Problematic POV—Characters’ Names, Thoughts, and Senses

This month we’re looking at Fatal Flaw # 5: POV Violations. Fiction writers often violate POV “rules,” and have trouble seeing how this manifests in their scenes. Last week we looked at how to accomplish smooth POV shifts. This week editor Christy Distler tackles issues that deal with the use of characters’ names, thoughts, and senses that wander out of POV. 

This month we’re talking about point of view (also known as POV). As Rachel said in the first post, POV “rules” have changed quite a bit over time. In the past few years, I’ve worked with several beginning writers, and I can say without a doubt that POV is the fiction-writing tenet that I spend the most time explaining.

Writers tend to be voracious readers, with many having reading lists full of literary classics (who can blame us?). The classics authors wrote during an era when “omniscient” point of view was commonly used, so my writers followed suit and used an omniscient POV (meaning the story was seemingly told from the point of view of an all-knowing narrator).

Gone Are the Days

But times change. Nowadays, omniscient POV is discouraged, and its use is often considered a telltale sign of amateur writing. Editors and publishers now prefer (and often insist) that each scene include the point of view of only one character (also known as the POV character).

This means each scene describes only what this one character sees, hears, smells, feels, etc., instead of describing what’s going on in multiple characters’ heads. Sticking to one character’s POV encourages the reader to bond more strongly with that character, which would be less likely if the reader was getting alternating multiple characters’ points of view.

In essence, POV’s main purpose is now to get the reader, through invoked emotion, to care deeply about the POV character and what’s going to happen to him or her. (Note: stories can, and often do, have more than one POV character. The caveat is that each scene should reflect only one character’s POV.)

Today we’re going to look at two particular POV violations, namely using names in inappropriate ways and describing other characters’ thoughts and senses. I’m sticking with the character from my previous posts, Cassandra, because she’s fun and I like her.

BEFORE:

I stared at my hands folded in my lap as I sat in the waiting room of Covington Hall’s administrative offices with my parents, John and Marcia. Dark wood surrounded us—on the walls, the floors, and furniture—and the room reeked of old books. Marcia sat stiffly beside me, hoping our wait would be short.

The phone buzzed on the receptionist’s desk, and Eleanor Doyle picked it up. “Yes, ma’am,” she said a few moments later, then replaced the receiver and looked over at us. “Mrs. Gray will see you now.” She stood and walked around to a door, which she opened for us. “Right through there. It was a pleasure meeting you.”

John smiled at her. “Thank you, Mrs. . . . ?” He stopped, realizing she’d never given us her name.

“Oh, of course. Doyle. Eleanor Doyle.”

“Come in, come in.” Susan Gray, a forty-something woman sporting chin-length blond.e hair and a navy-. blue wrap dress, appraised us from behind her desk. “Welcome. I’m Susan Gray, one of the school counselors.”

We sat on upholstered chairs facing her, but I couldn’t look away from my crossed feet, clad in black-sequined Converses despite Mother’s protests.

“Thank you, Mrs. Gray.” Marcia’s overly friendly smile made me cringe. She leaned over John to tap my knee. “Cassandra, look at people when they’re speaking to you.”

But I didn’t like making eye contact with people I didn’t know. It seemed too much like a personal challenge. Even so, I met her gaze. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Susan smiled. “Welcome, Cassandra. We look forward to getting to know you.”

I grinned back as politely as I could manage. Not that it mattered if I made a good first impression anyway. Little did any of us know, but I’d only be at Covington Hall for a short time.

AFTER:

I stared at my hands folded in my lap as Mother, Daddy, and I sat in the waiting room of Covington Hall’s administrative offices. Dark wood surrounded us—on the walls, the floors, and furniture—and the room reeked of old books. While Mother wrinkled her nose just slightly, I breathed in what was one of my favorite smells.

