On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author JJ Barnes writes about perspective hopping, how to use your POV character, and why you need to be careful not to hop perspectives too often.
Written by JJ Barnes
Perspective hopping means when you jump from the point of view of one character to another. You will usually spend most of the time in the point of view of the Protagonist because your story will feel more real and personal. They will connect to your character as they share their experiences. However, sometimes you’ll want to hop perspectives to see the story through different eyes.
Why Write In A Perspective?
When you’re describing events in your story, you can write them from the perspective of a narrator or from the perspective of a character. A narrator can be a unique and interesting voice of it’s own, but it’s outside. I find the perspective of a character far more captivating because it pushes me into the story.
Describing things from a specific character’s perspective allows you to use the “show don’t tell” rule. If you describe how a room looks as flat information it can be dull reading. You know how it looks but that’s it. Describing it from the perspective of a character in that room is different. You get personality, why they like it, memories, what it reminds them of, and story motivation, what they want to happen in that room.
Similarly, if you’re describing how a character is behaving and feeling it can make sense. If you’re showing how they feel by how they are feeling inside, how their skin tickles, how their breath tightens and their heart beats, it feels human. It feels real. It invites your audience to experience it with them.
Which Perspective Should You Write In?
Which character you write from the perspective of can change throughout your book, or you can choose to write entirely in one person’s perspective the entire way through.
In the book I’m currently working on, I stay in the perspective of my Protagonist the entire way through. It’s entirely Ivy’s story. Any arguments are shown from how she feels, memories recalled are hers, and any events are only described when she witnesses them. This is a choice I made because I wanted it purely to be her story.
However, in Lilly Prospero And The Mermaids Curse, I move between different perspectives the entire way through. I write from the perspective of Lilly, the protagonist, The Harvester, the villain, and the mermaids. The story isn’t Lilly’s. It’s mostly hers, but the other characters are having separate experiences that are needed for the story, even when Lilly isn’t present.
You can move between perspectives as much as you want, or not at all, depending on the style of story you’re telling. But how you do it is where you need to be careful.
Can You Write In Every Character’s Perspective?
You can write as if you’re in the perspective of every character at any moment in any scene. To do this you explore every person’s interiority when they speak, what they’re thinking and feeling, and explore what they’re doing with equal value. This “God” perspective gives you access to every person in a scene for a full and complete experience.
However, there’s a reason characters in stories who develop the ability to hear other peoples thoughts end up going mad. When you throw all that information at your audience it can be too much to take in. They’re trying to remember every persons secrets, every persons emotions. It’s overwhelming, and in the effort to include your audience in all the feelings, you end up excluding them. The scene stops feeling like they’re part of it because in reality, humans can’t experience all that.
Making your audience connect emotionally to your Protagonist keeps them personally invested in your story. They’re riding with this person, experiencing their experiences, and they want to see what happens to them. But if they’re experiencing everybody else’s experiences too it will boot them out. They can’t connect with any one person because they’re too busy trying to connect with all people.
Why Hop Perspectives?
If you’re not rooting in one character’s perspective, and you’re no trying to offer a God perspective, you need to be able to hop perspectives.
For a basic rule, write the majority of your story from the perspective of your Protagonist. In Lilly Prospero And The Mermaids Curse, most of the book is written from Lilly’s perspective. The scenes are written how she sees them, the emotions explored are hers, and the characters are described by her opinion of them. This makes it clear that she’s the character your audience is rooting for, and keeps it clear that her story is the one they’re investing time in.
Generally, you should only write perspective hopping when a scene specifically needs it.
What Scenes Need Perspective Hopping?
If you’re writing something your Protagonist isn’t present for, pick the main character in that scene. For instance, in Lilly Prospero And The Mermaid’s Curse, I write from the perspective of The Harvester. He’s the main “baddie”. I describe the way he tortures and butchers the mermaid in his captivity from his perspective. Lilly isn’t present, and doesn’t know what’s happening, but the audience gets to see.
This builds fear of the character and the potential consequences of a clash between him and Lilly, and also makes the audience root for him to be stopped. You can immediately see why the story matters, and why he is a character worth fighting against.
Sometimes you’ll want to write perspective hopping even when your Protagonist is in the same scene. This is when your Protagonist can’t know about something that your audience is allowed in on. This could be a villain’s evil scheme or a secret admirer’s affections, but for some reason your audience is allowed to know something the story isn’t read for your Protagonist to know yet. I wouldn’t advise doing this too often, because your Protagonist and your audience need to be connected, but it can be interesting.
When Do You Write Perspective Hopping?
A good rule to remember is that if you start a scene in one character’s perspective, stick with them to the end of the scene. If you hop mid scene it is confusing. You want your audience to relax into the experiences of whichever character they’re riding with, and if they’re suddenly flung into somebody else’s head then isn’t a smooth experience. When you start a scene, figure out who you’re riding with and stay with them.
However, sometimes you might want to hop mid-scene. And, whilst I wouldn’t recommend doing it too often, it’s something that can still work. How I do it is to put a scene break. You’re essentially writing a new scene, but in the same room. The scene is based on the character rather than the action.
Make it clear who you’re writing from, where they are, and what the context is. If you’ve entered the room fresh you’ll be doing that anyway, but if you’re doing a mid-scene hop you’ll need to do it quickly and efficiently so it’s clear to your audience what you’ve done and why. Avoiding confusion is essential because if your reader doesn’t understand what’s going on they’ll be outside your story trying to get back in, and that makes it too easy to put the book down and walk away.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose
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