30 August 2016
Point of View in third person fiction



Most fiction writers are in a creative mode when writing their first draft. They are inspired and write by instinct, which is a wonderful state of being. Sometimes, however, it means they may not be aware that they are making errors.

A common error that is found in manuscripts written in third person is head-hopping. Unconscious changes in point of view (POV) from one character to another are disorienting and lack cohesion. It is possible to switch POV in third person writing, but if it is done improperly, it is jarring and that is why I call it “head-hopping”.

There are three forms of third person narration:

  1. Close point of view—multiple characters (nb. no more than 6 for most works)
  2. Single character narrator—one character
  3. Omniscient narrator—the narrator knows all

The first is what I usually recommend. The second limits you to one character and reads like a journal or log (a bit boring/limited). The third is extremely difficult to pull off, especially if you want to write well and use the show don’t tell style. Show don’t tell is very important in fiction. Many writers using third person narration mostly use (1) close point of view, but possibly without knowing they are doing it. It is evident from most first drafts that the writer did not notice when they head-hopped in the middle of a paragraph or scene.

Here’s the rule—you can only switch POV when:

  • it makes sense to do so
  • it does not interrupt the flow of action
  • it supports your main plot and character development

Switching point of view is an editorial decision, not a layout/typesetter decision, although a good typesetter will question a badly formatted manuscript and ensure you or your editor have paid attention to this.

POV changes should be written and formatted by leaving a blank line and starting the next section of text with no indent. This signifies to the reader a jump in time, space and/or point of view. You then lead off your new section making it clear whose POV the reader is in. This is done by:

  1. Using their name in the very first sentence
  2. Clever use of language and ways of writing that are unique for each POV character
  3. Perspective, supported by strong world-building, plot, setting and character development

Each POV section should be sufficiently large enough to carry the story forward and ease the reader on their journey. It is difficult to make hard and fast rules, and every narrative is different. Here’s an example of a point of view change which is NOT a head-hop because it is done right:

In the Richard Bolitho series of naval adventure novels, author Alexander Kent used a single character narrator in the third person. The main character, Richard Bolitho, provides the lens through which all the action is experienced by the reader. Although it is written in third person, not first, it is exclusively Richard’s senses, emotions, actions and perspective the reader is privy to. Every now and then, however, Kent will switch point of view to a supporting character, who will provide a few sentences that sum up, characterise and hero-worship Bolitho. This is only done 1–3 times in an entire novel so it is not enough to say that the book has the close point of view of multiple characters.

It is not a head-hop because it is done carefully and creatively, with the sole purpose of shining a light on a slightly new facet of the main character. The reader remains focused on the main character. It’s a clever bending of the rules.

Patterns may be important with close point of view. I edited a novel this year that had the following point of view or narration flaws:

  • Too many different POV characters (apx. 15)
  • Imbalance in the number of words per character (eg. some had apx. 10,000 others had as few as 300 in the entire novel)
  • Multiple head-hops within a few paragraphs of each other, for no apparent reason (done unconsciously by the writer)
  • Seemingly major characters with lots of POV scenes in the first third of the novel having few POV contributions in the final two thirds
  • POV characters with little to contribute to the overall plot
  • POV characters with their own segues into irrelevant history and unfulfilled sub-plots

It is very common for fiction writers to make mistakes with point of view and a good editor will work with you to resolve them.

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