One of the most interesting things I’ve found about writing a story has been figuring out who’s telling it, or at least whose viewpoint it centers on, if any. Yes, one can write a story without centering on a person’s viewpoint; third person omniscient perspective gets in everyone’s head, third objective doesn’t get in anyone’s. But I find those aren’t quite as much fun; third person limited and first person for me.
I’m not just talking about choosing between third person limited and first person. It’s not really that much of a choice—the main difference is that first person, since it’s the character talking, gives you more of the character’s voice and less of the character’s appearance, whereas third person limited lets you contrast the narrative voice from the character and gives you more of a chance to see the character’s outsides as well as inside the character’s head. (In general, I reserve first person for highly personal accounts in which the character’s internal monologue is vital and the visuals of what she does are more irrelevant… but I digress.)
In most stories, you’re going to be dealing with multiple characters, and the important part becomes figuring out which one of them gets to, if not tell the whole story, then at least narrate a particular scene. If you’re lucky, it’s just one of those scenes that tells you who should be narrating it as you write, so starting with one character fails, but when you switch to another, it flows a lot more effectively. But if not, it’s good to know what kinds of considerations can help to choose a viewpoint character.
Which one will help you get across the most information? Sometimes, this means going for the most emotionally perceptive character, as he’s likely to be able to notice the little verbal and visual cues the other characters are giving off and comment on them. At other times, it’s the one who has the greatest knowledge of the surroundings or the situation. But this cuts both ways; if what’s important is not getting information across, narrating through a character who’s not going to get it or one who doesn’t pay attention to the right sorts of things can help to preserve confusion just a little bit longer.
Which one is the audience going to identify best with? I don’t know about you, but I much prefer reading narrators with whom I can empathize. I have given up on books because I spent too much time wanting to smack the narrator for being an idiot, or chew them out for dwelling on something they couldn’t have changed, or….. First person narratives in particular should take this into account: if the audience doesn’t have at least some respect for the narrator, they might get too irritated with him to finish the story, whereas a witty enough narrator might even be able to save an otherwise cliché plot.
Which one do you like writing? As I’ve pointed out before, creator enthusiasm often makes it all the way to the audience. This means that if the creator doesn’t enjoy writing the character who’s telling the story, that frustration is likely to trickle its way through to the audience whether they realize it or not. If at all possible, make sure that you yourself have some respect for whichever character is holding the viewpoint, or some other way of getting enjoyment out of writing them.
From a distance, it doesn’t seem like a very important element of the story, but choice of viewpoint character can in some cases make or break a narrative.