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This month learn how to give different points of view, get that novel off the ground with our useful planning top tips, read about what other students are up to, see if you can find a use for the useful websites and be inspired.


Points of View

by Heather Cooke

Points of View? No, not the British TV show that invited our comments on BBC programmes. Nothing to do with opinion, although it does refer to someone’s “take” on a situation… perspective, viewpoint, point of view (sometimes shortened to POV) is vital to a writer, especially (but not exclusively) a writer of fiction.

There are no hard and fast rules, but what are the different approaches in fiction and why might we want to use them? Consider the following examples:

Universal Viewpoint

Here the scene is merely observed:

On a balmy moonlit night in late May, a woman sat alone on a park bench. She didn’t appear to see the man approaching until it was too late.
As his shadow fell across her she looked up. “Oh, it’s you. What do you want?” she demanded.

Multiple Viewpoint

Now we’re allowed inside the two characters’ heads:

How warm it is tonight for May, Jenny thought, settling back on the park bench. Other people should try this! But then, she mused, she wouldn’t get the solitude she craved. Bill walked towards her, sure she hadn’t spotted him despite the moonlight, but his shadow gave him away. His heart sank as she looked up and scowled.
“Oh, it’s you. What do you want?” she demanded.

Single Viewpoint

In the following version, readers are taken inside Jenny’s head only:

How warm it was that night for May! And the park bench wasn’t as hard as I’d expected. I thought briefly that other people should try sitting there after dark, but then realised that would ruin the solitude I craved.
Suddenly a shadow blotted out the moonlight and I looked up to find Bill standing next to me. “Oh, it’s you. What do you want?” I demanded.

First or Third Person

The final example was written in the first person (“I”) which in itself ensures a strong single viewpoint. To achieve a similar effect in third person (“s/he”) material, try writing it in the first person to begin with and then changing the pronouns! That way you can’t include any material that the “I” character couldn’t see or otherwise experience.

Advantages and Disadvantages
Each of these approaches can be useful, but each has its downside, too.

Universal viewpoint is often effective in a short prologue to a novel, whetting the appetite of readers without revealing too much. In the main body of a story or novel, though, it distances the readers from what’s going on. If that’s your intention, fine – there’s a place for that, especially in literary fiction. In popular, commercial fiction, however, you’ll probably want the readers to identify strongly with your characters.

Multiple viewpoint allows readers to identify with several characters, but can be confusing when used in the same scene. We can’t read other people’s thoughts in real life, so it seems strange to be taken from one head to another in fiction. This approach should therefore be used with care, but it allows you to reveal information to your readers that the main character doesn’t know.

Single viewpoint is the most effective approach to ensure that readers identify strongly with a character, helping us to feel as if we’re living through the action with him or her – almost as them. One disadvantage is that it can be difficult to show things the viewpoint character doesn’t see. Difficult - but not impossible. You can show the protagonist seeing, hearing or feeling something without realising its significance – clues that careful readers can pick up even if the main character doesn’t.

How Many?
In a very short story, there isn’t usually room for more than one viewpoint, unless you switch right at the end to reveal a twist… especially useful if you’ve just killed off your main character! Longer stories (over 2,000 words) can sometimes support two viewpoints, if used for a reason. You might want to show the very different ways that each of those two characters views the same situation, for dramatic or humorous effect.

In novels, two parallel viewpoints can work well: crime fiction can be approached from both the detective’s and the criminal’s point of view, in turn. Alternating viewpoints are often effective when two different periods or locations are being used.

In some category (or “formula”) fiction, such as specific series of romantic novels, single viewpoint (usually in the third person) is a requirement stipulated by the publisher. These tend to be short books of around 50,000 words. Longer novels can certainly support several viewpoints if used for a reason. You will almost certainly have one major character whose story you’re essentially telling – the person who grows, learns, develops as a result of what’s happening. But the viewpoint of other people can help to shed light on this person’s character.

Whose Viewpoint?
Naturally you’ll want to use the main character’s viewpoint, alone or among others, so you need to know whose story you’re telling. It’s unusual these days for the viewpoint character to be simply a narrator, a mere observer rather than a key player.

Whose viewpoint to use may well depend on who you’re writing for. In a short story for a women’s magazine, it’s often wise to use a female protagonist. Often, but not always. As ever, careful study of the target market will show you if the main character is sometimes a man, and in what kind of story, with what kind of message. If the person’s gender has no real bearing on the storyline or theme, using a woman’s viewpoint will probably be best when writing for women readers. Similarly, male readers usually find it easier to identify with a male protagonist.

There’s rarely any justification for using the viewpoint of someone who plays no significant role in the story or novel, or who appears in just one scene. There are other ways of delivering the thoughts of such minor players. What people say and do can give us a reasonable idea of what someone is thinking in real life, and the same applies in fiction. How much can be conveyed by a raised eyebrow or a raised voice!

Bottom Line
Single personal viewpoint, at least within individual scenes, is usually the most effective approach. But that’s only my point of view…

Heather Cooke is a Writers Bureau tutor, teaching both fiction and non-fiction. She has had hundreds of articles and stories published in markets ranging from Chat to the Church Times, as well as three novels. She is also a priest in the Church of England.