Practical Advice for Point of View Problems

July 25, 2019 | 9 min read

Self-publishing through channels such as Amazon KDP means you can quickly and easily get your novels into the hands of your readers. It takes away that soul-destroying process of collecting rejection letters from publishing houses with limited publishing budgets. It’s great news if you’re an author — and it doesn’t cost anything, either.

However, there is a downside. Going down the self-publishing route means that you don’t get the professional editing that traditional publishing entails — which means you either have to pay for a copy editor or edit yourself. Editing your own work is tough — and maybe that explains why there are so many self-published books that have lots of unfortunate errors.

One of the more difficult problems to spot in your own writing is problems with your point of view — so in this article, I’m going to take you on a whistlestop tour through three of the most common point of view problems, how to recognize them — and, most importantly, how to fix them.

A Quick Refresher on Point of View

point of view

If you’re an author (or an aspiring author) then you probably already understand what point of view is, but in here’s a brief refresher. Essentially, point of view boils down to asking yourself, as you’re writing “which character’s eyes am I looking through?”. You can use:

  • the first-person point of view - told in the first person, with one (or more) main character(s) narrating the story — e.g. “I knew that Damien was trouble the first time I met him.”
  • the third-person point of view - told in the third person (he, she, they), with a viewpoint character narrating the story — e.g. “Thomas paused in the doorway, anxiously watching Felicity flirting with Damien. There was something off about Damien, Thomas could sense it.”
  • omniscient point of view - the story is told by an omniscient narrator (someone who sees everything) — e.g. “Felicity was oblivious to Thomas’ discomfort as she twined her arms around Damien’s neck.”
  • multiple points of view — usually in the third person, but sometimes in the first person, you can have multiple viewpoint characters in your story — but the more you have, the more complex your story becomes.

3 Key Point of View Problems — And How to Spot Them

There are different types of point of view problems that are commonly found in published novels. The first step in being able to remove these kinds of issues from your fiction is first knowing what they are.

1.   Inconsistent Viewpoints

This is, by far, the most common — and most important -- point of view problem that I come across as a writing coach. It doesn’t just affect new writers — as some ‘experts’ claim, but can affect any writer at any stage in their career. In fact, point of view problems can become habitual for experienced writers — even those who have had mainstream publishing success. For that reason, I’ll be spending more time on this problem than the other two common problems!

An inconsistent viewpoint can make your novel seem sloppy and badly written — no matter how masterful your use of language. When you’re writing, viewpoint inconsistencies can easily slip in — especially when you get ‘carried away’ when you’re writing.

There are actually quite a few ways that point of view inconsistencies can slip into your stories — more than just things like slipping between past and present tense. We’re going to look in-depth at some of the most common of these, and how to recognize them when you’re editing your novel.

Once we’ve chosen a point of view — no matter which we choose — we need to stick to it. The only exception is when we’re using an omniscient point of view, but this type of point of view has fallen out of favor recently.

Most viewpoints are known as limited viewpoints — and this means that we can only include the things that the viewpoint character can see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel and think. When you are writing from one character’s viewpoint, that character can’t know what another character is thinking, for example.

Before we dig into the specific types of inconsistencies, here’s an example of how an inconsistent POV can look in a story. When we’ve gone through the types of inconsistencies, come back to this and see how many you can spot!

Christy walked briskly along the sidewalk, oblivious to the fact that the creepy guy who had stolen her purse was stalking her. A sudden sound startled her, and she glanced back over her shoulder. She didn’t see the toecap of the man’s left boot poking out of the doorway twenty paces behind her. She shrugged and carried on walking. Her stalker smirked.Stupid kid, he thought, slipping out of the doorway and continuing to follow her.

Christy reached the door to her apartment block and went inside, opting to take the stairs up to her third-floor apartment. Michael had told her not to go home until the locks were changed tomorrow, but she couldn’t go into work in the same outfit two days running. It would all be fine. She was sure that whoever found her purse would hand it in to the police.

She opened her apartment door and stepped inside, switching on the lights as she entered. The man following her smiled as he watched the door close behind her.Tonight will be fun, he thought, slipping the key he’d taken from her purse into the lock on the door.

a.  Attributing emotions to non-viewpoint characters

Your viewpoint character cannot know what other characters are feeling unless the other character tells them. This means that you can’t, as the author, tell the reader what a non-viewpoint character feels. This error happens more often than you’d realize — and you most likely would miss it in your own writing if you weren’t specifically looking for it.

For example, if you were writing in the third person, from Alex’s viewpoint, and another character (let’s call him) Bob was feeling angry, you might write that “Bob slammed the door in anger”.

