Monday, October 26, 2009

Whose Eyes?

Congratulations; you've thought of your plot. You've created your characters. Next hurdle? Whose voice is going to tell your story? Whose eyes will view the events? It may seem obvious, but wait; think about it. This decision affects everything else you will write.

Many times the easiest decision is to tell the plot from the viewpoint of your protagonist; after all, he/she is your main character for a reason. Writing in the first person brings an immediacy to your story-telling that is impossible to achieve with any other method. The writer can let the reader experience your protagonist's feelings and frustrations and see the world through their eyes. This can be an added bonus for mystery writers because if the main character makes a wrong assumption the odds are the reader will accept it as the right one. It's a great way to mis-direct. However, seeing the plot through only one pair of eyes can be limiting. Can you put your protagonist everywhere they need to be? Are they truly the one driving the plot? If your answers to these questions is 'no' then another voice and another pair of eyes are called for.

The omniscient narrator's eyes are very useful; since, being omniscient means they can see and know everything. This is when you can use the phrases 'little did he know' or 'it was the last peaceful morning'. It's nice to be the puppetmaster, but I find this style somewhat distant. I like to be in among the action not watching it as a member of the audience. That said, however, many, many wonderful books are written using this method.

But what about telling the story from a secondary character's point of view? Maybe it's not the detective telling the story, but the detective's trusty sidekick; or your main character's best friend. What about several people telling the story? Different voices add texture and depth. Several people can be in several locations which is a bonus if you're writing a mystery.

Of course, there are a myriad of more ways to write a story than I've written here, but I think every writer should think about whose eyes and voice best serves the tale they are going to tell. It might not be the main character. Take a moment to think about your current work; how would it change if it was told from another point of view? You might have picked the easiest voice, but is it the right one?


  1. So true--often the easiest voice *isn't* the best choice. It's worth exploring, taking the time to test out voices and POV characters, before you get too far along.

    Hey--there's an award waiting for you at my blog!

  2. In my novel I just finished who was telling the story was my biggest headache. Even now I'm not sure I chose correctly.

  3. I have tried that and it works, writing from different viewpoints. Who should be telling the story? Sometimes I have to get away from my idea of who it should be and let the story tell me.

  4. Very good thoughts on a very important topic. As an editor I often get manuscripts from novice authors who obviously have no handle on the what and why of point of view they are using - often switching back and forth with no idea what they're doing. Good post.

    Marvin D Wilson

  5. Winnie; My goodness, thank you for the award!

    Laurie; You finished a novel. You win.

    Journaling Woman; Sometimes that's exactly what works. Good for you.

    Marvin; Glad you liked it. I do try, in my own small way.

  6. You make an excellent point. Choosing point of view is absolutely critical. Don't make the decision lightly.

    (Once I tried telling my story in a Donald-Duck voice. I got hoarse after a few minutes.)

  7. Alan; A brave and bold choice. I usually go for Yoda so that way I sound very wise and I can have questionable grammar.

  8. Hi Elspeth! This is brilliant information. I always tell the story from omniscent pov. I've tried first person and I like it but it seems a little limiting. I've honestly never thought o telling it from a secondary character's point of view. Thanks for the suggestion!


  9. I like to read and write stories with multiple viewpoints, so long as those viewpoints are strictly defined so I don't have to wonder whose head I'm in. Good things to think about in your post.

  10. Andre Dubus III wins the prize for using the most POVs in a novel -- Garden of Last Days had at least seven, I think. And I heard somewhere that Stephanie Meyer's next book in the Twilight series was going to be from Edward's POV.

    And then there's Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. I always found that character so invisible and yet so crucial.

    I find that I'm much better at first person POV, especially if it's female. Last year I tried a short story in third person POV, male, and when I gave it to my wombmate to critique, his repeated comment was "film it" in terms of capturing the vision. Was the best piece of advice, although I still didn't like the way the story turned out.

  11. Think "Sophie's Choice". Styron's remarkable work wouldn't have been the same if he had told the story through Sophie's eyes. Instead he created Stingo, an aspiring writer to tell the tale, and thus was born a masterpiece. I give a good deal of thought to POV, sometimes changing my mind midway or even further on down the road.

