Recently a new writer hit me with a very good question. She said that every class she had taken and every book she had read about fiction writing cautioned authors to choose the point of view of their book with care, because it should stay the same throughout the story. Switching point of view is often pointed out as one of those errors that marks a writer as an amateur. Generally I agree. But she pointed out that more and more often she was seeing very successful writers changing points of view in their books. She wanted to know if the traditional wisdom was wrong, or if the rules had changed.
I would submit that most editors and agents you would send your manuscripts to would still consider POV hopping a pet peeve and a sign that they’re dealing with an untrained newbie. They would say, and I agree, that it's best to pick a POV and stick to it. But I can’t deny that many bestselling authors ignore this rule on a regular basis and still sell lots of books. Should we learn from this and follow their lead into a new set of fiction-writing rules?
I say no. First, pick any big name who changes POV and check out his earlier works. I think you’ll find that at the beginning of their writing careers, people don't violate POV rules. I think you have to obey the rules to GET published. But once you’ve got a couple best-sellers under your belt, the universe grants you a bit more latitude. For example, James Patterson seems to give almost every character in a novel some POV time, and worse, they’re all in third person except his protagonist who gets to be in first person! I can’t explain how he gets away with it, I just know he does.
On the other hand, Michael Connelly’s just that good. After several Harry Bosch books he began switching to the criminal’s POV, maybe just to keep things interesting. He’s just so good at what he does that he can make it work. Another writer might look like he was just making it up as he went along. But when Connelly does it, we trust that he knows what he's doing and we’re willing to go along for the ride. I know I’m revealing my blatant hero worship here, but I’d say if you think you’re as good as Connelly, go for it. Me, I’ll stick to one POV… most of the time.There are times that even we mere mortals can get away with going from first person to third person POV or having multiple POVs. For instance, what someone is telling a long story to your protagonist? That’s a reasonable time to switch POV to that of the storyteller.
Or, what if your detective is reading someone else’s letters? You could write a chapter that was the content of the letters, and put that chapter in the voice of the letter writer.
I’m sure there are other possibilities I can’t think of right now. The important thing is that it is very clear to a reader (an agent or an editor) that you did it on purpose with a clear plan, not just because you didn’t know any better. I think it’s always safer to play by the accepted rules – at least until you’re as big as James Patterson.