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Writing Level-Up: Point of View

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May 15th, 2010
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[Occasionally I'll post about my experiences trying to improve as a writer. If you’re a writer you might find something useful. Sometimes the topic will converge on game design, my other vocational passion.]

This was an eye-opening lesson for me. I had a sort of general, fuzzy awareness of point of view. I knew the difference between third person and first person. However, I wasn’t even conscious of some of the subtle ways I was violating perspective conventions that seem to be the norm in modern speculative writing. I won’t go into defining what all the possible POV approaches to writing in general are. You can read about them here.

But, if you’re writing fantasy (especially young adult fantasy) the advice from editors tends to be pretty strict these days: every sentence should be written from the perspective of one of the characters, even if it’s 3rd person POV. The reader can only know what the POV character knows and see what they see, and if the POV changes to another character, this should be the beginning of a new scene.

Here are several POV mistakes I made from time to time, until someone brought them to my attention. Avoiding this stuff is second nature now, but occasionally a POV wobble creeps in. Here’s what to watch out for:

Don’t head-hop in the middle of a scene.
If John is our POV, if we get to read John’s thoughts, then don’t give us the direct thoughts of people around John. Don’t do this:

John scowled at the cat and stuck his tongue out. Cats were crap. He didn’t understand why Jane wanted one so badly, of all creatures. Ever since one had gouged his cheeks as a child he’d rather see them kicked across the room than cuddled.

“Gah, what’s your problem, John?” Jane asked, turning away to shield the poor kitten from his withering look. She glared at him. What a jerk. Why did he hate cats so much?

An editor once gave me a good piece of advice. Every time you sit down to write ask yourself this: whose eyes and thoughts am I seeing this through? Make sure you stay in that person’s POV throughout the scene. The POV character must intuit other characters’ thoughts and emotions from their words, their tone of voice, their expressions and body language, etc.

Don’t use character labels that distance.
For instance, if Joe the angsty teen is our main character, don’t do this:

Joe shuffled into the grocery store and paused, eyes skimming over the crumpled list in his hand. Milk, eggs, bread … tampons. Tampons? Oh Jesus. The teenager couldn’t believe his mom had put tampons on the list. There was no way. He’d rather shoplift before plunking a pink box of feminine hygiene product onto the conveyor belt. Of course, the thought of getting busted with a box of tampons in his trousers made his cheeks burn. Today was going to suck.

Calling him ‘the teenager’ when he’s our POV character bumps the reader back to a more omniscient point of view. It’s probably not ‘wrong’ but I think it has the effect of detaching the audience.

Don’t tell outside the character’s POV.
Every once and a while, “narrator voice” can slip in and describe things in a way that is beyond the scope of your POV character’s perceptions (or concerns), or even worse, may sound like the author commenting:

Maggie wiped a drop of sweat trickling down her forehead with the back of her wrist before it ran into her eye. She cursed under her breath and sat back. The lock’s mechanism was impossible.  Four wire-thin picks already lay broken on the ground in front of the door. Only one left. On the other side of the door her so-called friends made faces at her. Maggie’s fingers were too thick and clumsy, which is why she rarely succeeded at anything requiring manual dexterity.

Maggie can’t see her friends on the other side of the door. She could possibly hear them, and even imagine that they might be making faces, but she doesn’t know that they are. And the last sentence sounds like the author passing judgment on Maggie. Bad author!

Finally, I think it’s worth mentioning that not everyone follows these rules precisely. Some people bend them. Some people break them into a million pieces and still write stuff that kicks ass. You’ll have decide for yourself how strictly to follow these conventions, taking into account the genre you’re writing it, your own goals as a writer, and the advice of your editor.

What do you guys think?


As a game designer, I think it’s interesting that the current “3rd person limited” approach popular in modern fantasy writing has parallels in the world of game design. Like writers, game developers consider the player’s perspective in a game (e.g. first person, or third person). In recent years there has been a swell of games that retain a third person POV camera, but push in closer to the player’s character, to an ‘over the shoulder’ style viewpoint, but the controls feel more like a first person perspective game. I worked on one myself for a year. This has the effect of giving a visceral, immediate, feel to the game, but still letting player’s see their character from the outside. Gears of War is probably the most popular example of this. It’s a peculiar hybrid of objectivity and subjectivity, in the same way that “3rd person limited” is in writing.

About Me

Ricardo Bare
Austin, Tx

Ricardo Bare is a writer and game designer living near Austin, Texas. Currently he works as a game designer for Arkane Studios, which in 2012 released Dishonored. Ricardo started his career in the games industry working on the Deus Ex series, winner of the BAFTA and numerous other Game of the Year awards.

Ricardo is the author of Jack of Hearts and Fool of Fate, the first two books in a young adult fantasy series.


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