Character point of view and breaking writing rules

One thing I’m trying to be careful of when editing Seven Wonders is to keep clear character points of view. This probably sounds like a very obvious and necessary part of writing, but I only really started consciously thinking about while I was writing Empire State. One early reader did a critique of a couple of chapters of that book, and while he enjoyed them, he found the changing POV so infuriating he almost stopped reading. It was, he said, breaking one of the cardinal rules of writing – don’t change the POV within a scene/sequence without a very clear break. He also said that he’d recently seen it in a novel by Peter F. Hamilton, and while Hamilton was one of his favourite writers ever, he very nearly stopped reading that as well, for the same reason as that chapter of Empire State.

I found this observation interesting – the scene in question in Empire State did (and still does) switch from detective Rad Bradley to his friend and associate, Kane Fortuna. Almost incidentally, it does this because Rad gets progressively more drunk as the scene progresses and we can no longer see his POV clearly, so it switched to Kane.

However, I seem to recall when I were a lad that POVs shifted all over the show – so long as the change was obvious (so you didn’t suddenly get confused about who was saying or thinking or feeling what) and it worked, it worked. But apparently even this is a major no-no that really annoys some people. I’ve been wondering recently if it’s actually a recent development – most of the stuff I used to read seemed to be all omniscient third person (which means POVs don’t matter so much, because the omniscient narrator can see into everybody’s heads all at once), and I know that omniscient third person is out of favour now.

So… fine. Since then, I’ve tried hard to keep POVs on the straight and narrow, and when they change, the switch only ever occurs after a scene/section/chapter break. A recent scene in Seven Wonders springs to mind – two detectives, shooting the breeze in their office over milkshakes and coffee – in which a POV shift occurs. With the experience of Empire State in mind, I changed it on the edit.

But I’m now reading The Five by Robert McCammon, and the POV roves all over the show. And there’s no confusion at all, and none of the POV changes jar or are even noticeable, if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve been thinking about them recently anyway.

So does POV “focus”, for want of a better term, matter? Is it something writers need to really think about? And if they’re thinking about it too much, does that limit the writing process artificially and prevent what the writer really wants to get on the page from, well, getting on the page? Is that scene from Seven Wonders now a lesser piece of writing, constrained by adherence to some arbitrary rule of writing?

Because there is only one rule of writing: what works, works.

Something to think about anyway as I head into another week of edits.

  • Anonymous

    I have to remember to cover POV in my future review of your books 🙂

  • Sonia

    Seems to me that most popular aka genre fiction have multiple POVs. I never noticed it or had a problem with it until I took a couple of writing classes and learned it was frowned upon. I understand why, but admit it is one of those “rules” I don’t much care if a writer breaks.

    I think that how big of a deal this issue is depends greatly on what type of work your writing falls into. .

    I care about the story. Is it exciting, interesting, gripping, funny? Am I going to have a tough time putting it down? Frankly if the POV shifts a bit *shrug* there’s worse things, like typos and being boring.

  • Chuck Wendig

    The way THE FIVE bounces from character to character in the span of a handful of paragraphs was jarring at first — and different from the way McCammon has written in the past. 

    But it works. And it’s really quite rare to see, y’know? I don’t read many books that are so free and loose with the POV.

    — c.

  • Adam Callaway

    I think it matters very much. If I find POV roaming works, it’s because: 1) the characters are incredibly distinct; 2) the characters blur together, serve as talking heads for plot. It’s when characters fall into the middle zone that the POV roam becomes confusing to me.

  • I think that’s an important factor and one of the reason why there are ANY writing rules – it is better just to stick to them unless you really, really know what you’re doing, otherwise you’ll run into trouble.

  • But why is it so jarring for some readers? I’ve never found it jarring, and at no point in The Five was I confused as to who was thinking what. I’ve assumed that this is the reason people don’t like it, because you lose track of which character’s POV you are seeing.

    I have read books where the POV moves and it becomes a total mess, but that was due to very bad writing (ie, changing POV from one paragraph to the next but failing to attribute characters, so the reader has no idea whose POV they are seeing).

  • Chuck Wendig

    Right. Switching POV like that is a move for a writer who knows his stuff. That’s why it works here — McCammon gets the nuance, I feel, and knows how to keep us along. And it suits the trippy tone that goes with the book.

    — c.

  • I’m currently reading ‘The Cardinal’s Blades’ by Pierre Pevel. You can tell when he changes POV – he starts a new chapter…

    Good luck with the edits.