When you sit down to begin your novel, you slip a sheet of paper into your typewriter or turn on your word processor. You next take out your notes, your character biographies, and your stepsheet; you put your premise up in neon on the wall and you think you're ready to go.
But then you find you can't write a single paragraph because you don't know what viewpoint to use. Knowing what the various options are—first-person, omniscient, limited omniscient, objective—does not necessarily make the choice easy. When is a first-person narrator appropriate and when isn't it? If a firstperson narrator is advisable, can the protagonist narrate it? Should you use an omniscient narrator? Some authors use a combination of viewpoints, both objective and subjective, a first-person narrator and a third-person narrator in the same book. Would that work in your story, you wonder.
Many beginning novelists think that if they shift viewpoints frequently they are being creative. They fancy their work is experimental, even avant-garde. They use viewpoint not to enhance the story but to draw attention to their technique—exhibiting their genius, they imagine. This kind of tomfoolery is pretentious, if not downright silly.
To select the proper viewpoint, ask yourself not "what viewpoint?" but rather, "who can tell this story best?" The viewpoint you choose reflects the narrative voice and it is the narrative voice and not the viewpoint per se that is crucial. The selection of the narrative voice is based upon a consideration of genre.
Let's first define what is meant by "narrative voice." A fictional character has a "voice," a characteristic way of speaking ("Aw shucks, Wilbur, you dint hafta gimme dis here watch"). The narrator's characteristic way of speaking is called the narrative voice. The author may use either his own natural voice or one he assumes. The narrative voice, if the author is not using his own natural voice, is the voice of a sort of "character" that the author has invented to tell his story.
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, novels were written in the author's natural voice. If, say, Sir Edmond Ethelred Smithers were to write a novel, he would write it in the first person and his own opinions would be overtly expressed. He would discuss his characters as if they were acquaintances:
Reginald was a burly fellow, polite and, I think, well-intentioned. He had a humane outlook on life, and treated his wife very well indeed, not beating her very severely unless she committed some egregious offense, such as raising her voice to her husband. One night, while they were alone, Reginald thought it might be a fine thing to see what his wife looked like without her clothes on. They had been married twenty-two years and he had never seen this spectacle, although he did glimpse her bosom for the briefest possible moment quite by accident one night the first year they were married when her dressing partition fell down in an earthquake . . .
The voice in the above example has taken a mildly sardonic tone, friendly, gossipy. It has a certain charm to it. This type of narrator, however, has mostly gone the way of the pterodactyl.
Sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, a time of mounting skepticism in the arts, it was noted that the author could not possibly know what went on while the characters were alone. In answer to this criticism, the omniscient narrator became "invisible." Authors no longer talked about their characters in a chatty, gossipy way. If the narrator commented on what he thought of a character or the developments of the story, critics would holler, "Author intrusion!" Narrators ever since have simply related what was going on and have kept their opinions to themselves. Most books today written in the third person follow this code, although there is no law that authors must abide by it. In fact, many contemporary Latin American writers and some American iconoclasts, such as Kurt Vonnegut, have resurrected the old way of doing things to good effect.
Most authors who like making sardonic comments and oblique observations have switched to first-person narration, where it is acceptable for the narrator, because he is a character in the story, to say whatever he damn well pleases.
As was mentioned above, the narrative voice you choose depends on your story's genre. Genre, you'll recall, refers to the "type" of story you are telling: literary, mystery, crime, western, confessional, mainstream, romance, science fiction, fantasy, and so on. For most genres, you are probably well-advised to use author-invisible, third-person, limited omniscient viewpoint. That's the standard; it's what readers expect and what editors want. You should deviate from the norm only for powerful and persuasive reasons.
You might make such a departure for a folksy tale of hillbillies and their feuds. It might be best told by a neighbor who saw it all. The local color in the narration would lend flavor and spice to the story, as well as help make it sound more as if it actually happened, which would increase verisimilitude. A western might be told by an old sourdough or by the hero's sidekick; a nurse romance, by the nurse who falls in love with the handsome young surgeon; a science fiction story, by a Martian.
When the narrator is anonymous and neutral, the reader buys into the story only if the story is completely plausible. The following passage is written first with an author-invisible, third-person narrator, then with a first-person narrator:
Mary was a good housewife: neat, organized, ready with dinner at six o'clock when Bob came home. Bob was a good provider, a stable man, a churchgoer; he liked to help around the house. Mary did needlework, volunteered at church socials, and liked to watch television. They belonged to the Lions Club. But something was not quite right in their marriage. Mary was bored. It wasn't that she didn't love Bob and the kids, it was just that she had so much free time on her hands. So when she met "Sweet Jesus" Mahoney and he offered her a job as a hooker three afternoons a week, she thought, gee, I could get that new coat I've been wanting . . .
As you can see, this story is difficult to believe in the third person. Here is the same passage with a first-person narrator:
Hey, the craziest damn thing's gone down in our town. There's this housewife, see, name of Mary Pringle, not too bad-looking, not too good-looking, who's married to this guy Bob, a guy I used to go bowling with down at Speedo Lanes. Anyway, one day Mary is having lunch downtown at Bing's and there's this guy there, flashy young dude name a "Sweet Jesus" who's running some girls out of the Seaside Ranch Motel, and he spots Mary. I don't know what he saw in her, she was just a plain-Jane housewife, but anyways, he sits down at her table and says to her, hey, how'd you like to make some fast bread? Mary's astonished. She almost falls off her chair. But the guy says, look, I'm serious. I think underneath all that plain-Jane stuff you got some treasures worth marketing . . .
You can see how the believability of the story is enhanced by the narrator's amazement. His tone says, in effect, "Look, I wouldn't believe this either, but it's true. " One of the reasons we believe that Sherlock Holmes has such extraordinary powers is that Dr. Watson tells us so.
If you reflect a while on which viewpoint would be best for your story and you still don't know, try telling the story from two or three different viewpoints, then put these versions away for a day or two. When you take them out again and coldly reread them, the right viewpoint will probably jump right off the page at you.
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