  12. Jen; I'm glad I gave you something to think about!

    Carol; I like books with multiple POVs as well.

    Elisa; Well, I've got six POVs in my manuscript. I'm either very brave or very stupid.

    Elizabeth; Changing the POV can involve a huge amount of work; but worth it in the long run, don't you think?

  13. I usually write from the protagonist's voice, but I've written from others, including the antagonist's POV.

    Straight From Hel

  14. Elspeth - What a key question! The point of view the author chooses crucially affects whaat the reader learns and the direction of the story. It can be reallhy intriguing to do what Helen has done, and use the antagonist's voice, but I must admit I haven't tried that yet.

    I use multiple POVs in my work. I move from character to character, so that the reader gets to know each one, and so that the reader can learn about the sleuth and the victim from more than one perspective. What I try to do to keep the narrative coherent is to make it clear before I switch POVs which one I'm going to use. I identify the character. That way, the reader doesn't have to be confused about who's "speaking." Interesting and important things to think about!

  15. Excellent post subject! My first book was written in four pov's - a daughter and three sisters. My second (wip) is from one point only. My recent one which is trying to find a home has two main pov's and two others that show up for one hit each. It isn't complicated but I agree - they have to be distinct. And so your characters should be anyway.

  16. I used 1st person past tense. I know it would've been different, and perhaps not captured the feeling I wanted, if told from a different POV.

  17. Interesting post.
    Generally I like 3rd person past tense, and I have used 3-4 different points of view in my two (unpublished) manuscripts. In the latest one, I had two narrators called "Anna". To avoid confusion, I decided to use a 1st person voice for the youngest character, and I realized later that it made it much easier to keep up the innocent and naive tone I wanted.

  18. Oh, yes, my favorite topic, Point of View. It can for certain affect how the story is told. For example, a boy nearly drowns. Simple enough. But, told from the boy’s POV you get one story, from a witness, an entirely different feel, and from a rescuer’s POV still another sense. POV is a great tool. Sadly, head-hopping is disallowed, but, I think that’s a great way to go also. Though I’m not real clear on why head hopping would be verboten in Omniscient POV.

    Best Regards, Galen

    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  19. Helen; The antagonist should be heard. Why not?

    Margot; We seem to work in a very similar pattern. I hope I have your level of success!

    Jan; That's the trick isn't it? Pick the voice or voices and ensure they're unique.

    Carolyn; If it captured the feeling you wanted then you chose wisely.

    Dorte; The first person is a useful tool and I would think it would work well in that particular situation. Good for you for thinking of it!

    Galen; I wondered if you'd see this post on one of your favorite subjects. I have no problem at all with different characters telling the story as long as I don't hop in the middle of a scene. I'm just not that nimble any more.

  20. I ended up rewriting my first manuscript changing the POV from first person to third person. I was much happier with the final product and think it improved the readability. I would have saved a lot of time of I had figured that out before I started writing it!

  21. POV is really a lot of could tell a story so many different ways!

    I tell the story primarily through my sleuth's eyes, but shift it around sometimes. I'm a 3rd person POV person.

    Great post!

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  22. I love trying out different points of view before I settle on who is going to tell the story (although I don't use 1st person generally). I tend to use the pov of the main female and main male characters. As my books tend to have a romance element in them, I think this works well. It's also fun to add in the pov of the main villain as well :)

  23. I haven't tried keeping multiple POV's in the same book, but I have tried writing the same book from multiple POVs. This helps me get to know the characters better, find flaws in my storyline and see which POV rings most true.

    As always, thought-provoking stuff.


  24. Jane; That must have been a difficult decision to make. I admire your bravery.

    Elizabeth; It it ain't broke why fix it? Seeing the story through the sleuth's eyes is time-tested terrific.

    Jemi; It all depends on the genre, doesn't it? I could never write romances; I'm far too cynical!

    Michele; What an amazing amount of work. Wow. Thanks so much for your kind words.

  25. Gosh, I must have overstated b/c it doesn't seem like it. It just has to feel right! Thanks, though.



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