Itchy Bitesized 5: Sixteen Things You Need to Become a Writer (and twelve things you don't)
Itchy Bitesized 7: What You Need To Know About Comma Splices

Itchy Bitesized 6: Which Viewpoint Character Should You Be Using?

Even when you've got your head round how point-of-view and narrators work, you're left with the question of which of the available characters should be the viewpoint character for this page, this scene, this chapter or this novel. This post explores the possibilities, but don't forget that it's not essential for us to be inside a point-of-view for us to care about that character. Theatre and film don't work with point-of-view as prose writers understand it, but that doesn't stop the audience caring ferociously.

The Main Character. The advantage of this is that the reader is plumb centre of the story, experiencing everything as the character does, which was probably the point of writing the novel in the first place. The drawback is that you'll have to work out how to get the reader knowing anything which happens beyond MC's point-of-view. And, more subtly, you're limited in what you can get the reader to understand of other characters' ideas, motivations and take on events. Having said that, the more fiercely subjective and individual the viewpoint character's voice, attitudes and assumptions which colour the narrative, the more reader will intuitively read into the gaps.

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The Person With Most At Stake at the Moment. Your novel may essentially be Andy's story, but it will still be Biraj who has most at stake while he's trying to psych himself up to propose. There will be far more tension and page-turny-ness to that morning in bed, if we're living it through the body and consciousness of Biraj: trying to set up the right romantic moment, trying to be extra-loving but not pressuring, appreciative but relaxed, extra-annoyed when the doorbell rings... Of course, once Biraj has popped the question, it might be Andy who has most at stake, so perhaps a viewpoint switch is needed. Andy was taken by surprise (at least Biraj thought he would be, but was he?) and everything about his future now rests on deciding how to answer.

The Lover, Family or Friend. Claudie is likely to be close to and involved in the events of sister Dina's story, but she can also be there for the family row when Dina's away; for the view across the party to where Dina is being the life and soul of it; for being confided in by Dina's ex, Dina's current squeeze, and Dina's employer. When you don't want us to know something about Dina, it's relatively easy just to not have Claudie there - although how will you get us knowing about scenes which Claudie can't plausibly be present in, when you need to? Will she tell us how she discovered the detail later, so can now narrate it, or will you just switch to a different point-of-view? Again, the more subjective the colouring, the more we may wonder about what underlies it, and how Claudie herself will act in Dina's story.

The Bystander A true bystander has no skin in this particular game, and so they may transmit a more rounded, objective and trustworthy view of the MC and others involved. That can be handy, and handy again when you don't want the reader to know certain thing. But it cuts both ways: how will you get the reader to have skin in the game, to fear for what could go wrong, to hope for what could go right, unless we can get up close to the people who matter in the story? So bystander point-of-view can be fruitful as part of a set of viewpoints in a novel, but is very hard to make work as the only viewpoint. And if you too often use it to withold things from the reader, readers will intuit that you're cheating them.

The New Kid in Town There's a reason so many books start with a character arriving: humans are much more aware of the new than the familiar, so it's an ideal viewpoint to show readers a world you need us to get to know, because the fresh eye is taking everything in, trying to read and understand their new situation. They may not be objective - can anyone be? - but they can ask the questions we want answered. But it's worth thinking about their own background, so that what they're surprised by, and what they take for granted feels natural while also supplying what you need us to know.

The One Who's Seen it All. Conversely, a viewpoint character who's seen it all, and wants to tell all - to make sense of things, to set the record straight, to explain What Happened - is also a good pair of eyes, even if now they rarely leave their chimney corner. This character can bring lots of context to what's going on, can tell whatever needs telling, wherever and whenever it happened. Of course, that doesn't preclude them being inadequate or even unreliable, but the richness of narratives that have a strong sense of the storyteller about them is something rather special.