Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Viewpoint in fiction


Aside from grammatical errors, the most common sin I find in the work of new novelists is "head-hopping"—that is, giving the viewpoint, or point of view (POV), to more than one character in a scene. This is a big no-no.

Point of view is the perspective from which a story is told. Writers have three basic choices: the first person singular (“I”), the second person (“you”), and the third person (“he”/”she”). In the first-person point of view, the story is told by an “I” who is a character in the story—often the lead character, but not always. In third-person the author actually has two narrative perspectives to choose from—the third-person pure omniscient point of view, which is told by an “outside” voice that has access to any character’s actions and thoughts, and the third-person limited omniscient point of view, which is similar but is limited to the thoughts and perspective of a single character per scene.

First-person novels are popular, but second-person narratives are useless to new writers because they’re mostly considered to be experimental works and are nearly impossible to get published. Most fiction houses today are happiest with the third-person format, believing it to be the most commercial approach. We may also note that many novels on the best-seller lists are written this way, perhaps because stories of action and adventure lend themselves so well to the less constricting third-person viewpoint.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid using the first person. Many first-person novels are published. Despite the limitations of the first-person POV, I like them, mainly because they are a refreshing change from all the third-person novels out there and because I can get to know the protagonist better and identify with that person.

Long gone is the popularity of the verbose, pure omniscient third-person narrator. Many nineteenth-century novelists used and abused this narrative style, pushing the envelope to include a great deal of narrative by an unseen, godlike intelligence who knows all the details of the past, who can see the future, and who loves to comment on the action and the story people with a variety of asides, lectures, and sermons like an Olympian sportscaster. Such writers would frequently insert copy something like this:

            The coach departed in a clatter of hooves and a great swirl of fog, leaving MacGregor standing alone in the dark, gazing apprehensively up the long curve of road leading to the dim mansion, cloistered in oaks, at the top of the hill. It would be a difficult climb, burdened as he was with two heavy portmanteaus, but he was determined to make it. O foolish man! You suspect nothing, anticipate only joy. But ahead, for you, lies more evil than you ever expect to encounter. Pity him, gentle reader, for the unutterable horrors he must soon face, and pray that his moral fiber and his long-held convictions will see him through these tribulations.

I wrote this all by myself. Pretty impressive, eh?

Would you enjoy reading a novel filled with dreck like this? Neither would anyone else. That’s why ninety-nine percent of nineteenth-century novels and their authors have slipped into obscurity—and why today’s novelists should make every effort to avoid such a bloated omniscient prose style.

These days the third-person limited omniscient narrator is much more palatable. In this viewpoint the story is told only in the third person, but it is limited to the perspective of a single character in each scene. That’s the most rigorous view of this form of narration, anyway—and the safest one for new writers. In other words, little or nothing appears in the scene that the viewpoint character (VPC) doesn’t experience directly, and anything that character didn’t experience is still related from his or her perspective, with the explicit or implicit understanding that this information was related to that character by someone else. If your POV character faints, the scene ends. If your POV character walks out of the room, the reader goes out the door, too, and never stays behind with the characters who do not have the point of view. Most important, you should never allow your POV person to be shoved aside by some divine stage manager who comments on the story and its players.

When writers of fiction lose their grip, narratively speaking, on this limited form of viewpoint, then they slip into the realm of the unrestricted omniscient narrator. Considered in the strictest sense, all background information, character sketches, history lessons, travelogues, and such occupy the province of the all-seeing, all-knowing pure omniscient narrator. The only way to avoid that is to couch such material cleverly, offering it to the reader via the intelligence of the POV character.

If you’re limited to the viewpoint of only one person in each scene, how then, you may wonder, can you convey the thoughts of a character who is not given the POV for that scene? Here are a few tips:

  • Put that character’s thoughts in dialogue.
  • Put that character’s emotions on his/her face and have the POV character correctly interpret those feelings after looking at him/her.
  • Wait until that character is given a point of view, then have him/her reflect on the previous scene and relate his/her thoughts.
Please, please, friends, no more head-hopping!


Paul Thayer
your-book-editor.com