Your “viewpoint” character

Sort of related to what traveller said, I wanted to say a little bit about “viewpoint” characters and deciding what is “on camera” vs. “off camera”.

There are three “voice” styles. First person is, “I went to the store.” This makes it very clear who is speaking, and who your viewpoint character is. Second person is, “You went to the store,” or “You are on your way to the store.” (Second person is not used much except in Choose Your Own Adventure books :) And third person is “Joe went to the store.”

Most of us will probably write in the third person. With third person, you have to give the reader some cues as to who the viewpoint character is. The viewpoint character is usually your main character, but you can sometimes switch to another viewpoint character if you want to show something else happening out of sight of the main character. The best time to do this is at a chapter break when you would naturally change scene anyway.

The “third person” is essentially the invisible narrator. But, we are really trying to get into the viewpoint character’s head. So, usually in a novel we will not describe anything that the viewpoint character doesn’t see or isn’t aware of. This is the First Rule of Third Person: The Narrator is not a character. Do not draw attention to the narrator. For example:

Good: Joe rounded the corner and saw that a bus was just pulling away from the bus stop. It was number 20. Joe ran to try and catch up, or to get it to stop, but it was too late. He would have to call a cab, and would probably be late anyway. He ducked into the office building to try and find a phone.

Bad: Just as Joe disappeared into the office building, a second bus 20 pulled up to the bus stop. Some passengers got out, and after 10 seconds or so, the doors closed and the second bus 20 was also on its way. If Joe had just looked behind him he probably would have seen it, but it was not to be.

Remember, the goal is to get totally inside our main character’s head, not to describe absolutely everything around him. If you want the audience to see something that the viewpoint character doesn’t see, perhaps you want to write a screenplay and not a novel :) Of course, this is not a hard-and-fast rule, but the next time you are reading someone else’s novel, try to observe how often they “step outside” the viewpoint character.

How you talk about your viewpoint character is probably even more important when you are talking about thoughts and feelings. For example, you can express that Joe is angry by saying “Joe felt angry”. This says how Joe is feeling, but it also implies that Joe is aware of his own emotional state. If Joe is not really aware of his own feelings, or isn’t examining them, maybe you don’t want to say “Joe was angry”. Maybe you want to get the point across by having Joe “act out” (such as shouting, snapping, slamming a door.) Or you could have another person act as a mirror, like having Mary say “Joe, what’s wrong? Are you angry at me?” Just like with the bus, if Joe is not examining his own thoughts and feelings, they may not be “available” for you to describe.

Certain techniques work better for certain situations. If Joe is talking to someone, having him act out, or even talk about his feelings out loud might be appropriate. If he is alone, having him think about things in between whatever he is doing might work better. Usually you don’t want to stop his interaction with other people to have him think about himself for 5 minutes, but there are times when this is needed (like when someone says something that makes him realize what has been bugging him — but in that case, better make him “think fast” and get back to the dialogue.)

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