When I read a novel for my own pleasure, I read fast. I don’t stop to think ‘this is a new scene’ or ‘Buck is this new scene’s viewpoint character.’ I just inhale the story.
But sometimes a reader— especially if the reader is a would-be writer— needs to slow down and notice things. In a novel written in the Third-Person-Limited point of view, the story may jump around in different places with different characters present. Each scene should have a viewpoint character— this helps the reader feel anchored. But only if the writer has left easy clues as to which character is the viewpoint character.
- The viewpoint character may be mentioned by name in the first sentence of the scene. In the book I am reading right now, ‘Armageddon’ by LaHaye and Jenkins, I checked several random scenes to find that the very first word in the scene is the viewpoint character’s name. The name should at least be mentioned before the end of the first paragraph.
- The viewpoint character is the one we follow. Some scenes are in motion— characters don’t stay in the same room or same setting, perhaps because they are chasing a suspect or a clue. The viewpoint character will be moving along with other characters in motion.
- We are often shown the viewpoint characters emotions and thoughts. We don’t know these things directly about the other characters in the scene.
- Other characters in the scene become known to readers through the observations and interactions of the viewpoint character. These other characters are observed externally— we aren’t told their thoughts and feelings directly.
- If the viewpoint character leaves the scene or dies, the scene ends.
- Every scene in fiction has a purpose to the overall story. The viewpoint character usually has a stake in that purpose. At least the viewpoint character will have a goal for the scene.
- If the viewpoint character is not the main character or an important character in the novel as a whole, there must be a reason why the author chooses to show this particular scene through this character.
- Some novels stick mostly with the main character as a viewpoint character. Others have many different characters who serve as viewpoint characters in scenes. Novels with a lot of action in a variety of settings, like ‘A Pius Man’ by Declan Finn, often need to have many viewpoint characters.
Writers and would-be writers should be aware of the viewpoint characters in scenes, especially when reading fiction by skilled or popular authors. By learning how other authors handle this issue in scenes, you can improve how you do it yourself.
Find a book at random (by a skilled author) and pick three random scenes. For each scene, write down the answers to these questions.
- Who is the viewpoint character for this scene?
- How did the author establish that this was the viewpoint character for this scene? Was this done in the first sentence?
- What does the viewpoint character seem to want in this scene? Does he get it?
- Was this character a good choice for the viewpoint character in this scene? Why or why not?
- Is there an opposition character that is trying to prevent the viewpoint character from getting what he wants? If there is, imagine how the scene would be different from this opposition character’s point-of-view.
If you have any difficulties on the issue of viewpoint characters, do ask a question in a comment