The phone buzzed on the desk across the room, and the receptionist picked it up. “Yes, ma’am,” she said a few moments later, then replaced the receiver and looked over at us. “Mrs. Gray will see you now.” She stood and walked around to a door, which she opened for us. “Right through there. It was a pleasure meeting you.”

Daddy smiled at her. “Thank you, Mrs. . . . ?”

“Oh, of course. Doyle. Eleanor Doyle.”

“Come in, come in.” Mrs. Gray, a forty-something woman sporting chin-length blond hair and a navy-blue wrap dress, appraised us from behind her desk. “Welcome. I’m Susan Gray, one of the school counselors.”

We sat on upholstered chairs facing her, but I couldn’t look away from my crossed feet, clad in black-sequined Converses despite Mother’s protests.

“Thank you, Mrs. Gray.” Mother leaned over Daddy to tap my knee. “Cassandra, look at people when they’re speaking to you.”

But I didn’t like making eye contact with people I didn’t know. It seemed too much like a personal challenge. Even so, I met her gaze. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Mrs. Gray smiled. “Welcome, Cassandra. We look forward to getting to know you.” She glanced around the side of the desk. “And I just love those shoes.”

I grinned back. Maybe I’d have an ally at Covington Hall after all.

So what POV violations did you see in the Before excerpt? Let’s go through them:

  • Cassie “introduces” her parents to the reader using their first names. Odd for a teenager. To stay in a character’s POV, it’s important to have the character refer to other people using the name he or she would naturally use for them. So a child or teenager (in most cases) would refer to parents as Mom and Dad, and teachers/adults as Mr. (Last name) or Mrs./Miss/Ms. (Last name). Conversely, adults would refer to children, and most likely to other adults, by first names, unless perhaps they were speaking with a superior, such as the boss of a large company. Bottom line for names: use the name your character would logically use when speaking to that person.
  • She then states that her mother (using her first name) is hoping they’ll have a short wait, so she’s describing her mother’s thoughts (something she can’t know for certain).
  • Cassie “introduces” the receptionist by her full name, even though it’s soon clear that the receptionist never introduced herself to Cassie and her parents.
  • She then continues referring to her mother as “Marcia” and also states that her mother’s smile makes her cringe, although she can’t see her mother’s smile since she’s looking at her feet. And she “introduces” the guidance counselor by her full name instead of the name she’d use for her.
  • Lastly, we have Cassie’s ending declaration: “Little did any of us know, but I’d only be at Covington Hall for a short time.” While this kind of foreshadowing of something big to come was fairly common in stories written from an omniscient point of view, it’s now considered a form of author intrusion (in this case, the author is injecting a statement about the future).

Bottom line for characters’ thoughts and senses: The narrative should describe only what the POV character knows, sees, feels, hears, etc.; other characters’ thoughts, feelings, and assumptions are off-limits.

You may choose to write a novel in an omniscient POV, and there are certainly terrific novels that feature such a POV. But keep in mind that omniscient POV tends to distance the reader’s involvement with the characters, and leans toward excessive narrative summary. Most readers these days prefer getting deep into the characters, and the way to do that is to stick with one POV character per scene.

Your turn:

Have you ever seen either of these POV slips in your writing? If you have, don’t feel bad. Mastering POV is one of the toughest parts of writing fiction, and most writers have to work at it in the beginning. What POV violations have you spotted that you can share with us?

19 Responses to “Problematic POV—Characters’ Names, Thoughts, and Senses”

  1. Rebecca May 20, 2015 at 1:34 am #

    I disagree that a teenager wouldn’t refer to their parents by their first names. A small child certainly wouldn’t, but I believe that it would be acceptable for a teenager to refer to their parents that way. Not to consistently do so of course, but as an introduction to the reader. Most teenagers know their parents’ names, so it wouldn’t be uncharacteristic to do so.