That’s a POV inconsistency since although Alex might guess that Bob is angry, he can’t actually know that Bob is angry, therefore can’t be certain that the door was slammed the door in anger — the wind might have caught the door and caused it to slam as Bob was closing it, for example.

When you’re editing your novel, watch out for these kinds of phrases — and any other situations where non-viewpoint characters emotions are written about.

b.  Attributing motivation to non-viewpoint characters

When you’re writing about a non-viewpoint character, it’s really easy to slip into the trap of telling the reader why the character did something. For example, if Ben isn’t a viewpoint character (but Aaron isthe viewpoint character), writing: “Ben spotted Aaron in the crowd and hurried to meet him,” would be a POV inconsistency.

With these kinds of errors, spotting them isn’t easy, unfortunately — especially when you’re editing your own work. With practice, however, you can become more attuned to recognizing them.

c.  Telling the reader what a non-viewpoint character thought or saw

Your viewpoint character can’t possibly know what another character is thinking or know if a non-viewpoint character saw something that the viewpoint character isn’t able to see. If the viewpoint character can’t see it or know it, then your reader can’t know it either. If you want your reader to have that kind of bird’s eye knowledge, then you need to write from an omniscient point of view.

For example, if Jennifer is your viewpoint character and Stefan is a non-viewpoint character, then the following passage would be a viewpoint inconsistency:

“Are you serious?” Jennifer asked.

Stefan swallowed.I’ve gone too far, he thought, absently rubbing his fingers over the fidget spinner in his pocket.

When you’re editing your novel, you can try using your word processor’s ‘find’ function to search for words like:

  • thought
  • noticed
  • realized
  • wondered
  • believed
  • remembered
  • knew
  • reviewed
  • recalled
  • considered

If you want to improve the quality of your fiction, don’t just remove these words for non-viewpoint characters. Since they’re words associated with telling rather than showing, your novel will be better if you show instead of tell (as much as possible).

d.  Including items that the viewpoint character doesn’t notice or can’t see

This is very similar to the point above about non-viewpoint characters thoughts but takes on a slightly different form. If your character can’t see it, then you can’t write about it — that’s the rule you need to think about when you’re editing your work.

For example (the viewpoint character is Zeke):

Zeke slid quietly back into his seat, not noticing that Mrs. Magnusson had been watching him the whole time.

or:

The bus was crowded, but Zeke managed to find an unoccupied seat. He slipped his headphones on. Up ahead, the traffic was at a standstill due to a multi-vehicle accident.

It’s easy for these kinds of inconsistencies to go unnoticed, and it takes a trained eye to spot them. However, you could use your word processor’s find function to look for phrases like ‘didn’t notice’ and words like ‘unknowingly’, ‘not realizing’, ‘unconsciously’ and so on.

e.  Telling the reader what the viewpoint character looks like

Describing what your viewpoint character looks like is a tough one. If you have your character, for example, thinking about their appearance, then this isn’t a POV inconsistency. A POV inconsistency in this area comes about when you’re describing your character as someone else sees them — i.e. from the outside — which your viewpoint character can’t see.

This often happens in describing facial expressions, for example:

A grimace crossed Bryan’s face

Bryan’s face was a mask of fury

A smirk crossed Bryan’s face.

Fortunately, these kinds of errors are quite easy to spot — and easy to remedy. It’s easy to say instead:

Bryan grimaced

Bryan scowled

Bryan smirked

When we grimace, scowl or smirk, we know about it, because it’s an action that we’re performing — we don’t have to see it from the outside to know we’re doing it, therefore this way avoids inconsistency in POV.

2.Too Many Viewpoints

Getting the balance right with your viewpoints can be a challenge sometimes. If you have more than one viewpoint character, you have to decide whether they will have equal viewpoint time or whether one character will get more than the others. When you have multiple viewpoints, however, problems can occur — and your novel can become messy and difficult for your readers to follow. I once read a novel that had so many viewpoints — and so many viewpoint changes — that I actually started to feel seasick!

The general advice I give to my students is that if you must have multiple viewpoints, keep them to as small a number as possible. Two or three viewpoints is much better — and easier to manage — than four, five or six. When you’re editing your novel, if you find that you’re struggling to keep track of who the current viewpoint character is, then this is a sign that you’re using too many viewpoints (or mishandling the distribution). It’s better to recognize this before you get to the editing stage, however, if you want to save yourself a lot of rewriting.

