“Three Decisions to Make about Viewpoint in Fiction”

You have a fabulous idea for a short story, perhaps a novel. You have a rough outline — or not, but you know how the story is going to begin, progress and end. Your fingers are twitching on the keyboard.

Wait!

There are three decisions about viewpoint you should make before you let your fingers loose.

First, through whose eyes will you tell the story?

Your choice of viewpoint characters will affect the story you tell. Each character in a story has a particular view of the events in the story, and will interpret and relate those events from his or her unique standpoint.

For example, imagine a woman, about to step off the curb without paying attention to an oncoming bus. A man grabs her arm and hauls her back. “Geez, lady, you could have been hit!” he says.

He will tell this story: “A ditzy woman, deep into dreamland, almost killed herself by walking in front of a bus.”

She will tell this story: “I was so preoccupied with worries about how I was going to get through the month on the $100 left in my bank account that I almost stepped in front of a bus and thank heaven a guy grabbed me.”

If the woman has a small child with her at the time of the incident, the child will tell this story: “A bad, mean man grabbed mommy and shouted at her.”

Characters may also have their own agenda, again influencing how they tell the story. Let’s go back to that sidewalk. But this time, imagine a husband and wife having an intense discussion in the midst of passersby. The town gossip is going to tell a different version of the facts surrounding that vignette than the tired beat cop who just wants to log his hours and get off his aching feet. And an entirely different version will be told by each of the two warring spouses.

Second, which point of view will you use for your viewpoint character(s)?

Usually, you will choose between first and third person point of view. There are many subtleties about selecting the point of view to use for your story, but I want to point out only one not-so-subtle thought today: if you want to show events in which the protagonist does not participate, don’t use first person, or even close third person with a single viewpoint character (both of which, as you know, require all events to be funneled through the eyes of the viewpoint character). If you want to tell the story from multiple characters’ viewpoints, then select third person.

It’s a drag trying to change a novel from first person to third person when you’re 150 pages into it.

Third, from what distance does your viewpoint character tell the story?

The distance, in the sense of time, that the narration is from the events of the story, affects the story. It will have an impact on your choice of words and the amount or type of reflection in the story. It may also distance your reader from the story.

A classic example is a young narrator telling his story a day after it happens, in which the reader receives the child’s view and perception of the events, in his words. Contrast this with an adult narrator telling that story 20 years after it occurs. Now you have an adult’s view of what happened when he was a child, with his perceptions as they are influenced by his education and growth in the intervening years.

The same concept applies with adult characters – depending whether you tell the story two days, or ten years, after it happens, the protagonist will be in the moment or removed from it.

Who your viewpoint character or characters will be, the point of view you need, and how close you want the reader to be to the action are important decisions for your story. Take it from someone who has been there; make your decisions before you begin writing the masterpiece. It will save you grief.

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About Charlotte Morganti

Charlotte Morganti has been a burger flipper, beer slinger, lawyer, and seasonal chef de tourtière. And, always, a stringer-together-of-words. In addition to her law degree, she holds an MFA in Creative Writing. Her short fiction appears in Tahoma Literary Review and The Whole She-Bang 2. Her first novel, The Snow Job, was a finalist for Crime Writers of Canada’s Unhanged Arthur award in 2014 for the best unpublished crime novel. She lives on the west coast of Canada with her husband and the quirky characters who populate her fiction.