Single Viewpoint Whose Eyes Are Best

If you've decided to use a single viewpoint character, the main choice, the one to depart from only for good reason, is telling the story from the viewpoint of the chief character, the protagonist. He or she is the one the story's events are centered around. He or she is the one who's going to be chiefly affected by what happens.

But don't forget: the protagonist is whoever you say the protagonist is; that choice, in turn, determines the nature of the whole story. The story of a flood is a different story if it's told from the point of view of Ginger, a drenched mother clinging to a chimney with five children and an irritated cat, waiting for rescue, than if it's told from the point of view of Fred, her equally drenched husband, a volunteer fireman in a rowboat who is quite content to rescue people on the other side of town and is rather hoping to find himself an unencumbered bachelor again.

Who is really at the story's heart? It may not have been the character you first assumed it was. If you're having trouble with the story of Ginger and Fred and you've been telling it from Ginger's viewpoint, maybe it's really Fred's story and you hadn't noticed. Try looking at the story through another character's eyes—the man in the rowboat instead of the woman on the roof—and see if it makes a better, more satisfying story that way.

Or if it's the story of Ginger and Fred but they're both bores, maybe it's ten-year-old Tiffany's story. Except that Tiffany doesn't yet exist. You have to invent her.

After a story is written, it's hard to imagine it could be otherwise than the way it is. But when you're writing it, all the choices are yours—even, and especially, the one of whose story it is and whose eyes would be best to see it. Because who sees determines in large measure what gets seen: what happens and how it's told about.

Holmes and Heathcliff: an Outsider's View

A displaced viewpoint character, a narrator other than the main character, is an option. Generally it's used when the writer doesn't want the reader to get too close to the protagonist, maybe to keep the main character strange and mysterious. That's the case, I think, in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. The man who called himself Jay Gatsby is full of secrets and private romantic dreams;

Nick Carraway, the narrator, is an onlooker and a thoughtful, moral man. Fitzgerald wanted the story seen by the wise man, not by the dreamer. He wanted to put a filter, a barrier, between Gatsby and the reader, to keep Gatsby a distant figure seen only from and through Carraway's perspective.

Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights also uses displaced narration, partly for the same reason—to emphasize the narrators' rationalism rather than the wild, mystical romanticism of the main characters, Heathcliff and Catherine. But in this book, something else is operating too. You may have a protagonist who's cruel, savage, or hard to understand or like, as Heathcliff certainly is. You may have a Sherlock Holmes, who's so uniquely brilliant and so disinclined to explain, that you need a go-between as a narrator, to act as the reader's eyes and to stand for a norm which the main character violates either for good or for evil. The distance between reader and chief character is already there: what's needed is a bridge.

That bridge, that displaced narrator, may be Watson, who's fascinated by Holmes and communicates that fascination to the reader while letting Holmes produce his amazing deductions like rabbits out of hats. It may be Ishmael, letting us observe Ahab's monomania without having to sympathize with or share it. It may be Lockwood, who shares with a gossiping old housekeeper the narrative chore of revealing the mutually destructive love of Heathcliff and Catherine.

If your story has a highly unusual protagonist, using a displaced narrator the reader can more easily understand and identify with, who can ask questions and bring some objectivity to the protagonist's odd goings on, may be the best answer.

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