Six impossible things

Who sees?

Picking a viewpoint character seems to be one of those things that writers either have no trouble with at all, or else struggle with for weeks and/or multiple drafts. It seems to be a particular problem for people who are writing multiple-viewpoint structures, where there are several POV characters, each of whom has his/her own storyline, but there are other types of writers who have considerable trouble with it, too.

There are three questions that are good to ask when one finds oneself dithering about which character should be the main viewpoint in a novel:

  1. Whose story is it?

That is, which character do these events matter most to? Which one changes (or has his/her life changed) the most due to what is happening here? Note that the change can be mental, emotional, or circumstantial – in most “lost heir” plots, the poor child who is eventually revealed to be the True King or the heir to the fortune is the main character, not because they learn lessons or undergo great emotional growth and change, but because their physical circumstances change from poverty to riches.

If you’re starting with a plot idea and having trouble picking a POV character, this is usually a good first question to ask. Identifying the main/central character does not necessarily make that person the right viewpoint, but it is a good place to start, because if the main character does not end up being the viewpoint character, the viewpoint character will pretty much have to be someone who spends most of the story near to the main character, and who has good reason to see and understand what’s going on and why the main character is the main character.

  1. Who do you want to write about?

Whose eyes do you want to see the story through? The main character in the Lost Heir plotline is usually the formerly missing heir, but maybe you, as a writer, are more interested in seeing the story from a different angle. You want to explore the way the Lost Heir’s adoptive mother feels as she watches the kid she raised cope with all this new responsibility, or the way the resentful, entitled former heir-presumptive slowly comes around to accept the new situation. Making the mother or the former heir the viewpoint character allows the writer to dig much more deeply into that character’s emotions. It also usually shifts the focus of the story, so that Mom or the heir are now the main character, and the whole “lost heir” plot is less the central plotline and more of the situation/secondary plot (while the real new central plotline is a Man Learns Lesson plot).

Or the writer may simply find one of the “secondary” characters more interesting than the putative main character. Or the writer may want to see the main character from outside without making him/her any less the main character, so they go with a viewpoint character who is a sidekick, or the main character’s personal maid.

This is a question that a lot of folks who have trouble picking a POV character either skip entirely, or else try to talk themselves out of. (“I really want to make the valet the POV, but he’s not the main character, so I can’t.”) If you know which character’s viewpoint you really, really want to write from, you can make it work. It may not be quite the story you set out to write to begin with, though, which leads me to…

  1. Which character’s viewpoint is going to be most effective for the kind of story you want to tell?

A writer who wants to focus on a character’s emotions, personal growth, and spiritual journey is quite often going to use that character as a sole, or at least major, viewpoint. A writer who focuses mainly on plot development has somewhat more leeway – it’s usually still most effective to pick the main character, but there are lots of potential reasons why one might want someone else to be the primary viewpoint.

If you want a new, fresh take on “Sleeping Beauty,” picking an unusual viewpoint (a castle guard, a local seamstress, the nanny) can give you that. If your main character is terribly complex or terribly unsympathetic or obnoxious, or is someone who isn’t going to be personally affected much (i.e., grow and change) because of the events of the story, showing him through someone else’s eyes can make the story work better (as with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson – the one story Conan Doyle wrote that’s from Holmes’ viewpoint really doesn’t work at all well). If your main character is a lot smarter than you are, or incredibly charming, it is often more effective (and easier!) to show these traits from the outside. If you want to show the emotional and mental changes that occur when a pauper becomes king, it’ll probably be most effective if the pauper-king is the primary or sole viewpoint. Murder mysteries are almost always told from the viewpoint of the detective or the detective’s sidekick (if the detective is too smart and using his/her viewpoint would give the solution away too soon).

And if the writer deliberately wants to distance the reader from the story, it can work to pick a viewpoint character who isn’t there for most major events and has to be told about them later. Especially if the writer is trying for a Rashomon-like piece in which four or five people give significantly different accounts of a particular incident and the readers have to decide for themselves which one (if any) is true, or in a multiple-viewpoint story where each new POV character provides new information that completely changes the way the readers think about what they just saw happen from some other viewpoint.

Multiple-viewpoint structure lends itself to a lot of viewpoint razzle-dazzle, but I think that’s a post for another time.

1 Comment
  1. This is exactly the problem I’m having now. While I find my FMC interesting, I find the emotional trajectory of the other characters *more* interesting. I’m realizing she isn’t making as many personal epiphanies as they are. Not good.

    So, while I started out my rough draft in her first person POV, I’m finding now that she’s recovered many of her memories, she’s not as interesting to me. She’s going flat.

    There’s going to be a ton of revision. *sigh*

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