Point of view violations are some of the most insidious traps a writer can fall into. There is one that is harder to avoid than any of the others, especially for inexperienced writers: The “vain poet violation.” Here’s how to spot them and why you should cut them out!
Let me start off by giving credit where credit is due: The “vain poet violation” is not a term I came up with out of the blue. It’s based on an example given in Sandra Gerth’s excellent post on point of view (POV) violations. I wanted to go deeper into it, however, because it’s a violation I come across very often when advising inexperienced authors and the author in question tends not to see it as a violation at all, even after I’ve attempted to explain it.
A “vain poet violation” is any POV violation where the character in whose head the reader is placed goes into prose about something about themselves that should be obvious to them. Gerth gives the following example:
“Anna flopped down onto the bed and ran her hand through her silky black tresses.”
There appears to be nothing wrong with this sentence. It’s just an action: The POV character runs her hand through her hair. Why is this a violation of point of view, then? Because POV is a tool used to draw you deeper into the headspace of the character and vain poet violations force the reader out of it (in this case literally) to look at something that makes the character who they are. In this case, that’s the “silky black tresses” part of the sentence; when people think of themselves, they very rarely think about the texture and color of their hair. They also very rarely use the word “tresses.”
“A ‘vain poet violation’ is any POV violation
where the character in whose head
the reader is placed goes into prose about
something about themselves that should
be obvious to them.“
By definition, point of view is the narrator’s position in relation to a story being told. In plain English that means that point of view denotes through whose eyes the reader experiences the story. There are three types of POV in which the reader is pulled into the head of a character: first, second, and third person point of view. You can recognize first person POV by the use of “I” to label the POV character, second person POV puts the reader into the story as “you”, and third person POV uses “he/she/they” to describe the POV character.
There is one other point of view: Omniscient. In this point of view the reader perceives the world as if they were a god: they see all, know all, and the story is narrated to them. Many of the classics are written in this latter perspective, but modern writing almost exclusively calls for the author to put the reader into the head of one or more characters through first, second (but that’s rare), or third person POV.
There can be one POV character in the story or several, but it’s always incorrect to have several in one scene. That’s called “head hopping” and it occurs when you force the reader to “jump” from one head to the other. It gives the reader the feeling of watching a ping-pong game. Sandra’s blog post goes into that quite well, so I won’t rehash.
Vain poet violations (vpv’s) can occur in every point of view perspective except for omniscient. This is important because it explains why vpv’s are a violation: they force the reader out of the first, second, or third person POV in which the story is written and into a narrative with a semi-omniscient POV. Any time you switch between POV’s, you’re breaking a writing rule.
“Vain poet violations can occur in
every point of view perspective
except for omniscient.”“
Vain poet violations are an issue because they jar the reader. Anything that jars the reader reminds them that they are reading a book and not living the story. Like I said in my post about being creative in your story, not your lay-out: Your goal as an author is to make the reading experience as enjoyable as possible for the reader.
You’ll find most vain poet violations in the introduction of the POV character. We’ve already established that introductions are hard to write. If you read that post again from the viewpoint of vpv’s, it might also be clearer why the first example I gave in that post is problematic: it’s definitely written by a vain poet character.
Vpv’s are tiny infodumps. They shoehorn information into the story that the author thinks the reader should know but for which no suitable medium can be found in either narrative or dialogue. My advice about information you can’t write into the story in a natural way: leave it out. If you needed it, you would have found a way to work it in.
“Vpv’s are tiny infodumps. They shoehorn
information into the story that the author
thinks the reader should know but for which
no suitable medium can be found in either
narrative or dialogue.“
Vpv’s aren’t hard to spot when you know what to look for. You can weed them out by asking yourself if that’s the way you would think about yourself—especially when you’re not looking at yourself in a mirror. Most vpv’s are obvious, because they tend to sound a little pretentious and often very prosaic. If you find yourself struggling with identifying them, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Do I really need the reader to know this?
- Would I subconsciously think about myself this way?
- Would the average reader?
- Is there a better way to describe this?
If your answers are anything but “yes,” “yes,”, “yes,” “no,” the odds are high that you are dealing with a vain poet violation. The “silky black tresses” might get a “yes” on question number one, but very few people subconsciously think of their hair color unless they’d only just dyed it, or describe their hair as “silky” unless they’d just seen a hairdresser to style it to perfection. The average person also doesn’t think of their hair as their “tresses.”
Question number four is the one where you will really be able to weed out those vpv’s, because vpv’s are infodumps, and there are always better ways to write infodumps. You might have to fiddle around for a while, but if—and that is a big if!—the reader really needs to know a physical detail like silky black hair, there is always a handy best friend to comment on it, or even a nervous bathroom mirror check to confirm that yes, this person’s hair is still black and still silky. “Tresses” probably won’t make it back into the manuscript. Sorry.
“You can weed [vpv’s] out by asking
yourself if that’s the way you would think
about yourself—especially when you’re not
looking at yourself in a mirror.”
If It’s very easy to make vain poet violations. Don’t get discouraged if you find some in your work. It’s my hope that you’ll know what to look for now and that you’ll have the tools to weed them out. Your work will improve once you do, I assure you, and your editor will love you for your effort!