Six impossible things

Old ways of looking at viewpoint

One of the really interesting things about older how-to-write books is their take on viewpoint. Several don’t mention it at all; others give it barely a passing glance. When they do talk about it, it’s from a completely different angle from that taken by modern how-to-write authors.

For starters, none of them seem to consider the question of type of narration (that is, first person or third person) to be an aspect of viewpoint at all. Out of seven books from the 1950s or earlier, only two deal with the question of “grammatical form” explicitly in the section on viewpoint. One of them spends roughly two pages discussing “the logic of the use of the first-person observer,” but spends nearly as much time on the question of person in the sections on “distance” and “plot.” The other book dismisses the whole question in half a page with the admonition “Use the grammatical form with which you feel most ‘at home.’”

Instead, these books talk about viewpoint as being more an aspect of the author and less about the book or story or characters. The emphasis is on what the writer’s attitude is and what the writer wants to say; the viewpoint is the angle or perspective from which the writer chooses to say it.

By this interpretation, there are really only two basic viewpoints: from outside the story, which is synonymous with omniscient, and from inside the story (i.e., seen through the eyes of a character), which covers everything else. One of my favorite books further subdivides the “inside the story” viewpoint based on whether the author’s chosen character is a major character who is directly involved in the action, or a minor character who is more or less passively observing the action.

A slightly different classification of viewpoints (from the appendix of the second book) separates viewpoints by Internal (i.e., inside the head of the main character) and External (the story is told by someone who is observing the events, whether that someone is the author or a minor character in the story). The textbook author notes that either first-person or third-person may be used for either type of viewpoint, and then proceeds to the meat of his discussion of viewpoint.

Both books focus their discussion of viewpoint mainly on when and why an author would prefer an internal vs. an external viewpoint, with particular emphasis on when and why an author would choose a minor character as the angle from which to tell the story. The what and how of viewpoint – the technical difficulties and techniques of writing first-person or omniscient, for instance – don’t enter the discussion at all, not even in the book that’s supposed to be all about technique.

I couldn’t even find the term “viewpoint character” in either book; they talk about the “observer author,” “objective narrator,” “authorial angle,” and so on instead. It’s kind of disconcerting. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the older approach, which pretty consistently takes the view that all these technical tricks are something the author can and should figure out for him/herself, through careful reading and analysis of a variety of great stories. It would have driven me crazy when I was starting to learn my craft, and really wanted to be told what was possible and how to do it, but at least it doesn’t give the impression that there is One Right Way to handle everything.

The other thing I like a lot about this approach is the unabashed acknowledgement that the author is the one who’s in charge and picking the viewpoint angle in order to say something, in the same way a film director picks camera angles, or a landscape painter or photographer picks the direction and height from which to portray a scene. A lot of the time, more recent writing books are so quick to start explaining the techniques of writing first-person, or the difference between tight-third and omniscient, that they don’t spend enough time pointing out that there are reasons for choosing one over another. And the whole internal/external way of looking at viewpoint seems to have gotten lost along the way as the internal viewpoint (whether first or third person) has become almost a standard. I think it’s nice to know that there’s more of a choice out there than first-person vs. subjective, tight-third person vs. omniscient, even if I’m fairly sure I’m going to be writing a main character/internal viewpoint 99% of the time.

  1. “And the whole internal/external way of looking at viewpoint seems to have gotten lost along the way as the internal viewpoint (whether first or third person) has become almost a standard.”

    Yes! I tried to write a short story using the external viewpoint, a la Holmes and Watson, and it drove me crazy. If I’m in X’s head, then I keep trying to make X the main character. Except that Y is the main character. X just ended up feeling passive, which was the main criticism I got of the story from my writers’ group. And I agreed with them. I ended up completely re-writing the story, with X as the main character.

    Maybe I’ll try it again, sometime.

  2. I have used the observer character viewpoint technique more than once.

    I find that it really, really helps to tell the readers up front who the story is actually about.

  3. It took me a very long time to realise that ‘tight third’ and ‘first person’ are approximations. Firstly, you can have first person omni of sorts – if the protagonist tells the story years later and knows what happened ‘meanwhile back at the farm’ because somebody told them.

    And secondly, ‘tight third’ means that you’re sticking to one character, not that every damn observation needs to be filtered through them.

    So, after writing my first novel in beginner omni, I then spent many years writing like this:

    Gajut woke to a boathouse that was mostly silent. Ern heard only the waves lapping softly against the sides of the dock. Once ern opened errn’s eyes, ern could see the triad of boaters nestling together, limbs intertwined.

    It took me a long time to find the courage to write

    The boathouse lay silent bar for the waves lapping softly against the sides of the dock.etc.

    I mean, it’s a given that the character is observing these things, so we don’t need to stick that confirmation onto every sentence, just as we don’t stick ‘he thought’ onto every thought.

    And not only is [pronoun observed] intrusive and repetitive, it works to distance the reader from the observations and explains the story to the reader, rather than allowing the reader to go along. It’s much more effect to
    say Ern opened errn’s eyes. The triad of boaters nestled together, limbs intertwined. because now we know exactly what we’re observing – the moment the character opens their eyes and prepares to get up.

  4. You have to have a good reason for an observer narrator. Most of them that work, in my experience, are those where the observer is deeply and dramatically affected by the actions — perhaps even more than the main character.

  5. I pretty much always write from inside the main character’s head. Though, you’re right, it’s interesting how often people jump right into explaining the technicalities rather than writing *why* someone would choose that viewpoint.

  6. I also usually I write from the main character’s viewpoint.

    But for Cantata I was having trouble finding a narrative voice that fit the tone I wanted for the story. I tried a bunch of different pov’s — protag in first, protag in third, etc and nothing seemed right, until I tried the pov of one of the servants and then it just… clicked.

    And for Song of Asolde, I knew I didn’t want to be inside the main character’s head for that long.

  7. Very interesting. I particularly like the idea of main character and minor character being treated as separate kinds of POV. I can see that. There would be different things that one should strive for or avoid for each.

    I’ll be linking to this in the “useful or shiny” bit in my next market newsletter! (

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