I grew up Episcopalian, and it will probably shock some people I knew in my twenties that I was an altar boy growing up. One thing I had to learn was The General Confession, where we confessed that we had probably sinned by our thoughts, words, and deeds – although on any given week I couldn’t come up with too many ways I had done that, at least until I hit my twenties.
So what does this have to do with publishing?
I’ve been having a lot of conversations with authors lately about point of view, and I find myself using these words in a completely different context than I originally learned them. What I often tell writers is that there are three ways one can convey what a character is feeling: by the character’s thoughts, their words, or their deed. This seems simple enough, until you realize that, depending on the point of view of a section, this is not completely true.
Every story is written from someone’s point of view. In first person narrative it is written from the point of view of one characters. In third person limited the point of view is still that of a single character, although some stories are written where different sections of the book are written from different character’s points of view – this allows some characters to be present in some scenes and not others. “Call Me Ishmael,” from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, clearly establishes Ismael as the point of view character, and different sections of the book are written in either the first person or third person limited from Ishmael’s perspective.
The important point is that, once you establish which character’s perspective a section of a book is written from, you can only know what that character knows. This means you can’t share another character’s thoughts, and doing so is what is often referred to as “head-hopping.” So how do you share what a character who is not the narrator is thinking or feeling? Simple. You share that information by a character’s words and deeds. A character can always share their thoughts and feelings by saying what is on their mind. A character throwing a glass at a wall can be a pretty good indication that the character is angry or frustrated, and may make more of an impression than a character saying, “I’m really angry.”
Some authors feels a quick fix for the problem of head-hopping is to write in the third person omnipotent, but this point of view has its own challenges. In this case, while the narrator all-knowing, the story must be told from the point of view of this all-knowing outside observer. For this reason, you can never have text like
If only I can find a way out of this situation, Harry thought.
because these are not the thoughts of the outside narrator; they are the thoughts of a character. You would need to rewrite this as
Harry realized he needed to find a way out of the situation.
This, in turn creates distance between your characters and your readers, because a character can never directly interact with the reader.
Choosing whose perspective a story will be told from is one of the most important things you will do as an author: think about how different Moby Dick would be if it had been told from the perspective of Captain Ahab…