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Choosing and Using Viewpoint

"Person" in writing refers to how the viewpoint character will tell the story (fiction or nonfiction). Your choice affects not only the reader's experience, but also how you go about telling your tale. Here are some thoughts on the topic of person from the study materials of "Getting Started in Writing," a workshop from The Writer's Digest School.

Viewpoint refers to the mind of the character through which the reader is told a story. There are several kinds of viewpoint, labeled according to the characteristics of the viewpoint itself and the storyteller with whom the viewpoint originates. Objective viewpoint is used when the narrator relates facts but avoids emotion. Subjective viewpoint, the type most used in fiction, incorporates a character's thoughts and emotions into the storytelling.... Using the omniscient viewpoint, an author can relate the perceptions of any of his characters or detach himself from them to serve as narrator.... The multiple-character viewpoint is used to tell a story from the perspectives of different characters, one at a time. Unlike works using the omniscient viewpoint, this viewpoint stays with one character for a considerable length—for example, a chapter in a novel.

One View or Many?
In a short piece, such as an article or a short story, your best bet is to pick one character's viewpoint and stick with it throughout—what is referred to as a single viewpoint. In most cases, the viewpoint character should be the one the reader is most likely to identify with. This is why, for example, stories written for children generally feature a viewpoint character of the same approximate age as the reader, and why most (although not all) stories in women's magazines are told from a female character's point of view.

In a longer work—a novel or nonfiction book, or a long story—you can, if the story requires it, alternate between the viewpoints of several characters. Please note the emphasis in that previous sentence. While it may not seem so at first, your viewpoint decision is a critical one. Jumping back and forth between viewpoint characters, that is, employing multiple viewpoints, can be a tricky business, particularly for the beginning writer, and should not be undertaken lightly.

If you want your reader to identify closely with your main character, to experience the events of the story as that character experiences them, you should try to stay in that character's single viewpoint for the duration. But if, for the sake of suspense, you want your reader to know the main character is in danger that the character him- or herself isn't aware of; or if you want to present two sides of the same story (from the opposing perspectives of two lovers, for example); or if, for the sake of clarity or comprehension, you need to show your reader something that happens when your main character is not "on stage," then you may have to use another character's point of view.

Once you've chosen a viewpoint character or characters, follow the advice of your textbook author: When in a given character's viewpoint, report only that which the character can experience directly, infer from the reactions of other characters, or learn in conversation with other characters.

There's another perspective you can choose, one that lets you inside the heads of all characters at all times. Because this puts the writer in an almost godlike position, it is referred to as the omniscient viewpoint. This may seem like a tempting choice—surely the more "inside information" you give your reader about your characters the better. Not necessarily. Most readers prefer to "discover" a story on their own, to experience it through one point of view (or at least, one point of view at a time), which is, after all, how we experience our own lives.

First Person or Third?
We have one more concept to discuss—person. "Person" in this context does not refer to the actual viewpoint character, but rather to how that character will tell the story. There are three options—first person ("I"), second person ("you") and third person ("he/she").

Let's look at second person first, since it is so rarely used. If you're writing in the second person, you are addressing the reader directly, as in "You walk into the room and there she is, tall and blonde and looking like trouble." This is a pretty difficult stance to maintain throughout a piece of any length and few writers can do it well. The one case where second person is commonly used is in instructional manuals (like this one, for example) and how-to articles: "First you place the stencil over the area to be painted, and then you carefully apply the first color."

Third person is the one you're probably most familiar with—the "he said/she said" version. Third person can be used with single, multiple or omniscient viewpoints. It simply means that the story is presented by a narrative "voice" that is to some extent outside the events of the story. Let's look at an example of third person (Jane is the viewpoint character):

Jane Tucker stood up and shook Bently's outstretched hand. "Welcome to Omnitech," she said. Bently's palms were damp and he held the handshake two heartbeats too long for Jane's taste. As she sat back down, she smoothed her skirt, not because it was mussed, but because she needed the rough nap of the wool to scour away the clamminess.

First person (the "I" storyteller) is, almost by definition, a single viewpoint option (some novels have been written with alternating chapters or sections from different first-person viewpoints, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule). First person is most often found in fiction writing, but some nonfiction pieces use it as well—personal essays, reminiscences, and "confession" stories are a few examples. Here's what the "Jane" example above would look like if it were written in the first person:

I stood up and shook Bently's outstretched hand. "Welcome to Omnitech," I said. Bently's palms were damp and he held the handshake two heartbeats too long for my taste. As I sat back down, I smoothed my skirt, not because it was mussed, but because I needed the rough nap of the wool to scour away the clamminess.

Many beginning writers make the mistaken assumption that they must tell a story in the first person if they want the reader to fully identify with the viewpoint character. But as these two examples should illustrate, this is not necessarily the case. While first person does almost automatically create reader/character identification, third person can do the job just as well if the writer stays firmly in the character's head. And third person has the added advantage of being flexible enough to allow the writer to back up a little if necessary and present some objective information (the character's name, for example), or another character's viewpoint.

First person, on the other hand, can be quite restrictive—the character has to be in every scene in order for the reader to get any information at all, and introducing details about the viewpoint character him- or herself can be a challenge. For instance, if you wanted to mention the viewpoint character's name in the "Jane" example we've been using, you'd have to do something like this:

I stood up and shook Bently's outstretched hand. "Welcome to Omnitech."

"Nice to see you again, Miss Tucker," Bentley said. His palms were damp and he held the handshake two heartbeats too long for my taste.

"Please, call me Jane." As I sat back down, I smoothed my skirt, not because it was mussed, but because I needed the rough nap of the wool to scour away the clamminess.

Now that you have a better idea what viewpoint is, and what your options are, how about a little practice?

Home-Study Assignment
The best way to get a feel for how the choice of viewpoint affects your writing is to take something you've already written and rewrite it using a different approach. This might mean staying with the same viewpoint character, but using first person instead of third. Or, in a scene with two or more characters, you might choose a different character's point of view.

If you don't have any of your own writing to experiment with, choose a passage from a book you've recently read, or an article in a favorite magazine. Don't feel squeamish about using the published work of other writers as a learning tool. You would, of course, never submit this kind of exercise as your own work, even if your re-written version is quite different from the original. But it's perfectly acceptable to study the work of another writer, particularly an author whose style you admire or whose stories you've enjoyed, and to use it as a basis for experimentation and practice.

To learn about our home study courses, visit Writer's Digest School.

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