Viewpoint 101

Talking about multiple viewpoint in a novel inevitably leads to questions about viewpoint in general. For whatever reason, some writers have no problem, while others struggle. Let’s review. Writing Tip for Today: Viewpoint in fiction refers to the character who not only witnesses the story as it unfolds (an eyewitness) but who also thinks, feels and acts in response to the story. I tend to counsel writers to think of the POV character as the character with the camera. Different viewpoints elicit close-ups or vista, depending on the “person.”

  • For the most common viewpoint (third person limited) the reader is in only one character’s head at one time. Third person means the pronouns will be “he” or “she.” If the writer wants to showcase a different POV in the same work, most novelists give the reader a clear signal, either by a blank space and then a new scene, or by chapters that are labeled in some way. The easiest way (I think) to stay in viewpoint is to “be” that character as you write it, rather than stand a distance away like a director.
  • The first-person viewpoint was once frowned upon (did your teacher teach you to avoid using “I?”) but now is accepted and even preferred by some readers. In the “I” voice, you walk around as if the camera was located in your belly, facing outward. Thus, the character witnesses the world, moves in that world and can think or feel about that world. The drawbacks: In this voice it’s harder to “show” the character’s physical features unless someone else is narrating or another character remarks on that POV character’s looks. The other disadvantage to first-person VP is that the character cannot know things which happen when that character is off stage.
  • Omniscient VP is seldom used these days–readers want immediacy and intimacy. This VP is the “eye in the sky” or God’s eye view. The camera, in order to take in all the characters, must stay wide-angled and far away.
  • Lots of novelists attempt to write their scenes in “omniscient VP with privileges.” This turns into “head-hopping,” which tends to confuse the reader (who am I and whom am I rooting for) and doesn’t add as much as the writer hopes.
  • To sum up, viewpoint works best when the writer stays in one character’s head at a time. Give the reader a clear idea of where changes in VP occur, by a new scene or chapter. Remember: A reader wants to be in the head (and thus become) of the character who has the most to lose, whose story we sympathize with and root for and who has a clear story goal. Do you know which character should be your VP character? If you’re still confused, a good rule is that when you are in a VP (either 1st or 3rd limited) only that VP character can have thoughts or feelings on the page.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

2 comments on “Viewpoint 101

  1. Great points. We’re discussing this very topic tonight on #writersroad chat on Twitter. It starts at 9 ET/6 PT if anyone wants to join us. I’ll be sure to link to this post.

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