    • cslakin May 20, 2015 at 6:07 am #

      Hi Rebecca, it may be true that some (very few) children will address their parents by name, but to most people, it is unnatural and feels out of POV. I’ve critiqued manuscripts that have children doing this and I point this out as a problem. Unless you set up right away in your story why a child would do such a thing and make it believable, most readers are going to find fault with it. I will disagree with you on this because it really is not the norm. Most adult children don’t even call their parents by their first names, and to many it is a very strong sign of rebellion and disrespect. Again, if there is a good reason for the child to do this (culture, rebellion, disrespect), sure, but make it clear from the first instance that this is not only deliberate but appropriate for the character and story. Personally, in my life, I have never met even one individual (out of thousands?) who has ever called their parents by their first names. So as a reader, I would disbelieve it.

      • Rebecca May 20, 2015 at 6:53 am #

        But what if they only used the names as an introduction? “This is my dad, Eric, and my mum, Jennifer.”
        I’m not saying that their first names would be used by the child constantly, but for example if the child was introducing their parents to a friend’s parents, they might introduce their parents by name. The same could be said for introducing the parents in a story, if only to avoid the confusion that could arise later if the parents refer to each other by name, especially if there are other adult characters in the scene.

    • Christy Distler May 20, 2015 at 12:12 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Rebecca.

      Susanne already covered the “editor’s” response, so I won’t repeat what she’s already said. For me, seeing children use first names for parents is jarring, both in books and in real life (I have a friend who calls both of her parents by their first names, and it’s still jarring for me when she does it). Can writers do it? Sure. It’s their book. But they’ll want to keep in mind that readers often don’t like being jarred, unless it’s by a plot twist or something that really enhances the story. So it’s really a preference, but one that should be made carefully—like a lot of things in writing fiction. 🙂

  2. Sheryl Dunn May 20, 2015 at 4:26 am #

    I see the “little did they know” a whole lot in the manuscripts of novice writers and I want to scream every time. I’ve even seen it in one of Ken Follett’s books (can’t remember which one.)

    The very first time I sat down to write fiction, and then sat back to read what I’d written, I could feel that something wasn’t right but I didn’t have labels for the (many!)problems. I resolved to learn the craft in that moment (of course, you don’t learn the craft ‘in that moment’, you study the craft forever.)

    Later, I learned that I had used the fatal “little did they know”, thinking it would increase tension and make the reader want to read on. Not!

    My big beef with many novice writers is that they expect to be able to write great stories without studying the craft.

    I’d love it if they’d sit down at the piano (assuming they’ve never played), and try to play even Lara’s Theme (simple melody). Then I’d record their efforts and let them listen to the result. Do you think they’d get it then?

    Personally, I am so thankful for blogs like this one. I now have places I can send writers so that I don’t have to explain the same things over and over and over.

    Not that I don’t enjoy helping other writers–I do. But I’ve stopped helping writers who refuse to study the craft.

    (You can probably tell from the tone of this comment that I have recently encountered some writers who seem to think that good storytelling and good writing are automatic!)

    • cslakin May 20, 2015 at 6:02 am #

      Thanks for your comment! POV is really one of the trickiest things for writers to “get” when writing scenes. One instructor handed out empty paper towel rolls to his class and told him to look through it. He then said that whatever you can see through that hole was POV and nothings else. Well, that’s narrow but to the point. I liken POV to a camera lens, and our eyes are cameras. Many of the POV problems come with falling out of character and into author narrative. I think, though, once writers have these violations pointed out in their writing, they find it easier to spot them. It can take time to learn how.

    • Christy Distler May 20, 2015 at 12:17 pm #

      Thanks for stopping by, Sheryl!

      You’re so right about learning the craft. It’s not something that can be done overnight. It often takes years for writers to learn the intricacies of fiction, and then the “rules” sometimes change. Like anything, it takes practice.

      I’m glad you’ve found this site helpful!

  3. yeni May 20, 2015 at 8:39 am #

    Is it okay to switch POV based on scene, or does there need to be a specific rhythm? For example, I’ve noticed some books change POV in each chapter, or some change based on scene but ping pong back and forth–one scene him, one scene her.

