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Viewpoint Character and the Need to Choose Wisely

May 13, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 26, 2011

The importance of viewpoint character is often discussed in the context of point of view—first person, third person, third-person limited, third-person omniscient, and so on.

This, however, is not going to be an article about point of view. At least, not specifically.

Choosing a viewpoint character is a decision that must be made each time a writer faces a new scene. With one exception, naturally. In first-person narration, the narrator—the one saying I all the time—is the viewpoint character. He is the one to lend his eyes and filters to the story. In every scene. If he sees it, hears it, smells it, touches it, or tastes it, the reader can as well. If he has no knowledge of a person or event or a thing, the reader can’t know either.

Yes, you can have multiple viewpoint characters with first-person narration, but the reader will always know which character is presenting a scene. That character will always have to say “I,” and the context should make it clear which character is telling the story in a particular scene. (Writers could trick readers, of course, by deliberately messing with viewpoint characters in first-person narration. Writers could also deliberately hold back the identity of a viewpoint character. This is a useful technique when a killer or other antagonist is given viewpoint duties in mysteries or thrillers.)

For third-person narration, whether omniscient or limited, the viewpoint character could be different from scene to scene.

Now, you wouldn’t want a different character in every scene. That would be akin to having your reader ask 30 or 40 witnesses to a street crime what they saw. You might get some commonalities, but you wouldn’t get the whole picture. You couldn’t get the whole story, even if logically it seems you should because you’re presenting so many points of view. (And with 30 or 40 viewpoints, the POV couldn’t realistically be described as limited.)

Each time you cut away from one character to see through the eyes of a second, you separate the reader from that first character’s experiences. Readers no longer feel that character’s feelings, no longer see through the first character’s eyes. Readers are cut off from that character’s take on events and their opinions of other characters.

The impact of events is actually diluted and weakened rather than given more exposure and clarity.

By necessity, you must advance the story, so you’d never actually show the same scene through the eyes of a half-dozen characters. You’d present scene one through the POV of one character and then scene two through another and so on. (A writer could present every scene from the point of view of three or four characters; it’s been done. Yet consider the effect on the readers. How bored would they become with every scene presented five or six times, by five or six different characters? Writing such a story might be a great exercise, but we do well to keep in mind the audience; one of our major purposes in writing a novel is to entertain the reader, not test his patience.)

As the story progresses and readers don’t see through character One’s point of view again, they are put at a distance from character One. They don’t have opportunity to experience story events and emotions through a single—or even a few—key characters.

Too many viewpoint characters creates distance from the story, not intimacy. If you’re looking for distance, perhaps more the detailing of what happened without emotional entanglements or deep meaning, consider multiple viewpoint characters.

If, however, you want intimacy and depth of emotion, limit the number of viewpoint characters.

Just recently I read a novel in which the seventh viewpoint character was given a scene at the opening of chapter seven. I found myself wondering whose story I was reading. If everyone’s viewpoint is so important, how do I, as a reader, know who to root for? How do I know whose motivation is driving story events? How do I invest in one or two characters over the others?

I felt the writer purposely held me away from the story, away from the key characters. I had to check the cover blurb several times to see who the story was supposed to be about. I can tell you that this did not keep me anchored in the fiction.

A story about everyone is a story about no one.

Decide who your story is about and make sure that every element emphasizes and/or points to that character or characters.

A second problem in this novel was that one of the secondary characters had more compelling scenes than did one of the two main characters. His motivation was strong, his dialogue bold, and his scenes longer and more involved. He had more page space than one of the supposed leads. And, of the eventual eight viewpoint characters, he was the one whose viewpoint was used to present almost half the story.

That is not a good thing. He had apparently taken over a story that wasn’t his.

You can fix this type of problem before publication by ensuring that focus is on the proper character(s) and that viewpoint characters point readers in the direction you decide on. If a character takes over, consider rewriting the story to revolve around him or build up your main character.

So, what is, who is, the viewpoint character?

The viewpoint character is the one who lends his eyes and his experiences, his history, to readers so they can experience story events and emotions as if those events and emotions were happening to them.  

Story events are filtered through the viewpoint character’s senses and colored by his past, his understanding, his expectations, and his limitations.

Readers hear as he hears, see what he sees. It’s the viewpoint character’s words and phrasings that tell the story.

All that the viewpoint character is and has done and dreams of doing will influence his presentation and his focus. What’s important to him becomes important to the reader. What he looks at, what is of interest to him, is of interest to the reader.

The viewpoint character is the guide, sometimes the blind guide, through a scene.

The viewpoint character often is, but does not have to be, the protagonist.

Due to his focus and concentration on characters and events, the viewpoint character reveals not only what the story is about but who it is about. His focus shows readers whose story they are reading. He doesn’t have to tell his own story; he could instead turn our focus to another character, one who doesn’t speak for himself.

