How Many Eyes Are Enough

Sometimes there's no viewpoint character, nobody whose eyes focus the action. Instead, the author tells the story. That's called omniscient (all-knowing) narration. The author narrates, mentioning what this or that character may be feeling or thinking anytime the author pleases.

The trouble with using an omniscient narrator is that all the characters are kept at arm's length, seen equally and from a distance. It tends to be uninvolving. A reader finds it harder to identify with any one character, since the focus and the viewpoint range over all equally.

Unfocused sunlight won't set fire to a piece of paper. It takes a magnifying glass, a single focus, to do that.

So although current fiction may use omniscience in an inconspicuous, sometime way, in the form of narrative summary or other brief, transitional elements, thoroughgoing omniscient narration is now seldom used as the controlling viewpoint of a whole short story (with a few notable exceptions like John Cheever's short fiction), and even more rarely of a novel.

Instead of adopting a broad-focus omniscient narrative voice to be the controlling viewpoint of a whole story, contemporary writers and readers seem to prefer something more like our own experience, in which each of us can know—but not always understand—the inner life of only one person: ourselves. Everybody else is seen from the outside, and known only by what they say and do, and what we think about it. Mirroring our individual experience in fiction means having one central viewpoint character and sticking with him or her.

In short fiction, a single viewpoint character has always been most common, though there are quite a lot of exceptions. Longer short stories, those shading toward novelette length, sometimes will have two or more viewpoint characters. The brevity of short fiction is, naturally enough, the determining factor in whether a given story will support more than one viewpoint without losing impact and immediacy.

But long fiction has space to develop several characters in depth. Intensity rises and falls as the story progresses. Novels also sometimes need to shift locale or show scenes where it would be impractical or impossible for the protagonist to be present, yet which the author doesn't want to relegate to reports or summaries. Or sometimes a writer wants to build suspense by switching the narrative focus from the main plot to a subplot ("Meanwhile, back at the ranch—") or reveal some fact to the reader, yet keep the main character ignorant of it.

In those cases, having just one viewpoint character may be impractical, even undesirable. So in novels, multiple viewpoints are as common as single focus.

Winning Reader Identification

The danger of multiple viewpoints is that the reader, lacking just one person to identify with, is likely to become more a detached, uninvolved observer and less a vicarious participant in your story's events. The story, seen piecemeal through several different sets of eyes, may become disconnected, confusing, and incoherent, especially if it contains any other kind of complexity, like flashbacks, many extreme changes of locale, or an intricate or subplot-laden plot.

A story with too many focuses can become a story with no focus at all.

Using a single viewpoint character is the best way to communicate excitement, dread, love, any strong emotion, to the reader, make readers share the feeling and notjust the facts your story presents. It's easier to imagine your way into a single character, one on one, than into several in succession.

To the degree you're trying to arouse or communicate emotions in your story, you need to involve your reader; and that means doing everything possible to help your reader identify with the main person that story is about.

Winning that kind of intense reader identification means using the fewest possible viewpoints. If there are no compelling reasons to do otherwise, stay with one viewpoint character from beginning to end. If you really need two, use two. If you can't do without three, then use three. But fight, if you have to, to keep from making it seven or seventeen. Keep it to the absolute minimum.

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  • ralf
    What is a controlling viewpoint when writing about short stories?
    7 years ago

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