When developing the viewpoint of a novel it’s important to remember its the author’s view of the world as seen by the readers of a novel.
Authors, and readers, need to have as few distractions as possible in order to immerse themselves in a story. This means they need to know whose story it is, where the story is being viewed from, and the tense needs to be consistent. Let’s look at all the different ways of developing the viewpoint of a novel in turn.
AUTHOR VIEWPOINT: WHOSE STORY.
A story is usually the story of one person, one couple, one family, or one group of people. The easiest option, for author and reader, is to tell a single person’s story. There is no ambiguity or confusion. Once you begin adding people, things get more complicated. For example, if you are telling the story of a couple, who is the primary character when they are together? Separately, there is no ambiguity. Together, you, and the reader, have to decide who the main character is.
If your main plot surrounds a householder who has been burgled, is the main character the householder or the burglar? It could be either, but once you have made up your mind you should stick to it, and your decision will affect the whole story.
Usually. Not always, but usually, the main character will be known even before you start writing. If not, you need to decide pretty quickly whose story it is you are telling.
AUTHOR VIEWPOINT: DIFFERING VIEWS
You’ve decided whose story you are going to tell. The next thing you have to decide, is how you are going to be developing the viewpoint of a novel and viewing that person’s story. You have three main choices, you can choose to view the story through the:
- First person view
- Third person singular or multiple view (most common)
- Third person divine view
FIRST PERSON VIEWPOINT
In the first person view, all the action is seen through the eyes of a single character, usually your main character.
The advantages of the first person viewpoint, is the tension it creates, and the relationship you develop with the character. You become that character. You only see what the main character sees, so when you enter a street where a robbery is taking place you never know in advance. If someone is going to creep up and attack you in surprise, you don’t know they are there until the attack happens. If you are a detective, you don’t know who the murderer is until you’ve worked everything out.
The disadvantage of the first person viewpoint, is that nothing can be written that the main character doesn’t already know. The action may be immediate, but you can’t ramp up the tension in advance through knowledge about what has happened elsewhere.
THIRD PERSON VIEWPOINT
The third person viewpoint is the most common view. It is possible to have a single third person viewpoint similar to the first person view, but ‘he saw the mugger coming toward him’ rather than ‘I saw the mugger coming towards me’. The advantages and disadvantages are the same as in the first person viewpoint, but you don’t need to get as close to the character emotionally. It is also possible to have multiple third person viewpoints.
The main advantage of the third person viewpoint, is the additional information you can include, and the increase in tension you can create. For example, you can write a section (or chapter) about your main character unknowingly walking towards danger, another section (or chapter) about a murderer making preparations and waiting for your main character’s arrival, and a third section (or chapter) about what happens when they meet one another. The first section would be told from the third person viewpoint of your main character, the second section from the third person viewpoint of the murderer, and the third section usually told from the third person viewpoint of your main character.
The main disadvantage of the third person viewpoint is the confusion your readers may feel if the story is badly written. There does need to be distinct sections to enable the reader to know whose viewpoint they are reading. It can be confusing if you chop and change viewpoints too often, or without clearly defining whose viewpoint you are writing about.
The divine viewpoint takes multiple viewpoints to the other extremity from a first person view. In the first person’s viewpoint, you only get one person’s point of view. In the divine viewpoint, you get everyone’s point of view. Nothing is hidden, everyone’s thoughts are known. Things may happen to the main character that come as a surprise to that character, but there are no surprises for the reader.
The main advantage of the divine viewpoint, is that the reader knows everything that is happening, and nothing is hidden.
The main disadvantage of the divine viewpoint, is the reader is detached from the characters and doesn’t become emotionally engaged with them. Characters are seen, as if from above, rather than through the eyes of the characters (the first person view) or as if alongside the characters (third person view).
Developing the viewpoint of a novel affects the whole novel. Here is a scene, written in the three different viewpoints.
My hand shook as I reached out for the door handle. I turned it, and felt my heart flutter as I pushed the door open slightly. I could see the empty bed and the window beyond it, but there was no sound and no sign of danger. I gave the door a final push to fully open it, and stepped in. Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain at the back of my head. My vision blurred. I felt myself falling as everything turned black.
Third Person – Single viewpoint:
Roger was nervous as he reached for the door handle. He turned it gently, opened the door a few inches, and looked inside. He could see an empty bed in front of a window, but he never heard anything and couldn’t see anyone. He opened the door more fully, and still couldn’t see or hear anything. Convinced the room was empty, he stepped in, only to be hit on the head and knocked unconscious.
Third Person – Multiple viewpoint:
Mike was searching the room when he heard someone approaching up the stairs. He quietly closed the draw, picked up the heavy bedside lamp, and hid behind the door. The door opened. He could hear someone breathing heavily, and could see the shape of a man through the crack of the door. He tightened his grip on the lamp, and waited.
Roger stood at the door, undecided whether to enter or not. He listened for a moment, but could hear no sound. Looking into the room he could see the bed and the window beyond. It looked as though the room was empty. He decided there would be no better opportunity. There was nobody on the stairs behind him, and nobody would ever know he’d been in the bedroom. He pushed the door open and walked in.
Mike timed the blow perfectly. The cosh came down heavily on the back of the intruder’s head, and he fell like a sack of potatoes. For a moment, he worried in case he’d killed him, but then he saw his chest moving up and down. Mike bent down beside him, and checked through the man’s pockets for identification.
Third Person – Divine Viewpoint:
Mike was searching the room as Roger climbed the stairs. He heard Roger coming, closed the drawers, grabbed the bedside lamp, and hid behind the door.
Roger opened the door gingerly, not knowing Mike was hiding behind it. The bedroom appeared to be empty, so Roger walked in, only for Mike to hit him as hard as he could with the bedside lamp. As Roger lay unconscious on the floor, Mike knelt beside him and searched his pockets for identification.
You’ve decided whose story you are going to tell, and you’ve decided where the story is being viewed from. The final part in this section is to decide the tense.
When developing the viewpoint of a novel, it’s usually best to keep the tense similar.
“Tom is going down the street,” is present tense. “Tom went down the street,” is past tense.
Present tense adds immediacy, but is somewhat limiting. Most, but not all, stories are told in past tense. You can use whichever tense you feel is best for your story, but whichever tense you decide has to be consistently applied through to the end of the story.