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Don't speak Latin in front of the books, Xander.

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3rd person point of view - the POV monster.

It is common in fanfic to find stories where the POV switches back and forth between characters in such a way that the readers can see into every character's head and read what s/he is thinking and feeling. Authors, when queried, usually call this "3rd person POV". Unfortunately for those authors, there is no correct 3rd POV which allows for this type of switching. There is a reason it isn't correct, and hopefully the following will explain why.

There are two kinds of 3rd POV: 3rd Limited, and 3rd Omniscient. 3rd Limited follows a character, seeing into his or her mind and through his or her eyes. The reader sees everything and everyone else as though watching through a camera.

3rd omniscient is the narrator POV. A narrator is telling a story about which the narrator knows everything -- including the outcome. The narrator is not part of the story (except, perhaps, as a character - but either the narrator speaks of himself/herself in the 3rd person, or the POV is 1st.)

So, what's the difference, and what's the problem with switching POVs? Let's start with some examples of each.

3rd Limited:

Spike and Xander walked through the darkened halls, searching. Spike listened as carefully as a vampire could, stopping occasionally to close his eyes and strain his heightened senses. He had no great hopes that he could find what he was searching for, but he could not simply give up the search. He couldn't ask Xander to, either, and said nothing when a glance at Xander's face showed only determination.

The soft crunch of their footfalls on rusted wires and fallen plaster echoed in the otherwise silent building. Perhaps they were too late, after all.

That same event in 3rd Omniscient:

Spike and Xander walked through the darkened hallways, searching. Spike listened as carefully as a vampire could, stopping occasionally to close his eyes and strain his heightened senses. There was no great hope that they would find the missing child, but they could not simply give up the search. Spike couldn't have faced Xander's reaction, and Xander couldn't bear to leave the child at the mercy of his captors without trying everything humanly -- and vampirically -- possible.

As they searched, they heard only the soft crunch of rusted wires and fallen plaster beneath their feet. They each secretly suspected that they might be too late after all.

The differences are clear. In the first, you get a nice sense of mystery and doom. In the second, you get more information, but less mysterious mood.

Now, in a 'switching' 3rd POV, you would get something like this:

Spike and Xander walked through the darkened halls, searching. Spike listened as carefully as a vampire could, stopping occasionally to close his eyes and strain his heightened senses. He had no great hopes that he could find what he was looking for, but he could not simply give up the search.

Neither could Xander. He was determined to find the child, unable to bear the thought of leaving the child at the mercy of his captors without doing everything he or Spike could do to find him.

As they searched, they heard only the soft crunch of rusted wires and fallen plaster beneath their feet. Perhaps they were too late after all.

So, you ask, what's wrong with that? You get to see into Spike's head, then Xander's. You get all sorts of insight, and access to all the information available to all the characters. How can that be a bad thing?

What's wrong is when the switching POV confuses the reader. How much that takes to confuse any given reader differs from reader to reader. Ask yourself: who thinks they are too late, in that last paragraph?

You may think it doesn't matter. In this short snippet it probably doesn't. But imagine you'd been reading twenty pages of story, and you were wrapped up in the drama and mystery to the point you don't even notice the cat playing with your sandwich. Suddenly you find yourself at this sentence, and you stop and ask yourself whose head you are in. You might go back a few paragraphs and re-read and figure it out -- but at that point you've been thrown out of the story and notice the sandwich on the floor. By the time you yell at the cat and rescue your food, the mood created by the story is gone.

Not convinced? If you aren't confused by switching POV, then the point is moot. But for readers who are, throwing them out of a story does them a disservice. However, readers who aren't confused by switching POV won't be at a disadvantage if you don't switch POV. Would you rather reach more audience, or less?

~

by James Walkswithwind

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