Your choice of viewpoint for your novel will have a big effect on how you tell your story. To show you how and why this happens, , I'm going to write the same scene using different viewpoints. The main characters are Seb Stone and Jane Knox, and my sample scene comes from the point in their story where they meet for the first time.
Omniscient or author’s viewpoint
If you are telling the story from the outside without looking through anyone’s eyes, you are using what’s called omniscient viewpoint. It’s also known as God’s eye view, third person distant or third person omniscience where the third person bit means you refer to all the characters as he or she or, in some cases, it. But I’m going to use yet another alternative: author view. That's a good name, because it describes exactly what you are doing – writing as the author who knows everything about everyone.
Here’s the scene where Seb and Jane meet, written in author viewpoint.
The children filed into the museum behind their teacher, Mrs Grant – a dumpy woman with a permanently harassed expression on her face. At the back of the line, Seb Stone chivvied along the stragglers like a human sheepdog. It was a harder task than he’d expected, and he wished he’d never agreed to be a volunteer helper.
Jane Knox gave the class her best welcoming smile. But before she had a chance to say hello, a boy called Jimmy pointed at an Egyptian mummy on the other side of the room. “Is that a real body, Miss?”he asked.
“Of course, it is,” said Jane, although she knew she was lying.
Seb knew she was too. He’s seen plenty of old things himself, and none of them were as perfect and clean as this fake exhibit.
As you can see, authors view lets us look at what everyone is doing and thinking, but it makes it hard for readers to focus in on anyone in particular. Who is most important to the story- Seb, Jane, Jimmy or Mrs Grant? Who are the readers expected to care about?
Because of this problem, it’s unusual these days to use author’s view for an entire book. However, there are times when it can be useful, especially if your main character isn’t around or is unconscious. The opening of the first Harry Potter book uses author view to tell us how baby Harry came to live with his uncle and aunt. J K Rowling only switches to Harry’s viewpoint in the second chapter when he’s old enough to have one.
Third person close
Now let’s write that scene again as if we’re looking at it entirely through Jane’s eyes. I’ll talk about her as she so this viewpoint is called third person close or limited third person.
Jane watched the children filed into the museum, trying to assess what type of audience they would be. Their teacher looked tired and harassed which didn’t bode well, and the young man at the back was having to work hard to keep them all together.
Suddenly, a boy in scruffy jeans pointed at the Egyptian mummy on the other side of the room and asked, “Is that a real body, Miss?”
“Of course, they are,” said Jane, as convincingly as she could. But she knew she was lying. Everything the public was allowed to see in the museum was fake.
The children seemed to believe her. So did their teacher. But she wasn’t so sure about the sandy-haired young man at the back. He was looking at her so hard that it made her feel uncomfortable. Had he guessed the truth or was he just trying to imagine her with no clothes on?
This version makes it very clear that Jane is the person who matters at the moment. Knowing what she’s thinking has let me work in extra information about her: she’s nervous about giving the talk and she has a fairly low opinion of young men’s thought processes. Interestingly, I didn’t know either of those facts before I started – I discovered them while I was writing.
The problem with third person close is that it puts restrictions on my storytelling. Because I’m inside Jane’s head, I can’t use names she doesn’t know yet, and I can’t say for sure that Seb knows she is lying. I also have to stay with her all the time. I can’t take the readers home with Seb unless she goes too and that would be rushing their relationship too much.
Now let’s try the scene one more time looking through Seb’s eyes. But this time I’m going to write as if Seb is telling the story so I’ll refer to him as I. That’s why this viewpoint is called first person. I don’t have to explain who I refers to because readers will already know it’s Seb from earlier in the book.
By the time we reached the museum, I wished I’d never volunteered to help with the school trip. It was alright for the teacher – she was at the front with the good kids. I was stuck at the back with the naughty ones, chivvying them along like a human sheepdog. If I was ever asked to do this again, I would definitely say I was too busy.
Our guide for the day turned out to be a rather prim girl who could have been attractive if she’d put more effort into her appearance. A bit more sleep might have helped too. She looked worn out.
Before she had a chance to say anything, the boy who’d been causing me the most trouble pointed at the Egyptian mummy on the other side of the room. “Is that a real body, Miss?” he asked.
“Of course, it is,” she replied a little too glibly.
