Shake things up: change the viewpoint

A few months ago a friend wrote a dismissive blog post about The Great Gatsby.    Now whether you like the book or not – and if you haven’t read it as an adult, I think the odds are stacked to not like it—the fact that, even taking out the critics and the teachers, many generations of readers absolutely love it says it must be a compelling book in some way.  Personally, I like it.  I find it beautifully written, compelling, and remarkably easy to read despite being written when my great-grandmother was a young woman.  Sometimes I think I like it because it was written so long ago.  The author uses techniques that have fallen by the wayside for the most part.   And I suspect that may be what my friend didn’t like.  I think she didn’t like the viewpoint.

A review of what we typically think when viewpoint is mentioned

First Person The story (or part of it) is told from the direct point of view of a character.  This is the point of view I find myself most comfortable with as it’s how I “see” the story.  It is also a very powerful point of view in certain stories.  In Gone Girl, it’s used brilliantly.  The intimacy created between reader and the two character encourages – begs us – to go beyond understanding their motives and outright judge them.Unfortunately, it’s become the default point of view in some genres.  I know it is in fantasy, at any rate; I would not be surprised if it is also the default in romance, mystery, and chick lit.  It’s used because it’s easy to connect with, not necessarily because it’s best for the story.
Third Person, Limited The story is told as if we are watching the character through a window (or tv screen.)  The information revealed is restricted, like first person, to what the character knows, or even to what the character does and says.  This limitation can also be very engaging. Since we don’t “hear” what the character is thinking, we interpret his/her actions before the actual motivation reveals itself.
Third Person, Omniscient The story is told outside of the character, but without restriction to what information is shared.  It sounds so freeing when stated like this, but I’ve never found it so.  The author has to cherry pick information to tell the story, otherwise the narrative wanders and has the potential to lose focus.  Anne Tyler opens Saint Maybe this way.  She introduces us to the family from the neighborhood’s perspective before spiraling slowly into direct contact with the main characters. Jane Austen opens Pride and Prejudice with society’s general consensus about marriage and single men then introduces us to the Bennet family and their situation.  Still, it is the point of view I struggle with the most, both as a writer and a reader.  Hard sci-fi with an omniscient point of view loses me completely because it focuses on broader events rather than events focused within a limited character set I’ve become intimately involved with as a reader.

Keep in mind, I read a lot of plot-oriented novels and the general comments reflect that.  But, really, this was all meant as a refresher, to establish, as we already know, that each has strengths and weakness.  It’s also to clear the air, to show you what I don’t mean when I say this:

Changing the point of view changes how much we see in the story.  Changing the story’s viewpoint changes the story.

What I mean when I say viewpoint

For the purposes of this post, I’m making a distinction between point of view, by which I mean first person narrative, etc., and viewpoint, by which I mean the character we see the story through.

Back to Jane Austen…  Although it begins third person omniscient point of view, Pride and Prejudice comes to us through Eliza Bennet’s viewpoint.  We see the story of her family and falling in love with Mr. Darcy through her understanding of it.  We become intimate with the Bennet family, if not as deeply, personally intimate as we do with the husband and wife (the first-person viewpoint characters) in Gone Girl.

The Great Gatsby, on the other hand, is a first person point of view but the viewpoint is from a person only peripherally involved, at least at first, with the titular (and therefore focal) character.  We become drawn into the story of Gatsby’s great love because Nick, the narrator, becomes drawn into it.  We never become intimate with Gatsby, we are forever at a remove from him, trying to puzzle him out while Nick does the same.   I think this is what turns off some readers, but it’s what I find interesting about the book.  It makes Gatsby a romanticized, tragic-hero sort of character.  We are introduced to him when he’s the celebrity of the moment, and we come to know him as he falls from grace.

This post isn’t about Gatsby at all, of course; it’s the use of viewpoint.  Or perhaps the overuse.

I think that we are so used to the main players of the story being the main characters of the novel that we write it automatically, without critically considering what angles the story could come from and how that helps or hurts the story.  We’ve forgotten, for the most part anyway, that there’s more to viewpoint than first-person, third-person, limited, omniscient.  And even as each point of view brings advantages and disadvantages to the story, so does each character’s viewpoint.

So here’s a challenge for you, and this is for fun:

Consider an in-progress story or a completed story, something you have a solid understanding of the characters.  Now think about what the story – the same players, events, even using the same point of view – looks like from the viewpoint of another character. Now see it from a character who wasn’t in the room.  What about viewed from the viewpoint of the table or the couch cushion?  Discuss.

12 thoughts on “Shake things up: change the viewpoint

  1. POV is something I have been thinking about lately. I have a story that I’m passionate about which I wrote in 3rd person. Didn’t resonate with most people, especially agents. I’m considering rewriting it in first person to put the reader more into the action. Dunno. If nothing else, I’d like to see how it changes my thinking of the events..

    • As an experienced writer, I know you’ve found a pov that works well for your genre and personal style. But — at least in my own less experienced writing — moving out of that space gives an interesting insight into the story, even if the final product remains the same pov. Just a thought. Would love to hear what happens when you do some of the writing in 1st. Would really love to hear what happens if you decide to write from a different character altogether.

  2. Changing the point of view changes how much we see in the story. Changing the story’s viewpoint changes the story –

    An excellent distinction and one we need to keep in mind when we write.
    Also very useful when reading.

    I loved Sarah Dunant’s In the Company of the Courtesan, told from the POV of the male dwarf who accompanies the courtesan and reveals the underbelly of Venetian society. It might have been a more self indulgent story told from the woman’s POV and less compelling from an omniscient POV.

    Thanks for a great post.

  3. Great post, and helpful distinction between point of view and viewpoint. I’ve been a bit worried about the first person point of view in my own draft novel. For some reason, I’ve always felt that third person omniscient is “proper” writing – perhaps because I read a lot of nineteenth century fiction. Your post was reassuring!

    • Agreed. In my experience, third person omniscient has been less successful in contemporary writing than with the Classics. In one of my writing workshops, someone I respected told me they hated reading first-person narration and since then I have avoided using this narr style. Might be time to revisit it.

      • I think viewpoint and point of view are always going to depend on the story. Some points of view fit certain stories better than others. (I’m not taking genre, here, but the actual story.) First person narrative is really, really overused in the genres I read and I’m starting to be like your workshop colleague. But then there are the stories that just feel like they could not be told any other way (Gone Girl or The Eyre Affair, for example.)
        Viewpoint just isn’t considered as often, but it really does give an interesting “in” to the story.

        • You know, I think you’ve touched on something here. It’s possible my ‘distrust’ of either the omni. narr or the first-person narr. really stems from it being over-used, especially in genre fiction where the formula is readily apparent. I tend to enjoy any fiction that is told in a creative and new way, regardless of topic, view point or point of view. Thanks!

  4. For 37 years, I wrote nothing but third person (limited and omniscient). A few years ago, I wrote a piece in first person. Nowadays, I’m finding that by default I’ve been going to first person. I don’t know why the change, but it’s where I am.

    • To be honest, I’m the same. In my July write-like-mad challenge, I kept finding myself writing in 1st person even though 3rd person actually worked better.
      Never been able to write omniscient though.
      Now I”m wondering if it’s possible to pull off 1st person omniscient. Alice Sebold did it somewhat in The Lovely Bones, but it read more like 3rd person. Also, I never really liked that book as much as everyone else did.

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