One of the issues I come across often both in my beta reads and my own first drafts is violation of limited POV.
Most contemporary books are written in limited POV. This means we really get into the head of the main character and experience the world through their eyes. The narrative voice is the MC’s voice, and reflects their perception and frame of the world. For first person, this is more intuitive for us as writers. We’re really putting ourselves in the shoes of our character with the use of “I.” In third person, it’s less so, which is why these three POV errors pop up regularly.
1. The character knows things they shouldn’t.
Key Question: What does my character know and when did they know it?
This refers to events and information about the world and other characters, including the MC’s personal knowledge gaps. My main character doesn’t know about that fight her best friend had with her husband, unless the best friend tells her. If she’s lived in a major city her whole life, she probably doesn’t know what goats eat or whether crops are looking sickly due to drought.
- Your character references something that happened when they weren’t around
- Your character knows what another character is thinking or feeling
- Your character knows something outside of their expertise or experience
2. The Narrator knows things they shouldn’t.
Key Question: Would the main character in the current POV know this?
- Remember the narrative voice IS the MC’s voice. Your narration shouldn’t give us the internal musings of another character because the MC wouldn’t be privy to this information.
- The narration describes action taking place while the character is asleep, not present, or their back is turned
- The narration describes the internal thoughts, feelings, perspective, or physical sensory information of a character other than your MC.
- The narration references information outside the MC’s expertise or experience.
3. Loss of Deep POV
Key Question: How would the main character feel and react right now?
Deep POV is a post all of its own, but it’s primarily about being deep in the character’s head for an immersive story experience. The most frequent issues are with distancing language like “felt,” “heard,” and “saw.” The narration is the main character’s voice, and so everything described should be the character’s experience. We don’t need to know the character “felt” something; we just need to describe the sensation and we assign it to the MC.
The other big deep POV violation is when we only see their external behavior (dialogue and some physical movements) and not their internal thoughts, feelings, and reactions to events. I see this most often when the author is trying to hold back a twist from the reader that the character is aware of. I also see it when a writer is uncomfortable being in their MC’s head (usually during either a sex scene or emotional trauma).
- We’re told the main character is seeing and feeling things instead of showing us the experience.
- We see the main character’s physical movements and dialogue but no internal thoughts or feelings
- The main character fails to react to events in a scene, either internally or externally.
There’s no way around the need to have a strong sense of who your character is and how they would think, feel, and react in certain situations. If your character isn’t a real person you can get into, consider some of the character interviews or questionnaires out there as a starting point to round them out with nuance. Write a few shorts from their POV, capturing some earlier major event in their life to get a feel for them as a person. (These make great bonus material for your website once the book is published).
Read up on deep POV and eliminate telling/distancing words like “felt,” “saw,” “heard,” and “thought” (in all their tenses.) If you describe a sound, we assume your main character is hearing it; we don’t need to be told that they are. If your main character can’t hear it, it shouldn’t be in there at all because it’s a POV violation.
If you really need something in the story, there are many ways around it, but we need to SEE the explanation as a reader and have it make sense to us. This can be “signposting” (as in, “this is where we are and where we’re going next”) or “lampshading” (as in, “I know this is unbelievable so I’m specifically calling it out as such.”). For example: Your character spent their whole life in a major city BUT had a best friend/aunt/mother into urban farming collectives and therefore knows all too well what a goat eats and how tall corn should be in July. Your main character’s oblivious but their friend can foreshadow someone in the house by asking, “Did you hear that? It sounded like a door closing.” Your MC could actually be psychic, although that comes with its own host of plotting issues.
If you find yourself hopping into another character’s head and really wanting to focus on that other character’s thoughts and reactions, consider whether you’ve chosen the right main character. Sometimes alternating POV every chapter becomes too restrictive a pattern and it’s okay to shake it up. Tell the story from the POV that has the highest stakes or strongest internal response to events in that scene. The greater impact of the writing will more than compensate for disrupting the pattern. You could also move the scene to a chapter with that character’s POV.
As with most writing issues, there’s no secret formula and no one right way to do it. The best solution will be one that fits your style and vision for the story.