What's the Best Viewpoint?

Blog | writing craft | craft | writing for children and teens
August 18, 2016

 

At the novel contest webinar, there were some questions that I wasn't able to get to even though we ran over a bit. One was about viewpoint and I actually have thought about and written about viewpoint a good bit so I thought I'd tackle the question here. What's the best viewpoint for a new writer to use?

The answer (like to many in life) is "it depends." Generally speaking the answer is "pick the viewpoint that feels right for the story and that you can handle well. "Don't be sucked into using a viewpoint choice because it's the popular one. They're all popular enough. But with each possible choice, there are pluses and minuses. The key is to make good use of the pluses and do your best to alleviate the minuses.

WRITING IN FIRST PERSON

Many young adult writers feel like this is "the" viewpoint for that age level, and it is probably the one I see most though it's far from a "must do" choice. In first person, the book reads as if the main character is telling us his story directly. He (or she) refers to himself as "I" and you spend a lot of time in the character's head.

The pluses are very strong connection between reader and main character and voice. If you craft a main character with a strong, clear, unique voice, then first person is a great way to showcase it. On the other hand, it's a terrible choice if your main character has a fairly "everyman" voice, something flatter, more  ordinary and plain. If you don't have the benefit of voice, then many of the drawbacks of first person rush to the forefront to wreck you.

The drawbacks to first person include over-reliance on exposition (just telling us stuff) and distance from the action. Since you're into the thoughts of the main character, it's really easy to just dump information into the story -- lots and lots and lots of information. I saw this happen in far too many of the first person  entries where the entire first page was just a big first person info dump. Now, if you have a fantastic voice, the reader will stick around for a teeny bit of info dumping, but not whole pages of it. We're just not that patient anymore and we want to get into scenes and immediate moments.

And scene writing can be hard in first person. It can feel a little unnatural to write a clear scene while still using first person narration because it goes contrary to how we normally think. But we must. We need to include the sensory detail and immediacy of scene. We need to put the reader in the "moment" of the story and live the story, not just relate the information about what happened. The really great first person did exactly that.

For practice, pick a book from your shelf that is written in third person. Find an exciting and compelling scene and see if you can rewrite it in first person while still keeping all the action and immediacy. Somethings will change. They have to. There's more to going from third person to first than just changing the pronouns, but since the action and setting are already there, it will be good practice for crafting strong scenes in first person.

WRITING IN THIRD PERSON

Now, the other common choice for narration is third person. In this, we refer to the main character by name. We may (and probably do) have access to the main character's thoughts, but the story is about him, not by him. This is the most common viewpoint for middle grade novels and younger.

The pluses are the ease of scene. It's much easier to write scene in third person because you don't have the burden of being in the character's thoughts all the time. So it's easier to avoid the info dump. It can be a little harder for the writer to get a feel for the character when writing in third person, which often means the first things you write in the book (before you really find the character's voice and style) will need heavy revision for voice.

Another minus is that you can accidentally slip into someone else's viewpoint fairly easily. Since you're already dipping into the main character's thoughts, it's easy to accidentally do that to a different character and that's going to hurt you in keeping that strong emotional connection between main character and reader. The more you ask the reader to care about everyone, the less likely the reader is to care about anyone. So keep that viewpoint tight if you need a strong emotional connection between main character and reader. In a story with lots of action (like high fantasy, for instance) there has been a tradition of multiple viewpoint switches because emotional connection is so much less important -- but keep in mind that you do bleed off engagement with every viewpoint switch, so make sure you think the story can survive that if you decide to jump around from character to character. Don't jump to a new character simply because it's convenient for the story.

So which is the best viewpoint for the new writer? Probably the one the new writer reads the most, enjoys the most, and finds the easiest to control. It won't be the same for everyone. So try a few on for size. Take your favorite books, the ones you've read and reread and do some exercise writing where you rewrite scenes in differing viewpoints just to get a feel for which is the right one for you. But be aware of the potential weaknesses of each viewpoint. Knowing the problem is half the battle for fixing it.


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Jan Fields is a full time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Take the free aptitude test here.

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