Signs that you have too many viewpoints can include:

  • A complicated narrative that seems too ‘choppy’ (moves around too much)
  • You’ve already written 50,000 words and you’re only a third of the way through your plotline
  • You keep forgetting which viewpoint character you’re writing this scene from
  • Your story feels chaotic and confusing — even to you

3. Badly Chosen Viewpoints

You should also be careful with the characters you choose to be viewpoint characters. This is a problem that can be easily sorted before it becomes a problem if you spend time working out which characters are going to be present for the most pivotal moments in your story — and which ones (maximum of two or three) are going to play the most important roles.

If you’re more of a seat-of-the-pants kind of writer, and planning doesn’t work for you, then you may find yourself falling victim to a badly chosen viewpoint — and face a large rewriting project as a result.

If, for example, you decide that your viewpoint characters are Hayden, Mitch, and Ellis, but Ellis isn’t actually present for your pivotal scene and is actually off on an adventure of his own, then you’re likely to end up with a story within a story that makes for a messy and incoherent overall plotline. Having a badly chosen viewpoint character can lead to problems in structure, focus, cohesion and more.

Fixing Point of View Problems

highlighter

If you’ve already written your novel and are in the editing stage, then I’m afraid there’s no quick fix for your point of view problems. Once you spot them, you will have to edit the passages, chapters, or, even, edit out entire viewpoints, until you’ve eradicated the issues.

If you’re still in the planning stage or have recently started writing, then you’re in a much better position to stamp out point of view problems in your writing. If you have previous examples of your writing, now is a good time to go over them and see if you can identify any patterns in your point of view problems. POV problems can quickly become habitual for writers — but once you’re aware of them, you can begin to work on eradicating them from your writing.

Print out a copy of your story, find a set of highlighters, and go through your story, highlighting inconsistencies in one color (or, if you’re brave, try highlighting the different types of inconsistencies in different colors), evidence of too many viewpoints in another color, and badly chosen viewpoints in another color.

Once you can recognize the POV problems that occur most frequently in your writing, you can practice rewriting scenes or passages without the POV problems — until writing that’s free of POV problems becomes habitual.

Recommended articles

More recommended articles for you

May 24, 2024 8 min read

There’s an age-old debate about the superior version of a story: Is it the book or the movie? Most readers and far too many writers will default to the idea that “the book was better.”

But was it? Was it really?

May 20, 2024 9 min read


Talking to Alex Kazemi doesn’t feel like talking to the guy who wrote 2023’s “most dangerous book of the year,” a book Ellen Hopkins calls “raucous, raunchy, and sure to offend.” And it certainly doesn’t feel like talking to Bret Easton Ellis’s “favorite millennial provocateur.”

It feels like talking to a friend I haven’t caught up with in a while. And my friends just aren’t that cool.


We’re chatting because Kazemi lives a ruthlessly offline lifestyle, a philosophy at the core of Freewrite and which Kazemi sees as necessary to being the best artist he can be. Having garnered a book deal at the tender age of 18, he knows a thing or two about life as an artist.

Kazemi released his first book, Pop Magick, an occult book about how to manifest, in 2020. “Madonna helped me launch that,” he says, casually mentioning one of the biggest pop stars of the twentieth century. “So, yeah, that was insane.”

But it wasn’t until the release of his first novel, New Millennium Boyz, nearly a decade in the making, that things got truly wild.

Kazemi’s unflinching look at Y2K culture and teenage boyhood reads like a horrifying screenplay — or the transcript of a violent AIM conversation between bored, lonely teenagers. Even before publication, the book faced criticism calling it dangerous, prompting the publisher to splash a content warning across the front matter, to Kazemi's extreme annoyance. Conservative American moms later flagged it for book bans, leaving the Canadian author baffled.

Was an honest look at the 90s and early ’aughts really worth all that uproar?

We sat down with Kazemi to discuss the driving force behind his portrayal of this often-glamorized time period, why he felt compelled to present this reality to modern audiences, and how in the world he lives an offline lifestyle in the year 2024.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

 Mirror selfies without a smartphone

ANNIE COSBY: First things first. Are you a millennial?

ALEX KAZEMI: Yes. I was born in 1994, which means I’m on the cusp. I do not identify with any Zoomer qualities or tendencies at all.

COSBY: In general cultural discourse, millennials tend to get a bad rap – very infantilizing, even though some of us are 40. What's your take?

KAZEMI: I think it's pretty insane because we were dealt a really bad card, with the recession, jobs being lost, the digital age booming… Many of us still have memories of going to Blockbuster and, you know, AOL chat rooms and the early web. But then we watched everything go chronically online and digital through the 2010s. We watched technology and the information age replace a lot of skillsets. So we became a weird bunch, for sure.