The kids were impressed, but I wasn’t. I’ve seen plenty of old things in my time, and none of them were as clean and perfect as this fake exhibit.
As you can see, first person has very similar advantages and disadvantages to third person close. We can easily tell that Seb is the person we are supposed to care about, and we can identify with how he feels. But we can’t know anything that he doesn’t know – Jane’s name, for example.
Also, while we are in Seb’s viewpoint, we have to stick with him. If he goes out of the room, we’ll go too. We can’t stay behind to find out what Jane is up to.
Using a single viewpoint helps the reader identify strongly with the viewpoint character. However, it has the disadvantage that you can’t show events that happen when your viewpoint character isn’t there or reveal anything that your viewpoint character doesn’t know. So if they are walking into danger, the readers won’t know until your character does. That’s great if you want it to be a huge surprise. But it prevents you building tension and keeping your readers on the edge of their seats by letting them know what that danger lies ahead or lurks behind them.
You can avoid this problem by using more than one viewpoint. Any combination is acceptable: one character plus author view, two characters, three or even more. They don’t even have to all be human: In Wolf Brother, Michelle Paver -successfully uses the wolf’s viewpoint in as well as two different human ones.
However, the more viewpoints you use, the greater the chance of confusing your reader, and confusion in something we want to avoid. It jumps the reader out of the story while they try to sort out what’s happening and messes up our attempts to make them care about the characters. So don’t use more viewpoints than you really need. If you find you have too many, rethink the way you are telling the story to see if you can cut some of them out. Be extra careful if you are writing for children, because weak readers are more prone to get in a muddle. That’s why I usually stick to one viewpoint for books for under eights.
Choosing the right viewpoint
If you’re not sure which viewpoint to use, it’s a good idea to repeat the exercise I did earlier by writing a scene from your novel in various ways. You may be surprised to find that what works best isn’t what you’d expected. I had always planned to write the the scene where Seb and Jane meet from Jane’s viewpoint but, now I’ve tried it, I think it flows better with Seb’s. I still want to use Jane’s viewpoint eventually, but I’ll wait until a later scene.
If you are going to tell your story through just one set of eyes, it’s best if they belong to your main character. The alternative is to use someone less important as your viewpoint character and allow them to narrate the story as Arthur Conan Doyle does with Dr Watson in the Sherlock Holmes books. But that can be tricky because, unless you are very careful, readers may identify more strongly with the viewpoint character than they do with your hero.
If you are planning to write from more than one viewpoint, your choice is more open and will depend on the needs of your story. For example, if it’s about three people who get separated on a dangerous mission, you might want to use all three of them as viewpoint characters so the readers can follow all their adventures. Or you may prefer to only have two viewpoint characters and let readers share their uneasiness at not knowing what’s happened to the third person in their group.
It’s sometimes vital to keep important information about a character hidden from a reader until an appropriate time in the story. This is much more difficult to do with a viewpoint character so bear it in mind when you are making your choices.
For example, in this story, Seb and Jane will eventually be on the run from the aliens who run the planet and join up with another rebel called Gareth. As this is going to create a love triangle and conflict between the two boys it’s tempting to make Gareth another viewpoint character. However, he has a big secret – he’s an alien in disguise. When this is discovered, we want the readers to be as unsure as Seb and Jane about whether they should trust him and that wouldn’t be possible if they’d been inside his head.
Over the years, I’ve read many rules about how to switch from one viewpoint to another. I’ve also read many novels that break those rules without causing me any problems at all. So I’ve decided that the only rules about viewpoint changes that really matter are:
- Don’t confuse your readers
- Don’t get in the way of their enjoyment of a scene.
The easiest way to avoid confusion is to only switch at chapter breaks. It’s also the only way that works if you are writing more than one viewpoint in the first person. Changing who I refers to in the middle of a chapter is guaranteed to get your readers in a muddle.
If you need to switch viewpoint during a chapter, try to choose a break between scenes. And make it clear from the text that a different character has taken over.
Changing mid-scene is very confusing so it’s best avoided. In particular, it’s best not to switch viewpoint in the middle of a fight or a love scene, because that can ruin your readers enjoyment. If you feel tempted to do this or to switch viewpoint multiple times in one chapter, think again. There’s nearly always an alternative way to tell the story that will work better.