Let’s Talk About Point of View

It’s a big decision

It really is. When an author sits down at the keyboard and looks at a blank file, there are choices to make. One of those decisions is point of view. In other words, whose eyes are we seeing the story through?

The default is to select the main protagonist. It’s the obvious choice, but it’s default for a reason. Most of the time, that’s the character who experiences the story, who has the most important jobs to do, and being inside that head allows us to understand the conflict within the character as well as the conflict outside. But it isn’t always the best choice.

For instance, in L. Ron Hubbard’s Mission Earth series, the bulk of the series is told from the point of view of Soltan Gris. Definitely an antagoinist. In fact, the entire series is told as a confession. (Scientology aspect aside, I cannot in good faith recommend the series, as it is over a million words of pure force yourself to read it slog.)

An even better example of a point of view character not being the main character is Dr. John H. Watson, associate of one Sherlock Holmes. This is an outstanding choice of viewpoint character because Watson is almost always around Holmes when things get interesting, and yet he is just as mystified by Holmes’ outstanding abilities as are the readers. Making Holmes the point of view character would force us to be inside the head of Holmes, who is arguably far more intelligent than was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author. An impossible task.

The selection of point of view character is so important that it can often mean the difference between a successful story and one that never sees the light of day. That’s especially true for short stories, where there are seldom more than one point of view explored. Novels present a bigger challenge because there are more options due to the seemingly limitless space between the covers.

Sometimes, you’ll see a novel with the same point of view character cover to cover. More often, you’ll have at least two points of view because one character cannot be in all places at once. Sometimes, you need somebody present to provide eyes through which to see the action. One of the most difficult multi-point of view stories to tell is when the two characters are on opposite sides of a conflict. The reader gets familiar with players on either side of the fight, and it’s difficult not to give away plans. The challenge here is to keep suspense and not give away plot points in advance just because a character knows the details.

I accomplished a two point of view novel in Rigel Kentaurus. Half the novel is spent inside a human head, the other half inside an alien head. The story is Y-shaped with one point of view character on each branch, converging at mid-novel, then finishing the story together. I accomplished the difficult feat not giving away the plot by making the alien point of view character something of an outsider. He didn’t begin the story as an outsider, but that’s where he ended up. With that choice, it allowed me to view the story from a completely alien pespective.

Speaking of alien points of view, I’m told this is something difficult to pull off successfully. I say it that way because I am told that I’m very good at writing alien points of view. I personally don’t find it all that difficult. In fact, it’s rather fun, but I will leave the decision of whether I’m good at it to my readers.

Some novels have a large number of point of view characters. Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer comes to mind. Action takes place in multiple locations around the world, and Niven & Pournelle need eyes in those locations. They do a bang-up job keeping the story lines and personalities separated. In my unpublished novel A Darkling Nine, there are nine point of view characters because I plan to use them in different ways in subsequent volumes, and I wanted to allow the reader to view action through each character’s eyes at least once. In this case, the story could easily have been told in one point of view, but that would make it a completely different project.

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