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Viewpoint, sometimes called Point of View, is one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s toolbox, and your ability to make it work can make or break a manuscript. When a character’s viewpoint isn’t working it means you’re putting ‘telling the story’ above telling your character’s story. Your viewpoint characters are the characters whose thoughts and feelings you will represent in the narrative; whose heads the reader will have access to; who experience the story for the reader.
In this fortnight’s lesson we are going to demystify how to create an engaging viewpoint. Through a series of audios, lessons and exercises you will learn how to pick the best viewpoint character for your story and how to avoid confusing a scene via ‘head-hopping’.
TOPIC ONE: Clarifying Viewpoint – An Audio From Kim
Listen or download the audio for this section here!
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TOPIC TWO: Some Simple Viewpoint Rules
This is one of those aspects of writing that could slot into either structural or line editing. A lot of your fiction will take place in the characters’ heads. The most incredible, fast-paced plot details don’t mean much if we don’t get a sense of what they mean to the characters, so at some point you’re going to have to describe what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling. Here are some simple rules:
It’s Not Just About The ‘View’
Viewpoint is a limited word because it misleadingly suggests a focus on sight. But your characters offer more than view; they offer access to a full physical and mental response. They experience the story in their minds and bodies, just as real people experience real life in their minds and bodies.
Use the senses to render these responses. We spoke about how to use the senses in the Show Don’t Tell lesson. This is another place you want to use them. Don’t limit your writing and characters to sight. By using all the senses you are allowing the reader to experience those things too.
Too Many Voices
Have you got too many viewpoint characters in your story (as in characters who are telling the story to the reader)? The fewer viewpoints you have, the better. This isn’t always an easy decision to make as some novels require several viewpoint characters for a variety of reasons. Some genres in particular have more viewpoint characters then others, e.g. epic fantasy.
But the rule still holds true that the fewer the viewpoints, the more special the bond between the reader and your character; in essence, their effect remains undiluted. While the reader gets less access to the internal thoughts and feelings of the other characters, it allows you to explore the conflicts arising from misunderstanding and the suspense this creates.
Stay in the heads of the characters you want your readers to feel passionately about; this goes for your villains as much as your heroes. We want readers to passionately hate the villain. Spending extended time with somebody, with privileged access to their thoughts and feelings, is a great way to build a relationship (fictional or otherwise).
If you’re at a dinner party with twelve people, you’re not going to build a strong relationship with all twelve. But if you’re at one with four people, you will get more access to them and their thoughts and feelings and, as a result, form stronger bonds.
Is The Right Character Telling The Story?
From a practical perspective, have you chosen characters whose viewpoints will help you tell the story? Characters provide access to events you want to narrate, and the events that bear the most interest for the reader. If your evil overlord is plotting the downfall of your lowly-farm-girl-come-warrior-princess, but there is no viewpoint character to witness his evil plans, then an opportunity for narrative interest is lost.
If you want to up the interest you need to show his plans. But this doesn’t have to be from his viewpoint. Maybe it could be from the point of view of a minion; they’re fantastic for that and can sometimes turn traitor in the future. If that’s you, try introducing this viewpoint outside the main narrative viewpoint.
Remember, non-viewpoint characters can only reveal themselves through action and dialogue. Take special care you only show what they are thinking and feeling as you never see things from them direct.
Which Character For Which Scene?
You need to choose the right viewpoint character to experience each scene. If there are two viewpoint characters in the same scene interacting with each other, always privilege the one who has the most at stake, who feels the most.
At every point of your story, ask your characters, “How does this feel?” If it’s tough to answer that, work harder, don’t gloss over it. You need to get under the skin of the character especially at moments where life is most difficult for them. If you write that a character feels ‘numb’, 99% of the time that means you haven’t fully comprehended how they really feel. Keep trying.
Finally, if you find a scene confusing, you might be head hopping. This means you are going from one character’s head to another’s in the same scene. Generally, avoid head-hopping and stay in one character’s viewpoint per scene.
Hopping from head to head is disorienting; readers don’t know whose feelings they’re supposed to align themselves with. For this reason, head-hopping can hold your readers at arm’s length.
You’ll need to keep them much closer than that if you want them to love your characters, your story, and your writing.
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Your characters offer more than ‘view’; they offer access to a full physical and mental response. They should experience the story in their minds and bodies, just like real people.
This activity will:
- Vary your characters’ emotional responses and intensity in various situations,
- Expand your viewpoint and descriptions beyond the limited view of sight and,
- Engage readers on all sensory levels.
WHAT TO DO:
Choose one of the “big” emotions on the list below.
Using dot points, describe the impact of the emotion on the body. Start with the feet and work up:
- How do your feet feel when you’re afraid (e.g. hollow, numb, leaden)?
- Pay particular attention to the viscera (stomach, lungs) and the senses (hearing, vision).
Find an instance in your manuscript where you can include a response on the body and apply it. Post your efforts in the Body Language & Senses Forum. How have your peers described the same expressions? How do their character’s reactions vary to yours?
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