All writers who have studied the craft end up obsessing on point-of-view at one time or another. When critiquing, it is one of the first areas that a writer tends to criticize. That criticism is generally when a writer violates the rules.
The irony, of course is that there are no rules, just guidelines, and those guidelines are often misunderstood, or too rigidly interpreted.
All writer’s start chanting “show, don’t tell” early in their learning. Then, once they leave the warmth of the first person and jump into the third person, they start chanting “don’t switch POV suddenly,” and “the POV is confusing,” and “how could he know that, you’re out of his POV.”
This criticism is fair if it is a beginning writer. Guidelines need to be understood before they can be violated. But, they are guidelines, not rules. They are violated by every published writer all the time. So, how important is the POV? Really, what are the gray areas and how can they be used effectively?
Third person POV is full of gray areas. If you are in limited third person, say George’s POV, and you see this:
George told Sheila the news. She had three options, plead guilty, plead no contest, or plead not guilty. George recommended no contest. Sheila hated ambiguity. She wrestled with the concept. Her conscience just wouldn’t let her implicitly admit guilt, which is what everyone would assume with no contest. Even if the cards were stacked against her, she couldn’t go that route.
“Not guilty,” she said.
Is this a violation of POV? No, not really and those who get their typing fingers in a cramp are over analyzing. If we, as readers, understand that George knows Sheila well, this is easily his interpretation of her thinking. Limited third person does not mean that it doesn’t allow dives into George’s guesses and insight. In fact, if we have a later chapter with Sheila’s POV and show that this interpretation by George is wrong, we then get information that maybe George isn’t such a great judge of character. Could a key word here, or there, be added to make it clear that we are George’s head? Sure, but sometimes that becomes clumsy. It is a gray area. The choice is up to the author who consciously, or unconsciously, may be making a point, or may understand his, or her, audience better than the reviewer.
This should not be viewed so much as a POV shift from one limited third person to another, but from limited third person to limited omniscience.
Obviously, the term limited omniscience is an oxymoron. What I mean by limited omniscience is that when the narrator shifts focus she can divulge information that would be unavailable through limited third person. This is done all the time, it simply doesn’t jar the reader all the time. Often at the beginning of a scene the reader accepts this.
Outside the storm raged. Wind blew down trees. A garbage can rolled down the street. George was oblivious to the tempest as he read the latest Miss Grey bodice ripper, while curled up by the fire.
The POV police would probably argue that this is wrong. If he was oblivious, how could he know a storm was going on, let alone that a garbage can was rolling down the road? The reader will probably accept it as a setup, especially at the beginning of a chapter. We are used to movies, TV, and camera angles, and this feels like the camera outside, moving in and then staying with the character. The reader accepts this.
Notice that a number of times I say “the reader.” Ultimately, what works does depend on your audience. If you are a writer, you are a reader. No good writer can remain relevant without constantly reading. Even the most literary reader will read some commercial fiction and many writers read quite a bit of commercial fiction. The tendency in commercial fiction that sells well today is to be fairly careful with POV and stick to the limited third person very carefully. Switch one chapter at a time. If you switch mid-chapter, do it with a double space or three asterisks. The reason for this is that you generally won’t go wrong this way, but it can lead to very long novels, that sometimes feel awkward. Limited third person is great for plot focused story telling. You are generally not reading it for the language. You also are accepting that it will take some time for the story to unfold because summary language really stands out in a limited third person. It feels like an information dump. Limited third person feels best in scene. Even summary is best done as action, as a summary scene.
George’s summer was a routine of wake up, scrambled eggs, jog for twenty minutes through the park where the squirrels gathered around the old man sitting on bench feeding them stale peanuts from the discount store, followed by a long hot shower and a latte made with frothed milk and instant coffee. The first Monday in August that routine was interrupted.
This summary feels as if it is still a scene. It is this sort of summary scene building that omniscient can do all the time and not feel awkward. The omniscient can give us a richer world, which is why authors, who want to play with words, or world build, rather than focus on the plot, will use omniscient. The Lord of the Rings is a classic instance of this. It is omniscient and while the story is hugely important, the world building is even more important to Tolkien.
What I like to call limited omniscience is the use of omniscience precisely for the world building and the richer context of the world’s characters, but in general to stick with one character and limit the reader’s knowledge and POV during that period to one character.
Yes, I am throwing out a series of qualifiers and seeming wishy-washy, because I am. There are no rules, just guidelines. In general (yeah, I know, repetition of a phrase or word), the biggest critics of POV are writers, not readers. As long as the reader is not confused, or steps out of the moment too much, then you as the author are doing well. Writers make terrible normal readers. We are forever tainted in the way we read. We are never fully in the moment, or rarely, and we intentionally get confused because part of our brain is over analyzing.
What I hope is that more writers will start to carefully drift into the gray areas of POV without getting paranoid about it. Fantasy writers do this with more ease than most writers, although even in fantasy the plot driven writer gets bogged down in trying to stay in limited third person. They will contort their writing by trying to remain true to the character. “I don’t believe that a twelve year old girl would think in those terms.” This sometimes borders on nonsense. The terms one thinks in to describe a scene are the terms of the reader, not the character (remember I am concerned with limited third person, not first person). What is important when criticizing (or determining how to use) language while in a third person POV is the level of penetration. Too often a writer who is a reader will confuse level of penetration with falling out of character. Say an eight year old stumbles through a portal to a version of the middle ages, near a castle.
Todd stared up at the tall castle. The two guards walking along the parapet walk paused and looked down at him.
Wait, the stickler will cry out. Todd is eight. He probably doesn’t know the word parapet walk. “I don’t believe Todd would use the word parapet.”
Well, he didn’t. The narrator did. Parapet is precise and short. There is no reason to write an entire paragraph trying to process in Todd’s language what he sees. He is processing the view as an image, not necessarily in words. Describing what he sees in adult language is not a violation of POV. It is, at worst, a bit of omniscience. It is giving the reader a bit more knowledge than Todd, but only through language. The POV has not been lost and it borders on nonsense to say it has.
Now, if you wrote:
Todd stared up at the castle. I wonder if those guards up on the parapet are scared, he thought.
Now the writer has probably violated the POV character—because we hear his voice saying parapet and we doubt that an eight year old would know that word. The eight year old is NOT the narrator in the limited third person, but there is a narrator in the background with a limited third person. There is a bit of license with a narrator who takes us from one third person to another. The language choice is part omniscience and part level of penetration into the character.
It is for this reason that omniscient can work very well even in popular (aka commercial) fiction. If the omniscient is “limited omniscient” as I characterize it, it feels very close to limited third person, but it can build a rich world and quickly give us insights. Neil Gaiman does this often. In the Graveyard Book we follow characters around one at a time, but we are given insights into characters we meet, without ever jumping into their POV completely. This increases the tension and simultaneously builds a world without having to learn it in the ponderous method of a slow reveal to the character. The main character is an infant that doesn’t speak yet. Just think how ponderous it would be to try and stay “in character” of a two year old.
Bottom line: you are already using elements of omniscience. Don’t be afraid to experiment with it, especially in the gray areas, the limited omniscience.