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Picking the Right Viewpoint Character
by Tina Morgan

There are a lot of different ways to develop a novel. Some writers start with a character, or a vague idea for a plot. Others start with a setting and work from there. No matter how you begin, at some point you have to decide who is going to tell your story.

This is your 'viewpoint character'.

Your VP (viewpoint) character can tell the story in first, second or third person singular. The second person approach is very difficult to write and doesn't work for most stories. Though, it can be used effectively in an interactive story were the desire is to draw the reader deeper into the story. The most common forms would be first and third person, in either omniscient or limited narrative.

Who should your viewpoint character be?

Choosing a VP character can be confusing. Many writers assume that he/she should be the protagonist and the main character. While this is often the case, the main rule of thumb to follow is that the VP character should be the person through whose eyes we see the action. If the story is written in first person, he/she should be the character telling the tale. If it is written in third person, he/she should be the person the reader follows most closely. Seeing not just his actions but why he behaves the way he does and how he interprets events around him.

If the VP character is not the main character or the protagonist, he/she must be someone in position to see and respond to the major events of the story. It rarely works to have a VP character that is always hearing about the major events after they have taken place. Also, most readers will feel cheated if the end of the story does not resolve the VP character's problems.

Guidelines for your viewpoint character:

1) The VP character must be present at main events.

2) He/she must be actively involved and not just a chance observer.

3) He/she should have a personal stake in the outcome of the story even if the outcome depends on the main character's actions.

While it is possible to break these rules, caution is advised. The story can slip into tedious prose rather quickly. The reader needs a reason to read your story. Give them someone to care about or you risk having your work set aside for more entertaining reading.

There is far more room to explore our creative options when the VP character is someone other than the protagonist (the hero) of the story. By alternating between the protagonist's and the antagonist's viewpoints in a novel, we have the opportunity to build sympathy for both sides of the conflict. When alternating, keep in mind one character should carry the story through a section or chapter. 'Head hopping' in the middle of a scene can leave the reader frustrated and confused. (And it isn't very popular with editors.)

When don't you want your VP character to be the protagonist? If you're writing a mystery and the point of the story is to discover who committed the crime, it is traditional to use the detective's sidekick as the VP character. The reason is that the detective will usually know the identity of the culprit long before the end of the book. For example: Sherlock Holmes was always several steps ahead of Watson. If the reader knew what Holmes was thinking the suspense would have been lost long before the novel ended.

The argument can be made that many mysteries have the detective as the VP character. If you take a careful look, most of those have moved the conflict away from the crime itself to the other character's reactions to the crime. The focus lays not so much with 'who did it' as with how the main character is going to reestablish his/her life.

If you are having problems completing a story, whether long or short, take a look at your VP character. Ask yourself a few questions:

Have you chosen the best person to tell the story?

Is this character in a position to see the main events of the story? Will they be affected by them?

Are this character's problems going to be resolved by the end of the story?

What if Charles Dickens had told his story, "A Christmas Carol" from Bob Cratchit's pov? Yes, his problems would have been resolved at the end, but he would not have been able to see the spirits visiting Scrooge. He could have reacted to Scrooge's change of heart and heard the story second hand, but that wouldn't have been as interesting as reading about it through Scrooge's eyes.

There is always more than one side to any tale. Take the time to develop your characters, then determine who can best tell the story you want to write.

Copyright 2001 Tina Morgan. All rights reserved


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