Point Of View Workshop
by Kathy Carmichael
When a reader opens a novel, the first thing she wants to know is who is telling her the story?
Dwight Swain, author of Techniques of the Selling Writer, asks the following: “Whose skin am I in?”
It’s a great question.
Our discussion today covers the most commonly used viewpoints in today’s fiction, although it won’t be an all inclusive list of possible points of view.
Swain defines viewpoint as being “…the spot from which you see a story. It’s the position and perspective you occupy in order best to savor a fictional experience.”
He makes the point that readers live through the story as some specific character experiences it.
Mastering use of point of view is what sets the experienced writer apart. As a contest judge, I’ve noted the most common flaw in the books I’ve judged is poor understanding of point of view (POV). Choosing the right POV makes all the difference when it comes to selling your book and leaves the reader turning pages. You can have an excellent premise, but if it’s not presented in a point of view that makes the story sing, then your brilliant book may not make it past the first reader.
So you might think, “Well, I don’t have that problem, because I’ve written my book in third-person omniscient. There. No problems because with all-seeing-being-point-of-view, there’s no angle that can’t be covered by someone or something or with authorial intrusion if need be.”
The drawback to using omniscient viewpoint is that it can be distancing to the reader. That all-seeing-being stands between the character and the reader. However, it can be the perfect viewpoint for certain types of stories. It’s the “Once Upon a Time” viewpoint that lends itself to fairy tales and fantasy. Think Harry Potter.
The most commonly used viewpoint in today’s fiction is third person limited. The beauty of it is there is an entire spectrum of choices within this viewpoint type. You can write in such deep immersion that it feels like first person, which is very common in genre fiction. You can write more shallowly, as is often found in police-procedural mysteries. You can write in multiple third person viewpoints. For instance, in a romance the author generally writes in both the hero and heroine’s viewpoint. The challenge with third person is to find the depth of characterization that works best for conveying the story. Go too deep into the character’s head and you risk losing the reader in the mire of the subconscious. Go too shallow and there’s no reader identification.
In Character and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card had this to say.
The use of deep penetration in the limited third person is an attempt to break down the barrier of space in that narrative voice, and it works very well; thus it has become the most widely used narrative approach.
(By space he means the distance between the reader and the character telling the story.)
Another commonly used viewpoint is first person, most especially in mysteries. It’s made a recent resurgence in chick lit and women’s fiction, because it allows a depth of characterization that is easy for the reader to identify with and provides a truly emotional read. The down side is that, for the most part, the reader expects to remain in the same first person viewpoint throughout the book. There have been some published books with the use of multiple first person viewpoints or with the use of a first person protagonist and third person viewpoint used for secondary characters.
Here are some viewpoint examples roughly based on Kimberly Llewellyn’s The Quest for the Holy Veil (a truly hilarious book):
After a fast shower, my stomach growled with hunger. I quickly danced under a follow‑up powder shower.
3rd Person Limited
After a fast shower, her stomach rumbled from hunger. She quickly danced under a follow‑up powder shower.
After a fast shower, dear reader, the young woman’s stomach sent up a verbal complaint about a lack of food. The woman quickly danced beneath a follow‑up powder shower.
So what’s the best choice for you? Quite honestly, only you can answer the question. It depends. On your voice. On your story. On your characters. At times I’ve actually written an opening scene five times, experimenting with different points of view until I’ve found the one that works best.
Here are a series of questions to ask yourself when trying to decide what viewpoint to use:
Point of View Questions
- Which point of view will best showcase the world I’m creating? What will make it seem most real?
- What are you as the writer trying to say? What character can best express that? Is this a character driven story or a plot driven story?
- What viewpoint will make the reader care about what’s happening? What window into the character and the story will most appeal to the reader? Which viewpoint creates the most story tension or drama?
- What viewpoint will make your book a page turner?
If your story is comedy, you may want to limit the number of viewpoints so that the character’s take on the fictional world becomes a source of humor. In a suspense, it might be helpful to keep certain facts from the reader and if you’re in the villain’s viewpoint for much time, then those facts will probably emerge.
Alfie Thompson, author of Lights! Camera! Fiction!, had this to say: “Secondary characters’ POV is especially good in plot oriented books because it lets the reader see many things he couldn’t in a more restricted point of view. But if a viewpoint character knows something you don’t let the reader in on, the reader may feel cheated when they get to the end–if they get to the end.”
It’s your job as world builder to decide which viewpoint most clearly lets the reader get to know your characters and to experience the story. If you do, the result will be a smooth, seamless story with characters who captivate your reader.
- Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
- How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey
- Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell