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 The Artistry and Craft of the Bard (IV)

Choosing a Point of View

© 2002 by Lifetrekker
All rights reserved.

So youíve got a story to tell -- the great what if: "What if there were three brothers. Two were cheap and lazy, and they built their homes out of straw and sticks. The other, the eldest and more responsible, built his home out of brick and river rock. Letís say a great wind-blowing demon came to town bent on eating the three brothers. How will the brothers combat this great demon and protect themselves?

Great story! Four great characters! (Okay, maybe not, but for the sake of this discussion, pretend.)

Now, who tells the story? Do you choose one character, perhaps the older brother? Okay. You choose him. Do you have him tell the story? A first-person narration?

As the sun beat unmercifully on my head, my hands chapped and blistered, I wanted to give up. Look at my brothers, my mind kept teasing. From Calvinís back yard, I could hear the splash of water as they played the afternoon away in his pool. Oh how I so wanted to join them: cold beer, good conversation, the refreshing coolness of the water playing over my steamy body.

Was this, as Doug had accused, pure ego? After all, once completed, my home would be beautiful, a point of one-upmanship, my need to show off that I was better than they were. Look at their homes. Theyíre but straw and sticks. Mine is of brick and stone. Look at me! They could have done this, too, but no, they wanted to finish quickly and play the rest of their summer. Not me. I couldnít be so pedestrian or live in such a sty. I had to be better. I had to build a small castle. I had to show everyone who drove by who was the older, no the better brother.

Or do you use third person? If so, which? Do you use a third-person objective narrator who only reports on what the older brother does with no access to his thoughts or knowledge?

The sun was looming directly overhead and its rays beat without mercy on Charlieís head. He wiped his face with the back of an equally sweaty arm and set the round rock into the mortar his chapped and blistered hand troweled smooth. He wiggled and tapped the rock so it sat perfectly then he took another trowel full of mud and repeated the process. And so it went.

The splash of water caught his attention.

"Hey, Charlie!" Charlie perked when he heard Calvinís voice. "Doug and I are done," said the jovial voice. "Weíve called Polly and Petunia. Come over when youíre done."

"Or give up," added Doug.

"Weíve got Hogsí Ale, a cool pool, and fun."

"I canít," said Charlie. He wiped his face with the back of his hand. "I want to finish by night."
"Your loss." Dougís quip was followed by the sound of a large splash. From where he stood Charlie could see a spray of water arc above the fence dividing their backyards.

"Damn, snoot." Charlie cursed under his breath as he returned to his task. "Maybe I should," he continued to talk to himself. "What am I trying to prove? Look, theyíre already done and what am I doing? I could have built my house out of straw or sticks, but nnooo. I canít be so pedestrian or live in such a sty. I have to be better. I have to build a small castle. I had to show everyone who drives by whoís the older, no the better brother."

Or do you choose a third-person limited viewpoint so the reader can hear his thoughts?

The sun was looming directly overhead and its rays beat without mercy. Damn, Iím drowning in my own sweat, thought Charlie. He wiped his face with the back of an equally sweaty arm. Oh, like thatís going to do any good. He set the round rock he held in a chapped and blistered hand into the mortar. Iím going to have to soak them a week in hand lotion. He wiggled and tapped the rock so it sat perfectly then he took another trowel full of mud and repeated the process. And so it went.

Or do you choose a different brother? Perhaps itís Calvin, who wants to be like his oldest brother, but is swayed by Dougís desire to have fun? Maybe this is a story about making choices and it is Calvin who has to decide. Or, maybe you choose Doug, who learns that always taking the easy way out is not the best. Then you have to decide first person, third-person objective, or third-person limited to a single viewpoint. Or, maybe when the demon comes, you need to see each brother in action, for the narrator to be as a camera in a movie, like in the Aliens series. Or do you need to do more? Be in the heads of the characters? Be more knowing and omniscient? Choices: how does one decide?

Choosing the point of view of a story/novel is probably the most important decision an author has to make. Yes, plot and character are important, but choosing the wrong viewpoint, and subsequently the poor execution of viewpoint, can lessen the connection and relationship you want with the reader.

So how do you decide?

    1. Ask yourself, whose story are you telling? This character is usually, but not always, the protagonist. This character is changed the most or learns the greatest lesson by what happens--the one who undertakes the journey. In third-person limited stories, this is the "I" or the character through whom the narrator usually operates.
    2. Even if you donít know the entire plot, lay out what you can. Look at the scope of the journey.
      Who is involved? For instance in my above examples, the plot is a basic thriller. Iíve decided that I want Dougís obstinacy to cost him what he holds most dear, the life of Calvin. Also, Charlie must come to terms with his innate pride and how this pride has driven Doug to avoid taking responsibility. This occurs as the trio fight against a demon known as, "The Wolf." The wolf appears as a wind and steals the souls of its victims. The only way to kill the demon is to cut out its heart, which is located within the core of its essence.
      On its face this is a small story, only four major characters, maybe more if I add a couple of significant others. If I have trips to the hardware store, police officers who come out to investigate a prior feeding, there may be minor characters who might add texture or flavor.
    3. Decide which character(s) would best be able to tell the story.
      The logical choice for the example would be one of the three brothers or maybe all three.
      At this point, there are no set rules. You must make the choice.
    4. Once you have made that decision, you need to select the viewpoint: first person, third-person objective or limited central or limited shifting, or omniscient. And yes, depending on the technique or style you might be playing with, there can be some mixing. Ninety-nine percent of authors pick one and stick with it. Those who do this have a good mastery of the craft and have a plan. Shifts are seldom or never made mid scene. With that proviso said:
    5. Write!

As you are writing, pay special attention to point of view. If the point of view you've chosen doesn't work, you can always go back and try another. Unless you must meet a deadline, writing is more often a long-term commitment and an endurance marathon, than a sprint. Donít become frustrated. If necessary, experiment and work on a story from several viewpoints and figure out which works best. When writing, remember: play is good.

Why donít you try your hand at playing with point of view?

    1. Write a scene from your favorite fairy taleóLittle Red Riding Hood, Snow White, or Cinderellaó from different points of view. Donít just change characters, try using the same character and switching from first person to third- person limited, to third-person shifting, to objective, to omniscient.
    2. If you have written a short story, take that story and write it from another viewpoint.
    3. For some additional exercises try this website:

Besides writing, read. But donít just read to read. Read as a writer and study the craft. (Caution: After you start to do this, it is a habit that becomes difficult to break.) What techniques work for the writer? What doesnít work? Look at word choice, sentence and scene structure, and since we have been looking at point of view, look at point of view.

Next month I hope to look at some of the common mistakes bards make when working with point of view.

Until then may the Muses be with you!


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