COSBY: I do find it interesting that people glamorize that period specifically because it was the beginning of everything being online — so everybody's mistakes and drunken pictures are out there.

KAZEMI: Right? And we did it willingly.

COSBY: Oh God, the things I said to strange men in chat rooms.

KAZEMI: Me as well. And it’s so, so dark, because the internet has always been and will always be, even as we're adults and growing older, a mirror of our subconscious vomit. The frequencies we vibrated to when we were coming of age were more about exploration, and that's why there was so much stranger danger. There were so many scary scenarios that kids could get themselves into with the early web because of how unregulated it was, as well.

COSBY: Would you say New Millennium Boyz is a defense of the way we Millennials are? Or is it a commentary on how misremembered that era is?

KAZEMI: It's definitely a commentary. And it's supposed to be historical fiction, educating younger folks and also older generations about how, you know, this beautiful picture that you see of Rachael Leigh Cook from She's All That on TikTok? There was actually a lot of darkness and chaos going around, especially when it comes to very normalized racism, misogyny, and homophobia.

 

 

I find it very ironic that this new generation that is so fixated on social justice and evolution and freedom would fetishize the aesthetics of an era of true debauchery and chaos and cruelty — like really — which was mirrored in the art in that period. Look at 2000s teen movies! I just wanted to write a satire of that extreme teen genre, like Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen, Larry Clark's Bully, Spring Breakers...

My second motivation was to really look at boy culture in the post-Columbine era and how this was very much a prescient, predictive time of where we would end up with the alt-right and 4chan and “incels,” and how it's all connected.

And then of course exploring the romanticized aspect of Y2K — going to the mall, people wearing Marilyn Manson shirts, and the aesthetic obsession with it. I wanted to create the book I wanted to see in the world that I didn't feel existed yet.

COSBY: I’ve heard you talk about the misogyny of the “teen girls are bitches” trope. It's like, have you met boys? Have you been a teen boy talking to other teen boys?

KAZEMI: Oh, they're the biggest bitches. They're so cruel. You see the “mean girls” trope in tons of movies, like Jawbreaker, but it’s so strange how we don't ever look at the cruelty teenage boys face. And not just the cruelty but also the misguidedness and the culture that feeds that.

Especially in the 90s and 2000s, boys were so encouraged to be testosterone-driven and hyper-masculine. Woodstock 99 was such a great example of the chaos of too much of something – and it’s being talked about now because of the documentary.

COSBY: New Millennium Boyz really explores this violence inherent to 90s culture for boys, and because of that, it got a content warning, right?

KAZEMI: Yes. During the final cuts of the book, when we were in edits and copy edits, I got the call from my publisher that “So-and-So is not going to stock it without a content warning because they're really worried about how teenagers are going to react to the work and if they're going to reenact the behavior.”

And I was like, this is a cultural critique. It's not anything to be glamorized. I think anyone who reads it would understand that.

COSBY: Do you think we as humans always look back on past time periods with rose-colored glasses, or is there something special about Y2K?

KAZEMI: There's something really freaky about what we're doing with the 90s and 2000s. I don't think we've ever before been in a place, as humans, where corporations like Meta and TikTok can just algorithmically feed into us all the time.

A teenager in the 90s could fetishize the 70s or the 60s, but they could close the book when it was done or finish the movie and turn off the TV. But with Gen Z, and every generation now, we're just inundated every day with memes, photos, videos, and other people’s thoughts.

And I guess this 90s nostalgia is partly because it represents familiarity for people of a certain age, but even for the people who didn't live during that time, it seems to represent a kind of order, a sense of quietness — “Oh, 90210 is on at 9 p.m. and that's all there is.” No choices to make. There weren’t one billion options like kids today have.

COSBY: So you think people are viewing that period as a time of simplicity and unplugging, which we’re all kind of yearning for now?

KAZEMI: Yeah, and you certainly could unplug then, but you can unplug today, too — we're just brainwashed into thinking that we have no choice, that we have no free will. But it's totally not true. You could simulate Y2K if you wanted to! You just have to set a lot of boundaries.

COSBY: Like writing on a Freewrite.

KAZEMI: Yes! That’s why I write offline. Over the years, I’ve had different cool ways to do that. For a lot of my teenage years, I wrote in Apple Notes. Then, I ordered a BlackBerry off eBay and used it as a word processor for a while. I have a dead AlphaSmart here — rest in peace.

