Viewpoint–The Writer’s Greatest Challenge

Maybe this is an exaggeration, but I’ve been editing quite a few manuscripts lately (see below for info on editing and critique services) and I’ve found that I’m commenting on viewpoint problems more frequently than anything else. I discussed viewpoint in a chapter in Creating Character, but I nonetheless continue to receive requests that I devote an entire book to the subject. This reinforces my feeling that this is something that’s causing headaches for some aspiring writers.

It’s really not that complicated. Look, you just need to pick a viewpoint and stick with it throughout a scene. If you change viewpoint characters, don’t do it in the middle of the scene. No “head-hopping,” that is, drifting from one character to another’s thoughts and observations. That leaves the reader feeling dislocated. They don’t want to hear from an omniscient narrator who knows everything about everyone (meaning you, the author). They want to forget about the author and be immersed in the story. Readers will care more about your characters and what happens to them if you can get them inside the characters’ heads.

This does restrict what you can write about, or at least how you go about it. You cannot reveal information your viewpoint character does not or could not know. You may say something like, “She thought his smirk suggested he didn’t believe her,” but you cannot say, “He didn’t believe her” when you’re in her viewpoint, because she doesn’t know. Internal monologue is a good tool for keeping your reader inside a character’s viewpoint. When characters are thinking to themselves, the reader feels securely within that viewpoint. That doesn’t mean you should do it to excess, and it certainly doesn’t mean you should use internal monologue to tell rather than show (see the discussion below). And fyi, you don’t have to use italics every time your characters think to themselves.

Ideally, each new scene should identify the viewpoint character in the first sentence. “Mary walked into the room” or something like that. Then unless there is a scene break, you cannot portray any other viewpoint. You can’t take us inside another character’s head, or tell us what he or she thinks or experiences, unless and until you break the scene. Ideally, after identifying the viewpoint character by name in the first sentence, you refer to them by “he” or “she” for the rest of the scene. This tight psychic distance keeps the reader firmly inside that viewpoint. Using their name again tends to take readers outside their head, to distance them. Of course, this also means none of the other characters in the scene can be “he” or “she.” Refer to them by name or a nickname.

Head-hopping, or stream-of-consciousness writing, is not as immersive, and omniscient narration has fallen out of common use–for a good reason. Readers don’t like it as much. What they like is to experience a story through the eyes and ears of one of the characters involved. Even when there are multiple viewpoints, readers should have a sense of who the main character is and should spend most of the time inside that head, experiencing the story as the protagonist does.

The usual reason for introducing additional viewpoints is to increase suspense. The narrative flips to an antagonist’s viewpoint and the reader learns something the protagonist doesn’t know yet. This creates suspense, because the reader knows something bad is in the works but the lead character doesn’t.

One last thought: many beginning readers try to avoid these viewpoint problems by writing in first-person narration. I do not receommend this. If you think first person is easier than third person–you’re wrong. It is far more challenging to do well, because it means staying in the voice of a character–who should not be a sassier, braver verison of the author–for an entire book. While it can be done, I think it’s best reserved for writers with experience and a clear view of their character’s unique identity.

Click here to learn more about the Red Sneaker Editing & Critique Service (I do the editing myself).

Should My Novel Have Multiple Viewpoints?

During a visit to Thrillerfest a few years ago, I heard the same question posed to two different writers (during two different sessions). Each was asked, “How many viewpoint characters can you have?” The first author, who is successful and well-respected, answered, “Three is good. Five is the max.” When my friend Phillip Margolin received the same query, his answer was, “How many do you need?”

I’m with Phil, but I do think we need to establish some guidelines. You should have a central protagonist. Though there are exceptions to every rule, readers generally are happier when they know whose story they are following and who they are rooting for. Books with co-protagonists rarely work. So regardless of the number of viewpoints, the protagonist should have more scenes than anyone else and those should recur most frequently. I think it’s usually a bad idea to be away from the protagonist for more than a chapter.

Multiple viewpoint is more common today than it has been in previous eras. Arguably, the epistolary novel was a form of multiple viewpoint, but subsequently, single-viewpoint novels were more common. In time, though, writers realized that multiple viewpoint was a great way to drum up suspense. In mysteries and thrillers, a departure into the viewpoint of a competitor or villain allows the reader to know something the hero doesn’t–ratcheting up the tension (The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins). This might also give you an opportunity to make the antagonist more empathetic and less of a cardboard bad guy. In romances, multiple viewpoint–switching between hero and heroine, is more common today (A Run for Love by Callie Hutton). And you will also find it in SF/fantasy and literary fiction (The Hours by Michael Cunningham or The Help by Kathryn Stockett). Ultimately, you have to decide what is the best approach for telling your story.

I recall one of the best writers I know, David Morrill, railing against writers who introduce a viewpoint character for one chapter only (usually because the character dies at the end). For David, this is lazy writing. There’s always a better way to convey that scene than by asking the reader to become invested in a character who will never appear again. It’s not only a cheat but an unwelcome bit of misdirection. When you put your reader in a character’s viewpoint, you suggest that this character is important. They will not be pleased to learn the character is simply a victim. And it’s always a bad idea to introduce a new viewpoint just to drag in some exposition or infodump.

And now, having established the rules, let me explain how and when I broke them. When I wrote the last Ben Kincaid courtroom drama, Capitol Offense, one of the topics I wanted to address was the common law enforcement policy of not pursuing lost-person reports from a spouse until someone has been gone a long time, often as long as a week. Their excuse is that, in most cases, there’s been a squabble and the spouse has simply run off. But this policy has led to many tragic results. In my novel, Ben’s client was devastated by the loss of his wife–because the police waited too long to look for her. I wanted the reader to feel his pain, and to me, that meant they needed to know his wife personally. So I introduced the wife in the first scene, her work as an oncologist for children, her sense of humor, her great love for her husband. Obviously, she did not survive far into the story. But I still felt the excursion into her viewpoint was justified.

Capitol Offense