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Choice of a viewpoint character will influence scenes and story.

A scene told from the viewpoint of a woman will be different from that of a man. A child will tell a different story than an adult would.

A woman experiencing a giddy love for the first time will use different words, will show us different feelings, than a woman who has known many loves.

Age, sex, life experiences, personality traits, religious beliefs, economic standing, and even mental states will affect story and scene as presented by the viewpoint character.

You will need to make use of who your character is and what he brings with him in deciding his suitability for being the viewpoint character in any scene.

Writers have to decide what tone they want to establish, what feeling they want for their scenes. They must decide who makes the best presenter of the information, events, and emotions that need to be relayed to readers.

A character who is hopeful will convey a different tone than a pessimist would. A character who came to manhood in a country at war will see through different eyes than one who has only known peace. Their words will be different. Their approaches will be different.

Their focus—what’s important to them, what snags their interest—will be different.

The writer must decide not only what to reveal but also the method of revelation. The method, the how, includes the choice of viewpoint character.

Options
Writers can maintain a consistent viewpoint character throughout a story or alternate between several.

Sometimes genre is the guide—romances written these days tend to switch between hero and heroine as viewpoint character. Not too many years ago, readers often only got the heroine’s viewpoint.

An omniscient, unnamed narrator could dip into the heads of several characters, thus giving readers any number of viewpoints. This, as I mentioned, can be distancing. Yet it remains a valid choice.

You could restrict your viewpoint characters to two or three. Using the third-person limited POV, you could immerse readers in the viewpoints of several characters, but only a specific few. This is different from the omniscient narrator in that you purposely limit the number of possible viewpoints. An omniscient narrator could theoretically dip into anyone’s head; third-person limited forces the writer to choose the characters whose eyes we will use to watch a scene.

A single viewpoint character can be featured in every scene, though seeing through one character’s eyes all the time could cause a feeling of claustrophobia. Sometimes readers need a break from a single character’s thoughts and emotions.

Your single viewpoint character could present her story in the first person, producing a strong and compelling story. Yet there are limitations to this option. Readers would only know what this character knows, see only what she sees.

If you choose to write a single viewpoint character, realize that you can pull away from that character at times and show a broader picture. This is best accomplished at the top of new chapters. This distancing also works well to show a passage of time and with sections of exposition.

You can also insert needed distance by periodically pulling out of deep POV.

Deep POV is a fairly new option for writers. It does for third-person narration what first-person narration accomplishes on its own—it puts readers deep inside a character, revealing thoughts and emotions without the character having to say, I’m feeling sad or I’m thinking about my ex-wife.

Deep POV allows the writer to say: Tom stepped up to the bar, eyeing the man on the next stool. Loser. It was written on his face, on his unkempt hair, and on the faded shirt that reeked of sweat. And not the kind you got from working out. The man stank of sour sweat, the kind that came from years of unfulfilled dreams and overwhelming failure.

Readers know this is Tom’s opinion without the writer having to say, Loser, Tom thought. And without the writer having to put Tom’s thoughts in italics: Loser, Tom thought.

When the writer pulls back from deep POV, readers get a break. They can escape the tension for a few moments before the writer dumps them back into drama and conflict that makes them tense and anxious.

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Whatever your choice for viewpoint character, refrain from head-hopping, jumping into different viewpoints within the same paragraph or scene. Mix viewpoints if that works for your story. Yet alert the reader of the change by restricting viewpoint-character changes to scene changes.

There’s nothing quite as disconcerting as being in one character’s head, experiencing her thoughts and emotions, only to be yanked out and thrust into another character’s thoughts. Talk about multiple personality disorder. That moving in and out of characters without warning destroys the illusion of fiction. And fiction is all about illusion.

It’s fragile, the reader’s connection to story. One misstep can sever it. Why do anything that would remind the reader that the story he’s so involved with is unreal?

Keep the illusion strong. Maintain the fantasy. And use every tool devised by writers to do so.

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Consciously decide on your viewpoint character(s). Decide who will be best—in terms of personality and experiences and outlook—for telling your story or presenting your scenes.

Consider what you want each scene to accomplish. Think about the tone you want to establish.

Take reader expectation into account.

Decide which character’s viewpoint will make happen exactly what you want to happen.

And write the scene or the story putting to use everything—every trait and memory and experience—that the character brings with him into your fictional world.

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Tags: , ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

2 Responses to “Viewpoint Character and the Need to Choose Wisely”

  1. sjhigbee says:

    I’ve read a variety of blogs/articles on this subject, however your indepth and cogent discussion about the different options regarding viewpoint characters is one of the clearest and well written I’ve encountered…

  2. Thank you, SJ. I’m glad it came across that way.

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