How do you choose the right viewpoint and narrator for your novel?
Last updated: 07/10/2017
We have the chance to work with some exceptionally talented and experienced editors at Reedsy. Kristen Stieffel is one of them: a writer, editor, and writing coach, she specializes in speculative fiction. Today, she shares her expert advice on viewpoint and narrators. Ever wondered whether you should write your book using first or third person? You need to read this!
Viewpoint, also known as point of view or POV, is one of the most complex facets of fiction. It is confusing and misunderstood, so viewpoint errors are among the most common errors editors see in new writers’ manuscripts.
Confusion about viewpoint stems from the very words we use to describe it: close third person, limited third person, middle third person … what do they mean? “Third person” doesn’t say anything about viewpoint. It only says you’re using he and she instead of I.
Think of viewpoint as a camera. Who’s carrying it? You have two choices: give it to a narrator, or give it to one or more characters.
The omniscient narrator
The omniscient narrator knows everything and can share anyone’s thoughts at any time. He can, and often does, make value judgments about the characters in the story.
Scrooge took his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern; and having read all the newspapers, and beguiled the rest of the evening with his banker’s-book, went home to bed. He lived in chambers which had once belonged to his deceased partner. They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again.
—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Although most of the focus in this story is on Scrooge, he does not hold the viewpoint. The omniscient narrator does. The narrator makes judgments, calling Scrooge a ‘squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner’. The narrator has a voice and personality of his own. Scrooge wouldn’t even get that joke about houses playing hide-and-seek, let alone tell it. If we rewrote this passage from his viewpoint, it would change drastically, making different observations and judgments and no jokes at all.
The limited narrator
The limited narrator can share the thoughts of a selected few characters, usually only one per scene. He seldom makes value judgments. He can take a long view, or focus on a single character.
The small boys came early to the hanging. It was still dark when the first three or four of them sidled out of the hovels, quiet as cats in their felt boots. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the little town like a new coat of paint, and theirs were the first footprints to blemish its perfect surface.
—Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth
Follett’s narrative voice is not that of the boys. ‘First footprints to blemish its perfect surface’ is not a phrase these rapscallions would think of. We can tell the viewpoint is with the narrator, because it sees the boys collectively. If the viewpoint were with any one of them, the scene would be completely different, and the narrative would have that boy’s voice. Limited narrator viewpoint is often mistaken for character viewpoint because both are usually written in the third person. The difference is in whether the narrative voice is distinct from the character’s voice. We’ll discuss this more when we get to character viewpoint.
The objective narrator
The objective narrator is like a photojournalist. He reports the story events, but he doesn’t judge and doesn’t read minds.
The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, were ﬁelds of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains. The shadow of a cloud moved across the ﬁeld of grain and she saw the river through the trees.
“And we could have all this,” she said. “And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.”
—Ernest Hemingway, Hills Like White Elephants
The narrator’s camera is mounted in the room, so we see and hear what’s going on, but we don’t know what the characters are thinking. Just as if we were waiting in the train station with this couple, all we can know is what we see and hear. If this scene were written from the viewpoint of either character, we would know that person’s thoughts. Revealing the thoughts of either one would reveal too much, so Hemingway chooses the impartial objective narrator. This style of narrator is also useful if the writer needs to show something happening—a volcano erupting, a bomb ticking, an asteroid hurtling through space—when no person is there to observe it.
Any narrator may hold the camera. But only the omniscient and limited narrators provide commentary, though to differing degrees. The objective narrator is a silent observer, with an unremarkable, almost invisible, prose style. In omniscient viewpoint, and to a lesser extent in limited viewpoint, it’s possible for the narrator to have a distinct personality. I would go so far as to say that in omniscient viewpoint, it is necessary that the narrator persona have a distinct personality, like the narrator of A Christmas Carol.
The drawback to all of these is that any narrator puts psychic distance between the reader and the character. The advantage is that you can reveal information not known to the characters, or known to one character but not another. The narrator of A Christmas Carol, for example, tells the reader what other people think of Scrooge—things he cannot know.
Remember that your protagonist is not the viewpoint character. He is not carrying the camera. Your narrator holds the camera, but he’s not a character in the story. He is a persona observing the story.
On this other post, we look at what it means to give the viewpoint completely to the characters.
What is your narrator preference when writing (or reading!) fiction? Let us know your thoughts on this, or any question for Kristen, in the comments below!