    Is it acceptable to have, for example, one scene from her POV, the next from his, and the following from his again, and back to her, etc etc ??

    • cslakin May 20, 2015 at 3:29 pm #

      Hi Yeni, there are many ways you can do this, but the story/plot itself is the determiner. For example, a lot of romance novels have two POVs–the hero’s and the heroine’s, and they basically alternate. There may be times when you might have 2-3 scenes with just the heroine, and then only one with the hero, but again, the storyline determines this.

      Some authors have a character/POV per chapter, such as with George Martin’s books (The Game of Thrones, etc.). So part of it is genre, another part style or author taste, and another what best serves the story.

  4. P.D. Workman May 20, 2015 at 1:28 pm #

    I generally write in a third person limited point of view, so pretty much the same rules apply as in your first person narration. The tricky sentences that I find slipping into my work every now and then are ‘you’ sentences.

    Something along the lines of:

    Albert put on his medic alert bracelet as soon as he stepped out of the shower. He always did. You never know when you might slip on a banana peel and crack your head open on the pavement, and the paramedics won’t know that giving you penicillin could kill you.

    That third sentence jars you out of a close third-person POV to a first/second person narration.

    • Christy Distler May 21, 2015 at 5:59 am #

      Hi P.D.,

      These are tricky sentences. Not only the person changes (third to second), but the tense changes as well (past to present). Both can jar readers. Perhaps change the wording just a bit? For example:

      Albert put on his MedicAlert bracelet as soon as he stepped out of the shower. He always did. After all, if he slipped on a banana peel and cracked his head open on the pavement, how would the paramedics know that giving him Penicillin would kill him?

  5. Rebecca Vance May 20, 2015 at 5:21 pm #

    This is a great post for newbies. I’ve been working on my first novel for over two years, while I study the craft as well. I also review books on my blog of debut authors with up to 3 published novels. I have read many books that have this authorial intrusion, and it is jarring. Another problem with newbies that I’ve noticed, myself included, is changing tense. I have one short story published in an anthology of writers from a group where I’m a member. There were a few volunteer editors. The editor of my story said that I kept going from present to past tense and advised me to choose one and stick with it. So, silly me, I chose present tense. I had never tried it before. It was a very short story, (thankfully!) and I was amazed at how tough it was to stay in present tense. Do you see a lot of this from newbies? I do in some of the indie books I review, and I see some of them publishing book after book while I’ve been studying and feel like quite a slacker. I have noticed though, as Sheryl has, that it is apparent to distinguish those that have studied the craft and those that haven’t. I don’t expect to be perfect, but I don’t want to be totally embarrassed either, when I hit the publish button. 🙂

    • cslakin May 20, 2015 at 8:32 pm #

      Hi Rebecca, I do see a lot of tense shifting, and it just comes across to me as a lack of careful attention to the writing. First person is hard. My first novel I wrote in first person present tense, and it was very difficult to me. I had this tendency to want to shift to past tense a lot. So the second novel I wrote in first person I stuck to past tense (easier). The other fifteen novels I’ve written are in shifting third person, and I find it is the best and most comfortable way for me to tell the stories I want to write.

      Having an editor/writing coach or critique partners/beta readers really helps to catch these kinds of problems.

  6. Alejandro De La Garza May 20, 2015 at 5:27 pm #

    I finished my first novel a few months ago and I’m still trying to find a publisher. Although I paid a professional editor to review it, I’m leaning towards self-publication. My story contains a number of characters, each with their own observations. While there’s no “omniscient point of view,” I don’t relay the story strictly from the primary figure’s (the protagonist’s) side. This was a conscious effort; one that caught my editor off-guard. We all know that different people can see or experience the same thing, and still develop their own opinions.

