If you read novels written in the 19th century, you may notice that the point of view jumps promiscuously from one character to the next. At one moment you may be seeing the world through the eyes of the heroine. In the next sentence, you may be seeing through the eyes of the man whose heart she hopes to win. A sentence later, you might be privy to the thoughts of the maiden aunt sitting in the corner of the drawing room. Then the author herself may jump in to explain the meaning of what is going on.
Contemporary fiction is different. Most writers use only one point of view at a time, and usually only switch points of view, if at all, when starting a new section or chapter.
A “point of view” is the perspective that the writer uses. The most common points of view are first person (“I went to the store today”), third-person limited (“He went to the store today’) and omniscient (the 19th-century style, where the author is God-like, seeing and knowing everything).
The most popular style today is the third-person limited. The “limited” refers to a significant limitation: the author can only report what the character himself is thinking, feeling, or observing.
You have to be disciplined to remain consistent when writing in the third-person limited point of view, which is both a challenge and, if you pull it off, a potentially exhilarating experience.
You have to be careful not to report things that your point-of-view character wouldn’t know. For example, say you are writing from Bob’s point of view. When Bob walks into a room, you can tell the reader what Bob is seeing and what he is thinking, but you can’t report the thoughts of the other characters.
For example, you would be breaking point-of-view if you wrote, “Bob walked into the room. Sue thought he looked worried.” The problem here is that Bob does not know what Sue is thinking, so you are dipping into Sue’s head here, and that is outside the scope of the third person limited p.o.v.
You can, however, write about what your viewpoint character *thinks* another character is thinking. For example: “Bob walked into the room. Sue glanced up. ‘She hates my tie,’ Bob thought.” Here, you are accurately reporting Bob’s thought. We don’t know whether or not Sue actually hates Bob’s tie, or if Bob is just imagining it.
If you are having trouble maintaining a consistent point of view as you write, try imagining that you are an actor who is playing the role of your point of view character. You can portray his actions. You can think his thoughts. But you cannot portray the thoughts of other characters, nor can you describe actions that you haven’t seen.
The reward for doing the work necessary to be consistent in your chosen point of view is that you will be more likely to transport your readers into your fictional universe and keep them there. Breaks in points of view may break the spell you have cast, while consistency helps to maintain it.