Choosing a Viewpoint

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.

4 comments

  1. “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…”

    Avoid most japanese visual novels like the plague. They’re either a guilty pleasure for people that are in love with the tropes and commonalities or an excercise in frustration. Oddly enough, I sit on the middle ground… which makes my point kind of moot. I’m sure my editor will fix that.

    “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 (…)”

    In the words of a lovely lol-cat. Can I haz Twilight bashing time nao?

  2. Michael says:

    Interesting post. It’s a problem I’ve never really had, since I tend to write either first person — in which case I stick with one narrator throughout an entire work, unless there are some scenes where that’s impossible, and in those cases it’s usually obvious whom to choose as a temporary substitute narrator — or third person omnisicent. Though not so much in the sense of “getting in everyone’s head” as in the sense of *being able* to get into anyone’s head if their thoughts are important enough to be worth giving page space to.

    And occasionally that means I’ll have a scene, or even a whole chapter, that is from a single character’s viewpoint. For instance: one of my villains, a sorceror specialising in illusion, creates an illusion-duplicate of herself so the heroes have to separate, then works on each of them to try to turn them against each other. One of the heroes then looks up to see what looks like the other hero advancing towards her. Has the villain’s illusion worked, or is this just another illusion? In that scene, for obvious reasons, I confine myself to giving one character’s perspective; that way the reader is kept guessing.

    But in general, if I want to confine myself to a single perspective, I’ll use first person, since if a character is interesting enough to justify telling the story from their point of view, surely they must be interesting enough that it’s worth hearing their voice. (But I’d love to hear what you’ve got to say on the choice between first and third person; perhaps a topic for another post?) The only catch is that — as you mentioned — with first person it’s harder to give visual details, short of starting with a corny “Hi, I’m Usagi Tsukino, I’m 14 years old, this is my star sign and favourite colour….” style introduction. In fact, in the story I’m working on at the moment, it’s probably not immediately obvious that the narrator is a girl and I can imagine some readers not realising this until considerably later than I would like them to….

  3. Ravyn says:

    Frederico: I’ll respond first to your lolcat question: Feel free.

    And yeah, I’ve a little experience with the kinds of visual novels you’re talking about, particularly with the Ubiquitous Love Triangle. Been building up a tolerance, sort of, but not my cuppa.

    Michael: Do you worry that the single-person perspective might itself be interpreted as a clue?

    I agree, the infodump is the worst way to go. I’ve seen a number of suggestions for workarounds, including comparing other people’s appearances to one’s own, finding excuses to come near reflective surfaces (and not reflect on them too long, please)….

    Gender’s a tough one to get across in first person, I agree, particularly if you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t really show too many stereotypical traits. The character overhearing people talk about her might be a good, if heavy-handed, cue. Or, as was used early on in Digger, there’s leaning towards the feminine rather than the masculine in talking about cultural truths (“One of the first things a young wombat learns is that if she’s lost…”) Sometimes, but not all the time, just getting the name across will do the job.


Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Impractical Applications (Meanwhile….) | Exchange of Realities

Leave a Reply