Monday, September 17, 2012

Viewpoints Done Right

In fiction, there are two types of viewpoints. For all the years I’ve been a writer, there’s been a debate over what’s better, the first person story or the third person.

The first person is the most common. A first person story is told from the point of view of the writer being the protagonist. In other words, I am the main character and I am the one telling readers my story. The third person story is one in which the writer isn’t the protagonist.

Many writers find it’s difficult to write in third person and will stick to first person. It’s a lot easier to tell readers what I feel, think, see, etc than it is to show the same of others.

Those writers who do brave the third person viewpoint often make the mistake of telling the story from the viewpoint of every character. One minute readers are following along with the thoughts of the hero and the next minute the maid walks in the room and we’re hearing the story from her voice. Not only is this quite confusing to readers but it’s an abuse of the third person story. Just because the story is done in a third person viewpoint doesn’t mean readers want or should know what every character is thinking.

That’s not to say that writers shouldn’t use alternating viewpoints, alternating being the key word. As writers, we have to find that appropriate middle ground. We have to know how much to show readers without it being too much and we have to do it in a way that’s effective.

Using alternating or even multiple viewpoints, if the story calls for it, can work. The trick is to give each viewpoint character either their own passages or their own chapter. To switch viewpoints midstream will confuse readers and could cause them to set aside your novel. The problem with that is that they not only tell other people not to read your work for that reason but they also don’t buy anything you publish in the future. 

Whether the story is first or third person, readers want to know the main characters are thinking and feeling even if the characters can’t say the same of each other. Readers feel like they’re part of the story if they know the secret John is keeping from Mary. Part of what keeps them interested is how the secret will be revealed and what Mary will do when she finally does find out.

When I first started out as a writer, it was considered the kiss of death to give too much away. Having multiple viewpoints was one of those things that could give too much away. Since then, writers have learned it’s okay to invite readers deeper into the story and show them things about the characters that not even they know. Just make sure it’s done in a way that allows your story to move freely without tripping up the readers. Do that and you can make any viewpoint work.

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