It all depends on your point of view.
We have heard that time and time again. It usually means that we understand a situation relatively, from our own perspective.
In writing that is what it means too. Yet, because you are a writer, the issue gets complicated by your ability to choose the point of view from which you are telling the story.
When I teach fiction and memoir-writing, I use a system I call The Four P’s (I know! so intellectual!). After all these years of studying, teaching, practicing, coaching, and editing, I have taken everything I know in the very complicated, historically layered world of writing and boiled it down to 4 major elements:
Point of view falls under #2 P: People.
When you are creating characters I suggest you choose one from which to tell the story and you will want to stay in that “head” ALL OF THE TIME.
I know, I know–all sorts of very popular book, movies, and tv shows don’t do this! They have a zillion points of view.
We will put aside movies and tv shows for another day because–though what I am going to say here applies to those genres as well, I am less of an authority on them than I am on literature (which won’t stop me from talking about them another day).
(Memoir writers have it easy because they are in their own head, or point of view. But they also need to stay in it and not know in the time of the book what they couldn’t have known at that particular time.)
The novel came into being in the 18th century with Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews first among many. Although there are exceptions (Tristram Shandy being a notable one), most of the 18th and 19th century novels are written from the omniscient point of view–from the perspective of someone who can see everything from the outside. This is one reason that these novels are so rich in place–showing the homes people lived in or the horses they rode tells the reader a great deal about the character into whose mind we usually have no access.
In the 20th century, notably with the British moderns like Conrad, Woolf, and Joyce, the outer, authoritarian point of view vanishes and is replaced, often, by a first person perspective. The Heart of Darkness is told through a double first person perspective–the tale-teller (Marlow) and the never-named narrator to whom he is speaking (and the whole story is about someone else–Kurtz–whom we never see other than through Marlow’s point of view. Those Brits love the layers!)
In America we have not only first person narrators all over the place, but ones, like Nick Carroway in The Great Gatsby, who are notoriously unreliable (as, in a sense, what first person narrator is not?) and can’t be trusted to be telling you the truth in ways that the omniscient narrators of old could be. Alice Sebold’s character in Lovely Bones turns out not to be just unreliable–but dead!
Later in the 20th and into the 21st the point of view of choice is often the third person limited POV–a story told from one person’s perspective, but he or she is referred to as “he” or “she” so that there is a little distance from the character but there is still no 18th or 19th century sense of omniscient authority.
Then there is multiple point of view fiction. These are most often plot-driven and the mystery is created though the reader knowing something crucial that the main character or the bad guy does not. Think of any spy novel you’ve read lately. This is sometimes called omniscient because it knows everything, but it is more precisely a multiple POV perspective as it leaps from head to head.
These shifts in point of view in literature followed epistemological shifts in the way people in general in western civilizations looked at life. In brief, the 18th and 19th century way of looking at the world recognized a more authoritarian point of view–a sense that someone was watching it all from a distance. The 20th century brought a more personal way of looking at the world, along with the sense that there was no central all-knowing authority watching. In this new century we seem to be reflecting an extreme relativism, fragmentation, and disassocciation that is the opposite extreme of omniscience and does seem to relate to a prevailing way of looking at the world.
I hold a controversial theory that says that any head-hopping (changing point of view) is going to drive your book toward the plot end of the continuum and away from character. That is all well and good–but the plot in a head-hopping book has to be excellent for it to carry the book.
I find writing really good plot very hard. And, though I love plot-driven books for entertainment, they aren’t really what I read for, which is character.
So if you are starting out, try choosing one character and staying in that character’s head all the way. If you find that you are hopping into other head, check to see if your “problem”–your central conflict–is enough to carry the book. If not, raise the stakes.
If you find that you need to head-hop, then go all in on plot and write a darned good one.
I’ve had plenty of clients and students debate this with me, so if you’d like to argue, bring it on!
Whatever approach you choose, like problem, place, and plot, how you treat your people will determine how compelling your book is.
I’d love to know more about your writing. If you’ll hop over here and take this survey, there is a prize waiting for people who answer!