>Whose Head Is THIS anyway?


A question as been asked in my conference (Sarah’s Diner in baen’s bar at baen.com) about povs. Since I didn’t have a topic in mind for this post – yet – I decided to go with that.
First of all, let me make clear that I am quite possibly the worst with “standard terms” for anything, partly because I learned different terms (for grammar, pov, etc) in different countries and have got thoroughly confused. The terms I will use below are the ones I use for my own thoughts on the subject, and I think they’re fairly self-explanatory.

When I started writing, like almost everyone I wrote in first person. Not because the characters were a projection of me – which seems to be the common reason for this among new writers – but because most of the books I read – Simak, Heinlein, Anderson – at the time had a first person narrative. So, of course I wrote first person.

I enjoyed – and still do – writing first person. I do think though that, as I was learning to write it limited me to a great degree. You see, my weakness on starting out was plot. Characters I could do. They were not a problem and they were not me. (I used to joke that I became the character while writing.) But plots were rather more difficult, perhaps because the sense of plot seems to be slightly different for each culture. (Not sure about that, but I think so.) And of course writing first person limited how much of the plot I could show. And since I had no more clue of foreshadowing than a cat has of royalty, the end result was like a series of elephants dropping from the ceiling onto the protagonist.

So first person was a problem in terms of showing what was going on behind the scenes and giving hints at different perspectives.

I also found there was a prejudice against first person, though this seems – fortunately – to be limited and fairly isolated and perhaps declining.

Faced with these issues, I learned to do third person. Third person as is done in science fiction and fantasy or mystery is fixed and limited. You are fixed to one character per chapter (or section of a chapter, and it should be marked when you transition.) You are not omniscient and can’t jump heads at will. In romance, apparently, not only is omniscient expected but it is preferred by many readers. (I’m going on hearsay. I’ve never written romance as such though I’ve come close a few times.)

Because I like the intimate feel of first person, I often find myself “playing” third person like first. For instance instead of “Bill was angry.” I’ll have, “Bill’s stomach tightened. His hands kept trying to clench into fists. *I can’t believe they did that,* he thought. *I just can’t.*
I’ve found that people reading third person done that way – third person close in as I call it – often remember it as first, but it allows you multiple povs. So if your story has various strands you have to follow, then this is a good choice.

If on the other hand the story can be told all from one perspective, I still prefer first person. I figure it gives books the advantage over movies of allowing us to BE someone else. Of course, in both recently completed books *DarkShip Thieves* and *Dipped Stripped and Dead* I got stuck to some extent with unreliable first person narrators. Can it be done and the truth still conveyed? Oh, sure. Just don’t try it in your first book out the gate.

You can have the truth conveyed in dialogue or come crashing in on your character unwonted from external stimuli. No matter how much the character tells herself it’s not raining, she still gets soaked, etc.

Exceptions to POV can be glossed over if either done at the very beginning of the book – I often do a “movie pan” of the scene before I “descend” into the head of a character. That way I make sure the reader has the whole scene before dropping him/her into it. Another commonly excused pov lapse in third person at least is to give a quick description of your character. This solves having them look in a mirror, etc. Of course, if you’re using changing POV in different sections, you can have the characters describe each other while highlighting their relationship.
That’s all I can think of to say on the subject for now. Questions? Peanut shells? Money? Throw them and I’ll respond.


  1. >It’s funny how many newbie authors pick first person because they think it’s easier, whereas you can actually fudge POV a whole lot more in third person! There is headhopping in some Romance novels (Nora Roberts does it, for example, and it drove me up the wall in the one novel of hers I read) but in my experience most Romance novels are in third person just like most Fantasy novels.I do think there’s a huge difference between true omniscient POV and headhopping. Omniscient POV handled well tends to look indistinguishable from third person for long stretches at a time. The author doesn’t swich POV every other line (i.e. headhopping), like in many a poorly written manuscript. Actually I think what you call third person limited with “exceptions”, could well be called omniscient by some, because you’re zooming out to show an objective/narrator perspective on something. Starting a novel from an omniscient perspective is the classical way to signal that the novel will be in third person omniscient (and will thus avoid the reader scratching his head when a disembodied description or something pops up at some later point). Sara

  2. >Speaking as a reader, I define 3rd omniscient as the style of writing used in things that generally come under the heading of epic, i.e. Illiad and Odyssey, Gigamesh, and a more recent example, Lord of the Rings. Our hero(es) TM are almost dolls moving through the landscape and plot without ever really interacting with the reader in any significant emotional way.Dawn

  3. >How do you feel about books that mix a first person narrator with a multi-third supporting cast? I’m working on a book right now with a hero who a friend has suggested might work better in first, but I plan to have several supporting characters whose POV will be necessary. Bill

  4. >This is a good discussion. Any POV choice can be made to work, of course, if done right. I do wish, though, that writers wouldn’t indulge in “head-hopping”. It makes me feel, as a reader, like I’m walking on quicksand.For a writer who uses many, many points of view but handles them masterfully, see Kay Kenyon’s THE ROSE AND THE ENTIRE series. The fourth book isn’t out yet, but the others, starting with BRIGHT OF THE SKY, are superb, and demonstrate how a writer at the peak of her powers can manage a skills issue like point of view.

  5. >Thanks! And @Sara has a good point — true omniscient (God’s View) and headhopping are different. The scenic view can be used like an establishing shot in movies, but it does keep one away from the characters. Headhopping is just confusing 🙂

  6. >The idea that one can’t headhop POV seems to be an American idea. I have heard that it has come out of creative writing courses in American colleges – no idea whether that is true.It is quite normal for British writers to headhop.I suspect that it is more difficult for the author to headhop but it hasn’t impeded writers like Christie.John

  7. >John — I think it depends on what you mean by headhopping, and on how well it is done. What I try to refer to and point out are the sudden short shifts in POV without clearly indicating what’s happening, so that the reader has to stop and figure out that while the paragraph started with Henry’s POV, this little observation is from Jane’s POV. Might call it indiscriminate shifts in POV?Changing POV, on the other hand, is a perfectly legitimate tool — as long as you give the reader half-a-chance of following you.

  8. >John, not head hopping seems to be a recent thing, whether American or not, I don’t know. I rather prefer it, but head hopping handled by a master — Georgette Heyer! Yes, I do mean that — can be barely noticeable and work very well. At any rate, it seems to be taboo in sf and mystery.Bill, on the one pov first one third… I’ve done that. Unless you have a VERY good plot reason — in my case it was that I wanted you to feel much closer to one of the characters — I’d advise not doing it, as it’s jarring. OTOH as with all else, it depends on how well it’s done. I have yet to sell that novel, but there are other issues with it.Sorry not to have answered this sooner. On the good side, the book IS delivered. 🙂

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