Let me take you back to your language lessons—English or some other language will do—and remind you that “person” tells us who is speaking, or, in the case of literature, who’s writing: I live; you (s) live; he, she, it lives; we live; you (pl) live; and they live. Sometimes the pronouns are understood—Russian and Spanish often do that—and if you’re a minimalist writer (“hard-boiled” for crime stories) you might write, “Went to the convenience store to pick up a burn phone,” when the pronoun is understood (in this case, it’s not–previous context is needed).
Person and point-of-view (POV) are often linked. First person singular, the “I-form” of English, is invariably that person’s POV, for example. Much literature is written in the third person singular though, and that’s where the connection breaks down. The author puts the reader in the POV of a character in that case so s/he can get inside that character’s head, so third person singular doesn’t define a unique POV. It can, but it’s not necessary. If the author uses multiple POVs, it can be confusing. S/he’s probably not confused, but the reader can be.
The confusion is most egregious when a reader thinks one character X’s POV is being employed yet that character seems to know far too much about what character Y is thinking. If the reader stops and says, “Huh? How could X know that?” the author is in trouble. There are ways to get around this. X might be telepathic (sci-fi) or might be exceptionally skilled at reading body language (Y is nervous—he’s glancing at the door far too often). In other words, the author must supply reasons for X to know what’s going on in Y’s mind.
An author can jump from one POV to another but not too often. S/he should separate those jumps into independent sections or chapters. Jumping from one POV to another at a pace with dialogue jumps isn’t allowed, for example. All dialogue within a section or chapter should be in one character’s POV—that character can only observe or hear what others are saying, except for unusual circumstances like the ones I just mentioned. This is easy to control. The author only has to ask herself, who do I want doing the thinking and listening in this section or chapter?
Many writing gurus say to keep one POV throughout the entire book. That’s OK, but in fiction it’s a wee bit like putting on handcuffs. As a reader, I like more spice in my reading. I want the opportunity to understand what each character is thinking so that I can understand her or his actions. Sure, I can imagine what each character’s motivations might be, but what I imagine might not be what the author intended. By changing POVs, the author can provide the hints I need. Only hints are necessary—that’s good minimalist (or hard-boiled) writing.
There’s one other POV to consider, omniscient, meaning the reader can know everything. For me, that works only in narrative (world-building in sci-fi). But even the narrative can be in a character’s POV. For example, a character in a firefight is waiting for an opponent to make a move. He reflects on a similar situation and what he learned from it. Often called flashbacks or back stories, they could actually be in anyone’s POV or omniscient. The key element here is flow.
Flashbacks, back stories, and POV shifts can interrupt the flow in a novel. Sometimes that’s good—a reader might need a peaceful respite from violent, intense action, for example. There are two places where it’s dangerous: the hook, the beginning of a novel where the author is trying to grab the attention of the reader; and the climax, where most everything is being resolved (some of that might be saved for the denouement—think of the typical Christie novel where Poirot calls all the characters and explains how he solved the crime). For the hook, unless it’s all flashback or back story, any interruption in the flow can kill the reader’s interest. For the climax, the author is finishing her or his symphony and, like Beethoven’s Fifth, s/he should get right to the point and not dawdle.
I know these are general statements, but there are two more things to say. First, while it can be done, don’t experiment with other persons. Second person singular or first person plural aren’t off limits, but I think they’re weird. Third person present tense is weird too (I haven’t mentioned the use of tense, but it’s important), but I’ve seen it used more to create a feeling of immediacy. (Tense and mood—i.e. use of the subjunctive—is tricky, even in English.) Even first person singular can seem weird, especially in the present. I’ve used it in the past tense for a female protagonist, for example, but only because I’ve known and admired quite a few strong, smart women and believe I understand them (readers can tell me if I’m wrong).
The second is a recommendation: many writing sites and books discuss person, POV, and tense in more detail. An author brushing up on her or his knowledge or one just starting out should read this material. Card’s little book Characters and Viewpoint is a useful example; it’s one of my standard writing references.
Full Medical. One of my pet themes is the healthcare crisis in America. I’ve been thinking about it for years. This was my first novel (now in an ebook second edition), and it’s still current today. With Obamacare now threatened by repeal (it never was a complete solution) and replacement by the horribly inhumane Trumpcare, the theme here seems more and more plausible. Only the privileged will be able to afford good healthcare, and the way they do it here in this sci-fi story will creep you out. Pay attention to the scherzos too—they show how bad America’s healthcare coverage can become when it’s driven by greed and not a human right.
In libris libertas!