    Personally, I detest the thought of one person in a group trying to dominate the discussion with their own analysis of a particular situation or subject. I bestow a certain level of respect on everyone who wants to engage in productive dialogue, which includes appreciating the opinions of other people. This may be confusing in a fictional tale, but it’s how I see reality.

    Does this make sense?

    • Sheryl Dunn May 20, 2015 at 5:49 pm #

      If I may butt in here, it makes sense but it doesn’t necessarily make good fiction, especially since this is your first novel.

      One of my writing mentors told me, “If two people say you have a cold, lie down,” so if more than one editor or reader says that your use of AO threw them, it’s probably a very good idea to re-think your decision.

      Unless, of course, you’re that one-in-a-million writer who doesn’t need a lot of miles of writing to create a work of genius, or to create even a publishable work.

      Novels with the AO POV are still being published. I think C.M. Mayo had one published a few years ago. I’ve always felt that AO does give a writer a lot of scope…if done well. I don’t feel that I’ve internalized enough of the craft to attempt it, and since I prefer a very deep POV, I likely never will.

      As for “seeing into the minds” of other characters in a scene without using AO? It’s actually not as difficult as you might think. You can do a lot with body language and dialogue; you can even have the reader know more about the thoughts of others in the scene than the POV character.

      What I’m trying to say is that you could chose a different POV and still accomplish your objectives.

      • Sheryl Dunn May 20, 2015 at 5:53 pm #

        Oops! Just noticed that you said you weren’t using AO.

        Maybe you’re switching POVs mid-scene (head-hopping)? Or maybe you’re giving the same scene twice with one scene from one character’s POV and then the next scene is a re-write, giving a second character’s POV? A sort of “he said, she said” thing?

        The danger in the latter is that the second scene doesn’t move the story forward, and that may mean that readers will stop reading.

        Just my thoughts.

        • Alejandro De La Garza May 20, 2015 at 6:25 pm #

          Sheryl, I guess you’d have to read the story. I’m fully aware that some readers may get confused and subsequently put the book down (or turn off their Kindles). The novel is pretty much character-driven. They’re all reacting to a series of curious events, but their viewpoints generally differ from one another. I grant most of these individuals their own chapter, or at least large blocks of text. I’m also keenly aware of the ‘show-don’t-tell’ mantra in fiction writing. Some of my dialogue is actually a character thinking or talking to themselves; which is indeed, “head-hopping.”

          Unless I’m writing a short story, I don’t always like to have things neatly boxed up and gift-wrapped, before I hand it over to the reader. Life doesn’t work that way, and neither should any of my stories. I want to offer readers more of a treasure chest of ideas and concepts, where they can reach in and grab what they think is the best element.

          Thanks for your input, Sheryl.

    • cslakin May 20, 2015 at 8:28 pm #

      Alejandro, I’m not exactly sure what you are saying, but if you are telling a story about each character and you’re not in POV, then it may come across as author intrusion. This is a huge problem I see in the novels I edit and critique. If a writer doesn’t stay in a character’s POV and steps back to tell about the character–her past, her intentions, insights about what she is doing–it is similar to a playwright stepping on stage in the middle of a performance and stopping the present action to stop to talk to the audience. It is jarring and disruptive at times, and at others it is boring, drags down the pace, and distances the reader, keeping him from getting engaged in the characters and their stories. I highly stress writing scenes in POV for these reasons. A successful omniscient POV will avoid all these pitfalls and will dive into each character’s POV to show them experiencing the events that take place. All in all, it’s about showing instead of telling, regardless of POV choice.

  7. Tinthia Clemant October 20, 2017 at 5:57 pm #

    I noticed many authors when writing in deep point of view will insert the point of view character’s name in the paragraph. For example Mary walked into the room. Was that smoke she smelled? Who would be smoking in this room.? Weird. The kids don’t smoke and Mark was still at work. Mary began to walk around the room looking for the source of the odor. Not the best example but I think you can read what I’m getting at. When a character is in deep point of view the character would never refer to themselves by their first name.

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