Writing

Choosing Viewpoint Characters

Using the right viewpoint character can give your story a big boost. But all too often, writers choose viewpoint characters that turn their narration into an uphill battle. Whether you’d like to supplement your hero’s viewpoint with visits from side characters, or you’re unsure of which character your story’s about, here’s what you should ask yourself.

Who Cares About the Conflict?

Scenes must hook the reader. For that, they’ll need a conflict: an unresolved problem that could end well or poorly for a character. Then readers need to care about this unresolved problem. It’s incredibly difficult to get readers to care if your viewpoint character doesn’t. In the 1982 book Battlefield Earth, L. Ron Hubbard makes the impending death of humankind feel trivial with a viewpoint character who talks about it like he’s discussing the weather.

The more your viewpoint character cares about the problem, and the more your audience understands why, the stronger your hook will be. For that, readers may need context. If the viewpoint character loses her job, readers should know that she can no longer afford her medication. If the viewpoint character watches as an inter-world gate collapses, readers should know that it separated him from his family. Using a character’s viewpoint enables you to describe the context and illustrate how your character feels. This is invaluable for showing that your conflict is worth reading about.

Who Knows What Readers Need to Know?

To understand your tale, your readers might need to know the motivations of all the different factions involved in an elaborate game of intrigue – even though no single character has this information. Then as your story progresses, you might want readers to notice that your unknowing hero is walking into a trap. If you can show the audience exactly how this trap works, they can wince and sigh in relief as the hero almost triggers a swarm of fire ants or an onslaught of poisoned arrows. In cases like these, writing your story will be easier if you have viewpoint characters from each important faction. Then readers can watch through the enemy’s eyes as he sets his elaborate trap for the hero.

Unfortunately, it’s common for writers to overestimate what readers should know. Think critically: would extra information actually increase reader enjoyment, or do you just want to share it? It’s not worth adding a viewpoint character to narrate the irrelevant history behind a conflict or describe an elaborate family tree that doesn’t affect the plot. Those things won’t change your readers’ experience.

You might also choose viewpoint characters for their ignorance. Some forms of humor rely on witnessing strange effects without seeing the cause. An ignorant viewpoint character can also make it easier to explain complex information to the reader. In the show Steven Universe, the titular character is a kid who knows little about his heritage as a Gem or the history of the characters who are raising him. As the show progresses, this information is explained to both Steven and the audience. Knowledge that the other characters take for granted becomes a fascinating reveal when framed from Steven’s perspective.

Who Do You Want Readers to Sympathize With?

Building rapport between readers and a character means showing readers how the character feels, what drives them, and why they make the choices they do. Doing that can be tricky if you’re only watching characters from the outside. While external signals are usually good enough for supporting characters, central characters might need the intimacy of internal narration.

On the reverse side, not all characters should be sympathetic. Your story may call for a threatening villain. The more sympathetic your villain is, the less scary they usually are. That doesn’t mean sympathy isn’t worthwhile for villains. A good strategy is to introduce a threatening villain that becomes sympathetic as the audience learns more about them.

Regardless of your choice, it’s important to know that a character’s viewpoint disperses threat and builds rapport. Many writers try to establish an antagonist as a threat by narrating from their viewpoint. For example, take this excerpt from City of Bones by Cassandra Clare:

Not that the humans didn’t have their uses. … Vitality just poured off them, waves of energy that filled him with a drunken dizziness. … They didn’t know what it was like to eke out life in a dead world, where the sun hung limp in the sky like a burned cinder. Their lives burned as brightly as candle flames—and were as easy to snuff out.

This antagonist would be threatening if readers actually witnessed him snuffing someone’s life out, especially if they didn’t understand who or what he was. Instead, his viewpoint just tells readers that he does it and then dispels some of the mystery by describing where he comes from.

While it’s not impossible to establish a threat using the villain’s viewpoint, this most commonly results in an antagonist that feels neither threatening nor sympathetic. In other words, a dud.

Who Affects the Other Characters?

Multiple viewpoint characters can make it too easy for writers to get sidetracked. You might introduce viewpoint characters Naomi, Sally, and Ching, only to find each of them fighting their own nemesis, saving their own loved one, and splitting your story into three separate novels all tangled together in a single draft.

Strong viewpoint characters stick close to the action instead of wandering off to do their own quests. The best way to judge whether a character’s viewpoint will fracture your story is to examine which important characters are doing things that impact other important characters. If one of your side characters steals from the hero, scares the love interest away, befriends the sidekick, and seduces the mentor, then that person is a strong candidate for a viewpoint character.

Not only will using this method keep you story tight, it will give your audience more reasons to care about each scene. Let’s say you have a scene where the new viewpoint character scares the love interest away. That conflict will hook readers who like the viewpoint character, readers who like the love interest, and readers who like the romance between the hero and the love interest. If the viewpoint character was off writing their own story, anyone who isn’t attached to this character could get impatient at the interruption.


Your viewpoint characters can dramatically alter how your story is perceived. Choose characters that will emphasize what’s important and keep readers hooked all the way through.

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Comments

  1. Kendra Michael

    I especially love the topic of ‘Who Knows What Readers Need to Know?’ I am writing a story about a vicious monarch who is known by her inner circle as a loose canon that verbally and physically abuses her staff. Her steward speaks of the monarchs behavior in the opening chapter with detail as he is in a dilemma over replacing yet another servant that met their demise at the hands of the out of control monarch. However, in the next chapter a new servant (protagonist) working under the queen is ignorant of this fact. The servant is overjoyed to serve close to the queen and fantasizes about being near such a powerful and refined ‘lady’. The servant is blissfully unaware of the queen’s homicidal behaviors. I’d like to think this creates tension…like a ticking bomb.

    • Chris Winkle

      If you give that information from the steward’s viewpoint, then switch to the naive protagonist, that would definitely create tension. You could increase it by noting specific innocent actions that enrage the monarch, then having your unaware protagonist do those things when there’s no one around to warn them not to.

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