An issue I often see writers struggle with is point of view. Not just what it is, but how to use it to it's best advantage. So let's talk about it. Why is this important? After all, POV isn't generally something we plan out in advance. We start writing and whatever is there, that's the POV, right? Well, if you're hoping to keep your reader skipping about happily in your story, they've got to be able to figure out what's going on and when and with whom. Keeping your POVs straight will make this a lot easier.
So, first off, what are the options:
First Person: I went to the kitchen for breakfast.
You've got the basic idea. This is the point of view where you are slipping into a main character suit, wearing his skin, and going about his life. You are in his head, thinking his thoughts, feeling his feelings, and doing his job.
Second Person: You drink a glass of milk, put the half-full glass of milk in the cupboard, and then wonder what the hell you were doing.
This is where the author is telling the reader something from the reader's POV. This POV is usually a sign of literary fiction. I can't for the life of me think of a single well-known fantasy tale in this POV. So, it's not that you can't do it, it's just that almost no one does.
Third Person Limited: He went out for breakfast, after passing his roommate who was taking milk out of the cupboard.
This is the handi-cam view. Your reader sees, hears, and does everything the POV character does, like he's watching a live feed from a little camera perched on the character's shoulder.
Third Person Omniscient: By nine o'clock, all of the members of the Aching house had finished breakfast.
This is the narrator's voice, or the God voice. You know everything, see everything, and can reveal anything. Think of a TV show, where the camera is hopping about showing you whatever it likes, this is the literary equivalent of that.
Now, just about everyone can write first person without any issues. It's pretty easy to tell when you've slipped out of it.
I saw John walk across the street.
Look, there's Bob, thought John.
Just about all of us, even in full on editing induced blindness, can twig to the slip there.
And almost no one writes fantasy in Second Person, so we'll just ignore that.
For most of us we start to get tripped up in 3rd Person. Often the issue is we think we're writing 3rd Person Omni, but what we're really doing is hopping about from one 3rd Limited POV to the next. This annoys readers and make it difficult for them to follow the story.
This is 3rd Omni:
The sun rose brilliantly over Summer Valley, just like it had every day since the dawn of time. Birds chirped in the branches, proclaiming their personal territory to all who would listen. John sat back, thinking about the wonderful beauty of the world he lived in. Bob, on the other hand, was wishing the birds would shut the hell up. Due to imbibing seventeen mojitos the night before, he was feeling a wee bit tender in the head.
This is Head Hopping:
John watched the sun rise brilliantly over Summer Valley. He basked in sunlight and the lovely sounds of chirping birds. This is so beautiful!
I want to kill myself. Shut up birds, shut up, shut up! God, how many of those mojito things did I have last night? Bob collapsed into the chair next to John, scowling at him and the world in general.
How do you know if you're head hopping? Third Omni requires a narrator's voice. If there's nothing in your story that's not being directly experienced by one of the characters, you are not writing Third Omni.
Okay, so we've got a handle on what the tools are. Let's talk about how to use them.
I break stories into three main categories when it comes to POV balancing: Single, Ensemble, or Epic.
A Single story is pretty simple. You follow one POV all the way through. A book that follows this pattern is set in First Person or Third Limited. You're either in the head of the main character, or hovering behind him, seeing and doing what he sees and does.
This technique is good for straightforward stories, the sort where your main character is involved with everything that needs to happen, so he can tell the entire story.
First person especially is good for stories where you're really working on focusing on one character's arc. You're in his head the whole time, so you can really get into him. Third Limited works better in stories where you want a little distance between your reader and main character.
A Single POV line is not so hot for anything with multiple plot lines or multiple main characters.
This isn't to say that this sort of story doesn't have secondary or tertiary characters. But they aren't vitally important to the story. Harry Dresden is a very good, and very complex example of a Single POV. He's the star of the books and the story is all about him. There are secondary characters (Bob) but the story won't collapse without them.
Harry Potter, on the other hand, takes us into the next category, the Ensemble.
In an Ensemble you've got a main character (maybe two, rarely three, and if you've got four you're writing an Epic), and a collection of vitally important secondary characters. For an ensemble Third Limited and Third Omni are your friends. The main character is the POV character. Maybe (rarely) the author wanders off to a new POV if something vitally important is about to happen that the readers just have to know about.
To use a TV reference: If you're writing NCIS, you need a Gibbs. All of your characters together are magic, but there still needs to be someone to lead the team. You can wander off for a bit and focus the story through the other characters, but you always come back to the main character (s) in the end.
But Keryl, I've got seventeen characters, all telling the story, and no main character. Okay, Harry Turtledove, this is where Epic comes in. You've got a ton of characters and you swap between their POVs. But, each time you switch to a new POV character there's a separate storyline with it's own main and supporting characters. (Here's a hint: if in chapters 3, 8, 19, 34, and 45 John is the POV character; he's a secondary, non-POV character in chapters 7, 14, 22, and 48; he gets mentioned a few times in 4, 16, 44, and 60 by yet other POV characters, you're writing an Epic.)
If you are writing an Epic, stick to one POV per section. Each section has a complete bit of plot: John finds the Chalice of Epicness. Tell that section from John's POV. The next section has a complete bit of plot: Bob responds to John finding the Chalice. Write that section from Bob's POV. Do not write finding the Chalice of Epicness from John, Bob, Phil, Andrew, and Collin's POVs in one section. (Of course you've got a ton of characters finding the Chalice of Epicness, it's an EPIC!)
With an Epic you are following the story of a collection of characters. At the end of your tale you should be able to take all the bits of plot for each character and construct a complete storyline for that character. That storyline weaves in with the other storylines to make your full Epic. Think DragonLance: Tanis has a story, Raistlin has a story, Sturm, Laurana, Tasslehoff, ect... all have their own stories. Put all those stories together and you've got the Chronicles.
Epic generally run Third Person Limited. Third Omni, unless you really work the narrator's voice, will be confusing in a story with a ton of equally important characters. First person in an Epic is just asking your readers to kick you. If you've got seventeen characters and they're all telling the story using I, me, and we, your readers will have a hard time following them.
Now, are these written in stone? Did Moses drop this tablet off at my house, telling me to go forth and spread the good word about POV? No.
Just like with everything else, you can break any and all of the rules. There are always trends and styles that will bend these rules. (For example, Third Omni with an actual narrator who is almost a character works well with Steampunk because it stylistically hearkens back to the writing of the Victorian era. But it's significantly less appealing in a gritty, modern set Urban Fantasy.) But keep in mind, if you want to write good (and once again I mean good in the sense of able to satisfy a large majority of the people who buy your book) fiction, making it easy for your readers to follow the story is more important than really cool POV swapping technique.