Show don’t tell: write from your character’s viewpoint
This is a guest post by Kristen Stieffel, a writing coach specializing in speculative fiction. She has edited nonfiction, Bible studies, and novels for the general market and the Christian submarket and teaches at writers conferences.
Last time, we looked at narrators in fiction and likened viewpoint to a camera. The narrator is like a cameraman, recording events. His voice is distinct from those of the characters. The narrator acts as an intermediary between reader and character. If we give the viewpoint “camera” to the characters, we eliminate the middleman, producing a deeper bond with readers.
Writing books say a lot about “first person” viewpoint, but most of them miss this: all the features of “first person” can also be produced when writing with he and she pronouns.
In Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint, Nancy Kress writes, “‘close third person’ and ‘first person’ are indistinguishable from one another except for their pronouns. When you transpose first person to third person by changing the pronouns, close third is what you get.”
“This won’t take long, Andrew,” said the doctor.
“It’s designed to be removed.…” The doctor was twisting something at the back of Ender’s head. Suddenly a pain stabbed through him like a needle from his neck to his groin. Ender felt his back spasm, and his body arched violently backward; his head struck the bed. He could feel his legs thrashing, and his hands were clenching each other, wringing each other so tightly that they arched.
“Deedee!” shouted the doctor. “I need you!” The nurse ran in, gasped. “Got to relax these muscles. Get it to me, now! What are you waiting for!”
Something changed hands; Ender could not see.
—Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game
As Kress says, you could change this to “I felt my back spasm,” and so on, and lose nothing.
We now call this “deep point of view” to reduce confusion, because the pronouns don’t matter. Deep here refers to psychic distance—that is, the degree to which the reader is embedded in the heart and mind of the character. The best book on the subject is Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson.
It’s All About Voice
How can we tell that Ender’s Game is deep POV and not, say, third person limited with a narrator? The voice. It’s not just that we see only what Ender sees. The narrative is in his own voice.
There’s a shallower viewpoint, often called middle third, which is almost indistinguishable from limited third viewpoint with a narrator. The difference is in voice: the narrative reflects either the character’s voice or the narrator’s. For example, in a limited narrator viewpoint story about a guy named Bob whose mother is Joan, the narrative would refer to Joan by name. The same story, written in Bob’s point of view, would call her Mom.
Narrators often label characters, such as by profession or nationality, but when writing in the character’s viewpoint, using their voice, we use only their name or a pronoun. Ender labels “the doctor,” but he doesn’t label himself as “the child.”
Controlling the Viewpoint
You can have multiple viewpoint characters, but only one should hold the camera in each scene. Bouncing the camera around (known as head hopping) disorients readers. If your video camera is running and you toss it to someone across the room without turning it off, the playback will be disorienting. That’s why we use a scene break when switching viewpoints. Think of it as turning off the camera until the new person has it.
The more viewpoint characters you have, the more you fragment the reader’s attachment to each one. So control the point of view by keeping the number of viewpoint characters to the minimum needed to convey the events of the story.
Some writing books say if you are writing in “third person” you can reveal information not known to the viewpoint character, e.g., Bob had no way of knowing that under his car, a bomb was ticking. This is true only if you are using a narrator. You cannot reveal information unknown to the viewpoint character. The character with the camera can only show what they see. The instant you reveal something the protagonist cannot know, you have taken the viewpoint away from him and given it to a narrator. Editors call this authorial intrusion. Either leave the POV with the character, or use your narrator consistently. If your narrator is used erratically, editors will consider it an error.
Advanced technique: Blended viewpoint
In recent years, editors have discouraged writers from using narrator viewpoints, especially omniscient. This isn’t editors being mean. They know that readers engage more deeply with stories that are embedded in the characters’ viewpoints with no narrator acting as intermediary.
But writing is an art form, not a science, and the viewpoint that’s best for your story is the one to use. That’s why instead of saying “don’t use omniscient viewpoint,” I try to teach writers how to do it well.
And that’s why I’m going to take a risk here and tell you something many writing instructors won’t. You can combine narrator and character viewpoint in the same book. This is an advanced technique and requires a deft hand, a firm understanding of viewpoint, and complete control.
J.K. Rowling uses this technique briefly at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, wherein all of chapter one and the opening of chapter two are in omniscient viewpoint:
Nearly ten years had passed since the Dursleys had woken up to find their nephew on the front step, but Privet Drive had hardly changed at all. The sun rose on the same tidy front gardens and lit up the brass number four on the Dursley’s front door; it crept into their living room, which was almost exactly the same as it had been on the night when Mr. Dursley had seen that fateful news report about the owls.
Only the photographs on the mantelpiece really showed how much time had passed…Dudley Dursley was no longer a baby…The room held no sign at all that another boy lived in the house, too.
Yet Harry Potter was still there, asleep at the moment, but not for long. His Aunt Petunia was awake and it was her shrill voice that made the first noise of the day.
“Up! Get up! Now!”
Harry woke with a start.
—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The opening of chapter two contains several marks of narrator viewpoint:
- An exterior view, like a cinematographer’s establishing shot.
- The news report about the owls—something the Dursleys would not have told Harry about.
- “Asleep…but not for long.” If Harry is asleep, he has no awareness of how much longer he will remain so.
- The omniscient narrator’s voice is distinct from Harry’s voice.
- The narrator says “Mr. Dursley,” but in Harry’s POV it’s “Uncle Vernon.”
Once Harry wakes, Rowling spends the rest of the book deep in his viewpoint. Card does something similar in Ender’s Game, wherein the first scene of Chapter 1 is a dialogue in objective viewpoint.
This technique works best if kept to a minimum. If you find yourself writing a lot of narrator passages, consider just sticking with omniscient viewpoint, so you can keep the whole narrative in a single voice.
But I highly recommend deep point of view, if it works for your story, because readers engage more thoroughly when each scene is written in a unified voice: that of the character. In deep point of view, the character isn’t holding a camera. The character is the camera. Your readers will not only see what the character sees, they’ll feel what the character feels.
What viewpoint do you use for your fiction? Have you tried writing from your characters’ point of view? Leave us your thoughts, or any questions for Kristen, in the comments below!