Thursday, September 15, 2016

Editor's Notes #24: Points of View Part 2—How Do I Choose?

My previous post began to explore points of view and how to choose which one is right for your story. Many of you said your characters dictated what POV they wanted you to write from. I'm not surprised. Though I suppose an author can have one that's more comfortable for his writing style, each story is unique and should never become a cookie-cutter presentation. Nobody wants boring and predictable, after all.

We've already explored the first-person point of view, with its advantages and limitations; the next step is to look at the third-person point of view—a commonly-used way of showing what's going on in more than one head.

The four major players are the same: author, narrator, viewpoint person, and protagonist. However, their roles are divvied up differently this time.

In the third-person POV, the author is still the author, but that's pretty much the only similarity. The narrator doesn't actually participate in the action this time. The author and the narrator in third-person POV are the same . . . but they aren't, which can be confusing. Whereas there's a clear line to divide the author from the narrator in a first-person piece (because the narrator is the viewpoint person), the narrator in a third-person story is seen by the reader in a different light.

Harvey Chapman (from the Writers After Dark link I shared last time) explains it like this:
The author of a novel is a real-life person who has made up the events and written the words. 
But in order to feel like what we are reading actually happened, [we] readers need to forget about the author and imagine instead that the words have been written by a kind of invisible witness to the events—a person with godlike powers, perhaps, who can look down upon reality from above and describe it to the readers. 
The crucial point here is that this godlike narrator, as unlikely as such a figure might be, witnesses something that actually happened—whereas authors merely write about events they have made up. 
And so readers will ignore the author's name on the novel's cover and imagine instead that they are being told about the events by someone who actually witnessed them firsthand.
Also unlike the first-person POV, the narrator is not the story's viewpoint person. The narrator in a third-person POV is basically someone who gets us from here to there: this happened, and let me tell you all about it. Otherwise, narrating is kind of a thankless job: readers care about the characters, not the narrator . . . so, dear Narrator Person, please don't give us your opinion. Just enough facts so we can picture it all in our heads, and then step aside so the characters can speak.

Next is the viewpoint character, but the third part of this three-part series deals with viewpoint, so I'll only touch on it here. In short, if you tell the story through one person's eyes, there's a single viewpoint. If you choose to write from multiple viewpoints, different sections or chapters will feature different eyes to see through—aka different viewpoints. This deserves a good deal of detail, so look for it in my next post in two weeks.

Finally, the protagonist comes into play. The protagonist in a third-person POV novel is the leading or central character. The character the book is written about. The main attraction. The big Kahuna. He or she is the entire reason we're reading this story.

The protagonist may or may not be the viewpoint character. If you have a single viewpoint, then the protagonist will most definitely be your viewpoint character. However, if you have multiple viewpoints, there's no guarantee that these two roles will mesh. Imagine reading a novel based on two of my favorite cartoon characters, Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy (yes, I'm an unapologetic fan of SpongeBob). Mermaid Man may be the protagonist, but perhaps his adventure is told through Barnacle Boy's eyes. Sidekicks come in handy that way. And since sidekicks typically idolize the heroes whose sides they're kicking, it might be a pretty good gig to have if you're the hero, because your story from his view will make you sound even better than you are. Unless you have a rotten, bitter sidekick who has always wanted to be #1 but you've never given him the chance to shine. In that case, "interesting" is probably the best you can hope for.

Until next time, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Not all of them . . . just the good ones.


  1. It's too early for good thoughts...
    I've written third person from one, two, and three viewpoints. One was interesting, because like first person, it had to be events that character witnessed.

    1. I think whether it's first- or third-person POV, it would be hard to have only one viewpoint without a lot of careful rereading.

  2. It can be confusing, can't it? It's hard sometimes to decide what you "can" and "can't" tell the reader.

    1. Tough to remember! It's like when someone tells you a secret and you have to pretend to not know about it when someone else reveals the same information.

  3. I think I'd rather hear from the perspective of the Invisible Boatmobile (unabashed Spongebob fan here, too).

    That keep your opinion out of it thing is a big one. I remember once upon a time ago I was reading a mainstream book (don't recall which one, sadly), but at one point, the narrator started talking about the character's car. And it turned into this huge rant about how the automaker was a bad one, and they made unreliable cars, and the character was dumb for getting one, and I kinda wondered if the author was having problems with their car and wasn't so much writing a story at that point as they were writing a very angry diary entry.

    1. Well, we can't hear from Dirty Bubble (RIP, Dirty Bubble). The Invisible Boatmobile probably has a lot of stories to tell.

      I hate when the author's opinion comes into play, too! Just tell the story and shut up. I tossed a book after reading only the first third of it when the narrative started bashing anyone who wasn't vegan. Sorry, folks, I love dead cow waaaay too much to put up with chastisement from a stranger.

      Advertisement: "Have you alienated all your real-life friends with your overbearing opinions? Write a novel and alienate strangers across the globe! Here's how."

    2. That reminds me of that classic joke...
      Q: How do you know someone's a vegan?
      A: Don't worry, they'll F***ING TELL YOU

      Or, I guess, the most modern version in this meme.

    3. I love that! It's perfect because it's 100% true.


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