always with a clear verbal signal immediately after the switch. Here’s an example of this kind of signaling:

“I hate you.” The words seemed to well up from inside Kathryn. She spat them out, then felt a sense of bitter triumph as her mother winced. “If you really loved me, you’d let me go out with Jason.”

Daphne felt a sense of shock at her daughter’s words. How could her efforts to keep the 15-year-old safe have been so misunderstood?

(By the way: unless otherwise marked, I’m inventing these examples on the spot for purposes of illustration. Hence the melodrama.)

As the author of a book with 7 point of view characters, I’m hardly one to criticize switches in POV. However, I think that if you’re going to switch points of view, there should be a good reason for it: some part of the story you’re trying to tell that can only be told if you move to a new point of view. I think it’s also true that when you introduce a new point of view character, you take a certain responsibility to telling that character’s story. You can’t just drop extra characters in as convenient, then forget about them as the story progresses. Finally, there’s a matter of expectations. If the first three chapters of your book are all in the same point of view, and then you start bringing in other points of view, it’s likely to be a potentially confusing surprise to readers.

Sometimes it’s easy to “dip into” some other character’s point of view without realizing it — sharing a piece of information or perspective that the point of view character wouldn’t possess. Consider, for example, the following rewrite of the first paragraph of the sample above.

“I hate you.” The words seemed to well up from inside Kathryn. She spat them out, then felt a sense of bitter triumph as her mother winced, hurt by the accusation.

In this case, “her mother winced” is something Kathryn might observe, but her mother’s internal sense of hurt is not. Note, however, how easy it is to fix, in this case by the addition of a single word that changes this back to an observation by Kathryn: “clearly hurt by the accusation.” On such minor issues of wording, sometimes, can point of view turn.

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Sometimes it’s not a matter of dipping into another character’s point of view, but rather of communicating information that the author knows and wants the reader to know, but that the characters don’t know. Or it could be background information that the character does know, but that he/she wouldn’t normally think about. Hence the infamous “expository lump” in sf&f, in which (for example) character Y says to character Z, “As you know, Dr. Felkind, my new discovery rests upon long-established principles of dendrochronology…” Which may violate character plausibility (and reader interest), but at least more or less preserves point of view. When done well — as in Tolkien’s Shadow of the Past and Council of Elrond chapters — it can even work narratively to advance the story, create important decision points for the character, and heighten interest. All of which, however, requires that writers restrain the inclination to slip information to readers through violations of point of view.

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Another major category of point of view violation is holding back knowledge from the readers that the point of view character would know. Sometimes good authors do it deliberately in order to create a surprise for readers, as in the famous case of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, or (closer to home) The False Prince, by Jennifer A. Nielsen. But it’s easy to overdo this and make readers feel cheated. Even if done well, this can easily be done too often, leaving readers disconnected and skeptical about what they’re reading.

I often see inexperienced writers hold back information to try to build a sense of suspense. This can work in the short term. However, it seems to me that it does so by drawing against the “account” of interest and engagement that the writer has established with the reader: a dangerous thing to do, since readers generally start out with very little interest and commitment in reading any given story: certainly less than writers often hope or expect. When that interest runs out, they stop reading — or they read with less engagement. In almost all cases, it seems safer to me to keep the reader informed along with the character (or no more than a paragraph or two behind), and build suspense through the reader’s shared ignorance with the character and the natural building up of events.

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And I had planned to go on and talk about some of the various ways (more and less successful) that I’ve seen authors try to deal with these. But I’ve gone on long enough, so I’ll hold that back for the next time I get an urge to write about writing, and/or the posting schedule gets thin on the blog. Till then…

About Jonathan Langford

Hi! I'm the coordinator for the AML blog, a critic and reviewer of Mormon literature and sf&f, and an aspiring creative writer with one published novel. To contact me about the AML blog, email jonathan AT langfordwriter DOT com.
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2 Responses to Reader Knowledge Versus Character Knowledge: Struggles with Point of View, Part 1

  1. Wm says:

    Now I’m tempted to write a story where I switch POV every sentence.

  2. Lee Allred says:

    “Maybe it’s because we’re a cinematic age…”

    Tangentially, cinematic storytelling has severly narrowed the POV in modern comic books.

    Comics traditionally were unlimited omniscient, with thought balloons often conveying inner thoughts of several characters in a single panel. In almost all modern comic books these days, the thought balloon is about as extinct as the dodo.

    Now POV is either very limited omniscient — only records what is said and done by characters in the panel as if by a cinematic camera, no inner thoughts conveyed — or else inner thoughts are narrated via caption boxes by a single POV character and most (if not all) the events on a page are only those witnessed by the POV. (Different scenes can be narrated by different POVs.)

    This stylistic trend, already begun with Frank Miller’s DARK KNIGHT, accelerated when a number of Hollywood-trained screenwriters began scripting comic books in the 1990s.

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