Choosing Viewpoint Characters: What’s Right for Your Story?

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Sometimes, it’s obvious who the viewpoint character(s) will be for a particular story. Maybe you’re writing a first-person romance novella, for instance, with the heroine as the only viewpoint character.

Often, though, there isn’t a completely clear-cut choice. You might have multiple characters playing a large-ish role in the story: chances are, your protagonist will be a viewpoint character, but you may well have others too.

When you sit down to write any new story, viewpoint is pretty much the first decision you have to make. Who will begin your story? What other voices will you bring in? The decisions you make will shape the whole of your narrative … and they’ll shape the reader’s experience of it.

One Viewpoint Character … or More?

The simplest option is to stick with a single viewpoint character: this could be a first-person or third-person narrator. Normally, this character will be the protagonist – though that’s not essential, and some older works in particular use a non-protagonist narrator (John Watson, for instance, is the first-person narrator of the Sherlock Holmes stories – but he’s not the protagonist).

The advantages to one viewpoint character, whether first or third, are:

  • It keeps things simple. You don’t need to make decisions on when to switch viewpoint, and head-hopping is less of a risk (though it can still be an issue in a third-person narrative).
  • The reader can be drawn quite quickly into the story: they don’t have to get to know multiple “voices” or sympathise with several different perspectives.
  • You can keep information from the reader by keeping it from the viewpoint character: for instance, if you’re not showing the antagonist’s perspective, his/her plans can be easily kept secret.

If you have multiple viewpoint characters, however:

  • Readers can cope better with an annoying or self-absorbed viewpoint character as this isn’t the only perspective they’ll get.
  • You can experiment with more unusual perspectives that might not be work if you used them for a whole novel.
  • Your story can be more complex, both in terms of plot and theme: this suits some genres better than others, of course.
  • You can show the reader what’s happening in multiple different locations at the same time: this could be important for the plot, or simply a way to highlight a particular point or theme.
  • You can build up tension by letting the reader know something that the protagonist doesn’t (e.g. what the antagonist has planned).

There’s no “right” answer about how many viewpoint characters to have, but it’s also important to think about how long your story is going to be in total.

If you’re writing a short story, you’ll probably want to stick to one viewpoint character (unless it’s essential for the plot that you have two different perspectives).

In a novella, you might find that two viewpoints work well – maybe in a split narrative – but you won’t want to have lots of different voices coming in.

In a full-length novel, you might have quite a few viewpoint characters: in Lycopolis, for instance, I have seven (and Oblivion has nine). You’ll need to think then about which characters get the main share of viewpoint scenes – some of mine only have a couple of chapters each as their perspectives aren’t so important to the story.

What if Your Story Isn’t Quite Working?

Sometimes, a story that doesn’t quite come together has a viewpoint issue.

You might feel a tension as you’re drafting: in Write a Novel and Get it Published, Nigel Watts mentions struggling with the draft of his novel Billy Bayswater, only for it to fall into place when he changed the narrative from third person into first person.

Or, you may get through your first draft but then feel – on re-reading – that the story simply isn’t as gripping as you’d hoped, or that one character’s scenes read far better than another’s.

Here are a few things to think about if you’re considering changing what viewpoints you use:

  • More viewpoints are not necessarily going to make for a richer or more interesting story. Sometimes, keeping a particular perspective off the page makes for a better read – you might feel like you want to keep a character’s thought processes a bit mysterious. Novelist K.M. Weiland talks about this when she explains she chose to use Hitch’s viewpoint, not Jael’s, in Storming because she didn’t want to lose “the mystery and humor we get by viewing her from an outside
  • On the other hand, sometimes an unusual perspective can breathe new life into a long story – in the Chaos Walking trilogy, I really liked the addition of Viola’s perspective in the second volume and the Spackle’s hive-mind viewpoint in the third.
  • If the story feels too fragmented between different viewpoints, you may need to rein some in: that could mean that some characters no longer get viewpoint scenes at all, or simply that you reduce how many viewpoint scenes they have.
  • As a writing exercise, it can be helpful to switch things around: maybe you could try rewriting a third person scene in the first person or a scene in past tense in the present tense. You may well decide that you’re not going to change it permanently – but it could help you nail down a particular character’s voice.
  • The story itself can change based on the viewpoints given: the exact same events can have a different meaning from a different point of view.
  • First person narrators don’t have to be reliable witnesses! If it suits your story, yours can lie to the reader (or at least mislead) – but if you are going to do this, you need to clue the reader in that the narrator isn’t 100% reliable.
  • You might choose to deliberately mislead the reader without having a narrator who actually lies. For instance, in Gentleman and Players, Joanne Harris deliberately doesn’t name one of the first-person narrators: the reader has to work out which character it is based on the other half of the narration.

 

What viewpoint(s) are you using in your current work-in-progress? Are they a good fit for your story, or are you thinking about changing things around? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

4 thoughts on “Choosing Viewpoint Characters: What’s Right for Your Story?

  1. Thanks, Ali.

    “There’s no ‘right’ answer about how many viewpoint characters to have, but it’s also important to think about how long your story is going to be in total.”

    Head-hopping works as long as it’s obvious and doesn’t distract readers. I’m reading a novel right now that switches POV within the same paragraph. Every time I encounter the shifts, I have to stop and puzzle for a second before I decipher whose head the story has switched to.

    George R. R. Martin handles head-hopping well in his Game of Thromes series, although I’m not fond of the frequent internal monologue and vast number of characters. I never know which details to make note of and which to disregard.
    Kathy Steinemann’s last blog post ..8 Guidelines for Contractions in Writing

    • If an author can make it work without distracting or confusing the reader, then I don’t think it’s a problem. I guess when I’ve seen head-hopping happening, it’s been in not-quite-there manuscripts where the author has shifted POVs without really thinking about it!

      I struggled with the Game of Thrones books (though loved the TV series); I think the huge cast of characters was just a bit much for me!

  2. Ali,
    I’m really loving your blog posts. This is helping me with my own books. But it opens up a can of worms for me. Now I have to rewrite. 😉
    Just thought I’d mention it.
    Thank you.
    Peter

    • Aw no, sorry, Peter! Though for me, the rewriting part of writing is often just as much fun… 😉 Good luck!

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