I feel like what's so crazy about Freewrite is a lot of people don't know that these products exist, which is a problem.

COSBY: It's also super polarizing. Without even trying it, some people are like, “What is this hipster thing?” Meanwhile, we get so many messages from new users saying, “What is this magic? I'm actually writing for the first time in years!” It's really interesting to see people's reactions. Tech is such a weirdly touchy subject.

KAZEMI: And a Freewrite is way better than a typewriter. I'm not fucking doing the ribbon, there's no time for that.

COSBY: Some people do though, right? Aren’t you friends with Matty Healy?

KAZEMI: Yes, yes. I told him about Freewrite. I love his songwriting. I love the 1975's lyrics. I love him as a literary mind.

COSBY: Alex. [heavy pause] Is he the one being referenced in the song?

KAZEMI: [rolls eyes] Honestly, I'm not really interested in all the gossip. I don't think great artists should be reduced to that.

COSBY: OK, that's fair. I think they're both great storytellers, too. And it would be so hard to live a creative life under that kind of microscope. On that note, your offline approach to life goes beyond writing, right? How does that work?

KAZEMI: Well, it definitely includes a lot of conscious boundaries that annoy a lot of people.

I’ve had a flip phone for a few years now, and I have a landline. When it comes to the internet and iMessage and emails, I try to do regulated “office hours” of screen time.

It's a very privileged position to be in, because a lot of people have to be on call all the time for work. But being disconnected definitely gives me more time for my mind to be free and creative and to write more.

COSBY: And this annoys people?

KAZEMI: Yeah, it drives everyone insane. It's a huge boundary I put in my life. People have to go through loopholes to contact me. But it's the only way that I can have a life as an artist and as a writer.

All of this technology can be a tool. There's nothing inherently bad with the tools that exist on the Internet. It's just the compulsivity and the addictive mentality we have with it that creates this chaos for us as writers and artists.

COSBY: You've mentioned being on Tumblr before, back in the day — are you on social media now?

KAZEMI: No, I'm not. Sometimes I have to look at it on friends' phones to get a person's email or something like that, but no, I don't have social media. It's so scary, the pressure of having to perform or turn my most personally valuable things into currency — to monetize it. It just feels weird. I'm not into it. I'm not into it.

And when you're online so much, you're like, “I don't have to be doing this. Why am I doing this?” That's where that punishing feeling of addiction comes in. A lot of us, when we are in those spirals, we don't even really even want to be there. There isn't a sense of agency or control.

It's a loss of control.

And I think that submission of when you are looking at other people's work, what they’re doing, and you're scrolling, scrolling, it just creates a huge sense of inadequacy and darkness.

COSBY: It's interesting to me because time goes so much faster when I’m scrolling — and I feel the same way when I get really into something I'm writing.

KAZEMI: Like a flow state.

COSBY: Exactly! It’s complete absorption. But scrolling doesn’t make me feel good after, the way creating does.

KAZEMI: It’s like a black market, counterfeit flow state. A heroin flow state.


So I guess the question is: How can we induce positive, offline flow states?

COSBY: Isn't that the question. How do you do it?

KAZEMI: I find that just setting boundaries is so important. You have free will over your boundaries. This idea that we have no sense of agency and have to give all of our energy and life force to these corporations zapping us is just so crazy and unfair.

But when you bring up these things to certain people, they can't even fathom living without their online habits.

COSBY: Yeah, it has to be a conscious choice.

KAZEMI: You have to ask yourself:

"OK, am I going to just sublimate myself to be a consumer of everyone else's content? Or am I going to be a creator and produce?”

COSBY: Most of us know which one we want to be.

KAZEMI: You have to know which one you want to be.

COSBY: Any last words for the creators out there?

KAZEMI: For creators and artists and writers who are overwhelmed by information overload and the prospect of putting your work out there, just know there is an audience for your work. Just stay focused and don't be discouraged. You’ll find your place in the weird world.

--

Annie Cosby is the Marketing Manager at Freewrite, a former fiction editor, and the author of seven books — and counting. Her work deals with Celtic mythology and has twice won the YA Indie Author Project in Missouri. See what she's writing on Freewrite.

May 17, 2024 6 min read
It’s no secret that Taylor Swift is one of the biggest players in music right now. (Maybe one of the biggest ever.) As a lyricist, she’s enthralled audiences worldwide, but did you know she’s also woven a subtle tapestry of literary references throughout her discography?

Whether you love her or hate her (we’re talking to you, dads, Brads, and Chads) you’ll be impressed with these hidden literary references in Swift’s songs…