Need Help Determining the Viewpoint Character?

Most of the time when point of view (POV) comes up, a discussion of first person vs. third person follows. Every writer (and some readers) seem to have an opinion about which they prefer, but for the most part, I think it's a topic that once you've explored it, doesn't need to be dissected over and over.

What interests me more is the best way to decide which character’s viewpoint is best for any particular scene. That isn’t discussed all that much and it's a decision that does need to be made with every scene you write. Generally, when it is discussed in writing books, the "wisdom" is that you should write from the viewpoint of the character who has the most at stake. Maybe I’m a rogue, but I’m not convinced that’s always true, so I decided that it's a good topic to explore.

Most books have one main character, which makes it easy to decide whose viewpoint to use: the main character (aka the protagonist) because everything in the story is in some way relevant to their problems. (If it isn’t, it doesn’t belong in the story.) He (or she) is the one you want the reader to relate most closely with so, barring scenes where the protagonist isn’t present,  it makes sense that you would use that character’s viewpoint in most scenes.

What do you do, however, when you write romance, where you have, in effect, two characters who have near equal importance? Do you always choose the one who has the most at stake? I’m not always even sure which of them has the most to lose in every scene. I've been known to change viewpoint characters simply because I've "run out of gas" with one character's viewpoint. I'm not sure that's the best reason to switch to a new character, but sometimes it's all I've got.

So how do writers make the decision? Well, I could toss a coin, but that seems rather haphazard. Or I could write it both ways and see which one works best, but I'm essentially too lazy to do that every time. I do have a few things I look at though that help me decide, so I thought I'd share them.

  • Hidden motivation
If you have a character who has a hidden motive that you don't want revealed, it makes sense not to have them be the viewpoint character. "Tells," a term that poker players use to describe those little nervous tics that reveal when an opponent is bluffing, come in handy when writing a scene with a hidden motivation, and writing from another viewpoint is the best way to describe those tells to the reader, to give them clues that things may not be what they seem on the surface. These clues can be great ways to increase the tension because readers are intuitive about body language. They know that if you've written these clues into the story they mean something, but they're also familiar with those tricky writers who throw in red herrings. If you want to be sure the reader doesn't miss it, you can have the viewpoint character wonder about what they're observing, or you can choose to have the viewpoint character make note of the activity but not place any importance on it, which gives the reader one more thing to worry about.

  • Who comes out of the scene most changed?
Sometimes you have to choose the character who is going to come out of the scene changed simply because you need the reader to understand the mental journey they took to get from point A to point B. Entire plots can hinge on the reader understanding a character's motivation and that motivation needs to be clear. For instance, if the character needs to be angery about something, you cant afford for them to look like they've blown some small incident out of proportion because you don't want the reader to lose sympathy for them, but if the character is responding to something that pushes one of their personal buttons, particularly if they've experienced some past trauma that makes them sensitive to certain behaviors or attitudes, what would seem to be an unreasonable response becomes not only understandable but adds sympathy for the character. To achieve that can require the reader being privy to their thought processes.

  • Who isn’t saying what they think?
This is the flip side to hidden motivations above. If you have a character who isn't saying what they think, but the reader needs to understand what's going on under the surface, you need to choose to deliver the scene from that character's viewpoint. This is especially true if what the character is doing or saying might be misconstrued. For instance, if they're being "mean" but that's not their motivation. You actually see this a lot in romance: the hero has emotional scars, so he's mean to the heroine because he wants her to keep her distance. He's protecting his heart. As the writer, you have to let the reader see that and it's easiest to do this from his viewpoint.

So basically, I make decisions based on who isn't "what you see is what you get." Since I lean heavily toward characters and situations that are multi-layered with emotional subtleties (because they're so much fun to write) that plays a big part in my decision making.

Of course, as much as I wish they did, not every scene includes the hidden undertones mentioned above. Here are some other considerations worth pondering.

  • Surprising reveal
If you have a scene with a reveal in it, consider picking the character whose reaction will mirror the readers'. For instance, iff the reader will be surprised by the reveal, aligning them with the character who is also surprised works well. But if the reader already knows the secret, you're likely better off choosing the character who already knew the secret, especially if they're going to have strong emotions (embarrassment, shame, etc) about the other character's reaction.

  • Insider knowledge
Sometimes it's worthwhile to let the reader feel like they know something the viewpoint character doesn't know, particularly if they know the character will have an emotional response to that knowledge. Suddenly, the reader is an "insider" and they become invested in the secret and the eventual reveal. They'll want stick around to see how things play out when the knowledge comes to light.

So there are some of the things I consider when I have a scene between viewpoint characters. How do you decide whose viewpoint to use?

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post!

    My solo writing goes into the thriller genre, and uses multiple point of views. I've used them even on characters, turning up in the course of the story, who only get identified by rank or position. I still like to get inside their heads.

    I tend to shift back and forth between characters as the action requires.