That's what this section -and the one to follow-are all about.
Viewpoint is perhaps the most-discussed aspect of fiction, yet the one most often screwed up. But perhaps you will never have serious technical problems with the technique of viewpoint again if you will simply follow the advice that heads this page.
Figure out whose story it is.
Get inside that character-and stay there.
That's all there is to it. Except that in its simplicity, viewpoint has many angles to its application.
I'm sure you realize why fiction is told from a viewpoint, a character inside the story. It's because each of us lives our real life from a single viewpoint - our own - and none other, ever. The fiction writer wants her story to be as convincing and lifelike as possible. So she sets things up so that readers will experience the story just like they experience real life: from one viewpoint inside the action.
Each of us is the hero of his own life. The next time you are in a group of people, take a moment to realize how you see everything and everyone around you as interesting-but essentially as role players inyour life. Then try to observe others around you... try to imagine how each of them sees the scene in exactly the same way, from their own unique and centrally important viewpoint.
If fiction is to work, your central character has to experience the story action this way too. How do you as the writer make it happen? Very simply by showing all the action from inside the head and heart -the thought, senses and emotions - of the person you have chosen as the viewpoint character.
It matters not whether you choose to write the story first person: "Worried, I walked down the lonely street " or third person: "Worried, she walked down the lonely street. " The device is the same. You let your reader experience everything from inside that viewpoint character.
In short fiction there will usually be a single viewpoint per story.
Changing viewpoint in a short story, where unity of effect is so crucial, usually makes the story seem disjointed. In a novel, there may be several viewpoints, but one must clearly dominate. That's because every story is ultimately one person's story above all others, just as your life story is yours and yours alone. It's a fatal error to let your viewpoint jump around from character to character, with no viewpoint clearly dominating, in terms of how much of the story is experienced from that viewpoint. Life isn't like that. Fiction shouldn't be, either.
To put this in other words: even in a novel of 100, 000 words, well over 50 percent-probably closer to 70 percent-should be clearly and rigidly in the viewpoint of the main character. That character's thoughts, feelings, perceptions and intentions should unmistakably dominate the action. When you change viewpoint - if you must-it should be only when the change in viewpoint serves to illuminate for readers the problems of the main viewpoint character.
Where do you put the viewpoint? The easy and obvious answer is that you give the viewpoint to the character who will be in all the right places to experience the crucial stuff in the plot. (It's pretty clear, for example, that if you want to tell the story of a mountain-climbing expedition in Tibet, you can't very well put the viewpoint inside a child who never gets outside of Topeka, Kansas. )
Beyond this point, however, other factors must be considered. Readers like to worry through their stories. They'll worry most about the viewpoint character. And what are readers likely to worry about most? Whether the character with the most important goal will reach that goal. Therefore it follows that you should give the viewpoint to the character who has the goal motivation that makes the story go... the character who will be in action toward some worthwhile end... the story person with the most to win or lose in the story action.
This character-the one threatened at the outset who vows to struggle-will be the character who ultimately is most moved by what takes place. That's why some fiction theorists say the viewpoint should be invested in the character who will be most changed by the story action.
It has been pointed out, however, that it's an inevitable result in fiction that the viewpoint character and the moved character will become one and the same. If you don't start out planning your story that way, it will either end up that way-or the story will be a flop. Because the viewpoint character is the focus of all the story's actions and meanings, the viewpoint character must become the moved character; it can be no other way.
What does this mean for you as a writer working with viewpoint? For one thing, it means that you simply can't write a story in which the viewpoint is put inside a neutral observer. It won't work. Even in a novel like The Great Gatsby, the character Gatsby ultimately is not the most important character. Nick Carraway is the one who is finally moved... changed... made to see a different vision of the world, and so decides to go back to the Midwest at the end of the story. Nick is the narrator, the viewpoint character, and finally the story is his, and the meaning derived from his sensibilities, whatever the novel may be titled.
To sum up, then, this is what I meant when I say you mustn't forget whose story it is:
• Every story must be told from a viewpoint inside the action.
• Every story must have a clearly dominant viewpoint character.
• The viewpoint character must be the one with the most at stake.
• Every viewpoint character will be actively involved in the plot. Probably since the dawn of time, beginning writers have wrestled with
These principles, hoping to find a way around them. They seem harsh and restrictive. But after you have worked with them a while, you will find them to be very useful in focusing your story. A storyteller has plenty to worry about without wondering whose story it is, or from what vantage point the reader is supposed to experience the story! And, even more to the point from a practical standpoint, you might as well accept viewpoint as a central -perhaps the central-device of fiction. You can't escape it. It's simply at the center of how fiction works on readers.
You mustn't forget.
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