Viewpoint and the art of switching point of view

Once upon a time, I thought choosing viewpoint was easy. Just choose and off you go. Then, I started revising my work and was shocked by all the viewpoint errors I found.

I’ve also discovered that there’s a lot more to viewpoint than just selecting a ‘person’ from which to tell the story. I now like to experiment with point of view to generate character minutiae both subjective and objective.

Viewpoint or point of view (often abbreviated as POV) is a literary device. In creative writing, viewpoint generally refers to the angle from which a writer chooses to narrate the story.

While there are variations, the three main viewpoint persons in fiction are:

  1. First person,
  2. Second person,
  3. Third person

First person

First person point of view is a popular choice with authors and readers. It is considered a more intimate choice as it unfolds from the position of “I”, where one character tells the story through their eyes.

Usually the protagonist of a story takes the first person viewpoint. Some stories cast a supporting character into this role to create an unreliable narrator with questionable credibility.

First person forces the reader to step into the shoes of the viewpoint character. Everything the story senses comes from that character’s perception.

First person viewpoint naturally lends itself to a subjective narrator.  The author tells the reader the feelings and inner thoughts of the character. It is much more direct than showing and often takes the guess-work away from having to read between the lines.

Telling a story through multiple first person viewpoints can confuse the reader if the point of view is not clearly separated. Changing viewpoints at chapters or parts can show more than one side of a story and give the reader with a different perspective.

In the fantasy series Everneath, author Brodi Ashton changes viewpoints in Book 1.5 to give the reader with the antagonist’s viewpoint. When the point of view changed to Nick, it gave me a deeper insight into his choices which the protagonist doesn’t have.

Everneath series by Brodi Ashton
Everneath series by Brodi Ashton uses first person multiple. Above cover for second book, a novella, Neverfall.

The last two books in the series, revert back to the protagonist, Nikki. But now, I felt a sympathetic connection to Nick. Knowing his perspective made the twists and turns of this series more surprising.

Second person

Second person point of view is the least popular of viewpoints in fictional writing.  It employs the pronoun “you” to tell the story and forces the reader to take part in the story.

While second person viewpoint appears more often in marketing and non-fictional writing, some authors have used it successfully. Pick-a-path adventure stories are one type of story that use second person to create interaction with the reader.

In Moon Quest by Anson Montgomery, the narrator addresses the reader directly as “you”. The first chapter sets the reader up with background information on their character and setting with a descriptive narrative.

As the story progresses, it provides you with choices that seem to put you in control of the story.

Moon Quest a second point of view novel
Moon Quest by Anson Montgomery uses second person to gamify the story.

Choose-your-own-adventure books are still popular titles with children. They offer an interesting story which places the reader directly into the action. By giving the reader interactive choices, they turn the story into a game.

Third person

Third person point of view employs a narrative presence that generally resides outside the story, where it can give information from different angles and characters.

A lack of “I said” with more emphasis on “he said” and “she said” permeates third person viewpoint. By using a third person viewpoint, an author can provide information external to the central character’s perception.

Third person viewpoint:

  • provides options for revealing description and events unknown to the protagonist,
  • creates tension and suspension by giving the reader more information,
  • allows the scope of a story to move away from a central character to include subplots with secondary characters,
  • introduce a viewpoint for a throw away character,
  • mix reliable and unreliable narration,
  • controls the reader’s focus, and
  • includes more detail about a story’s setting.

Snow White by the Grimm (1812) creates tension and suspense with third person viewpoint. If this fairytale was told purely from the first person viewpoint of Snow, the reader would only learn about the Queen’s disguise and the poisonous apples after Snow takes a bite.

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The antagonist's viewpoint
The Grimm brothers show the antagonist's viewpoint using third person omniscient.

When the queen heard this, she shook and trembled with anger, “Snow-White will die, if it costs me my life!” Then she went into her most secret room — no one else was allowed inside — and she made a poisoned, poisoned apple. From the outside it was red and beautiful, and anyone who saw it would want it. Then she disguised herself as a peasant woman, went to the dwarfs’ house and knocked on the door.

– 1812, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Snow White, Germany.

Third person objective

Third person objective presents only the facts of a story. Reading third person objective is like watching a movie. You can see how a character acts and you can hear what they share out loud, but their inner dialogue and feelings are off limit.

In third person objective the reader infers the characters’ inner thoughts and feelings by interpreting their actions, dialogue and physical descriptions. Using this style of viewpoint encourages the writer to show rather than tell.

Subjective viewpoint

While third person objective can make the reader less sympathetic towards the protagonist, a writer can combine third person objective with third person subjective.

A subjective viewpoint is a method where a writer tells the inner feelings and thoughts of characters to encourage empathy.

Third person limited

Similar to first person viewpoint, third person limited restrains the subjective perspective of a story to one character at a time.

Often third person limited constrains the sharing of inner thoughts and emotions to one character per story. The narrator shares other characters’ viewpoints objectively, requiring the reader to interpret their feelings and inner thoughts through their actions and dialogue.

However, third person limited can also be used to share the inner thoughts and emotions of multiple characters. When handling multiple perspectives viewpoint:

  • changes with scenes or chapters,
  • transitions use formating, anchoring and other techniques to avoid head hopping confusion, and
  • works best with up to six or so characters.

When changing viewpoints per scene, Tracey Culleton from Fiction Writer’s Mentor suggests, “the trick to knowing whose POV to use for each scene is to figure out which character is most impacted by the events of that scene.”

Third person omniscient

Third person omniscient provides a broader insight into a story and its characters. The all-knowing narrator can slip into the mind of any character to share the subjective experience of multiple characters at any time.

The all-knowing omniscient narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of every character. This god-like perspective also allows the narrator to provide information about the scene and background that maybe outside the characters’ awareness.

Often, the narrator’s voice in third person omniscient carries a strong tone sharing their attitude, comments and opinions about the story with their readers.

While third person omniscient can be entertaining, too much head hopping can overload a reader’s brain. To lessen confusion writers vary the delivery by:

  • breaking different viewpoints into paragraphs or scenes, and
  • using the omniscient narrator’s opinionated voice as an interlude between character viewpoints.

Terry Pratchett and the omniscient narrator

In the novel Hogfather (1996), Terry Pratchett uses a mix of omniscient with third person limited multiple characters. The story begins with the omniscient narrator’s voice including Pratchett’s use of the footnote, rare for this novel.

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Hogfather
Hogfather, a Discworld Novel by Terry Pratchett

The second scene continues with the omniscient narrator but introduces a group of characters using third person objective. In this scene, the reader interprets the character’s internal monologue through dialogue.

The third scene uses the omniscient narrator to move the setting across town to Susan and then moves into Susan’s subjective viewpoint.

At about the same time as the Archchancellor was laying down the law, Susan Sto-Helit was sitting up in bed, reading by candlelight.

Frost patterns curled across the windows.

She enjoyed these early evenings. Once she had put the children to bed she was more or less left to herself. Mrs Gaiter was pathetically scared of giving her any instructions even though she paid Susan’s wages.

– 1996, Terry Pratchett, Hogfather, London

But he doesn’t stay with Susan’s viewpoint. Midway through the scene, Susan departs to the cellar and the narrator stays with Twyla, Mrs Gaiter and her guests providing an objective viewpoint of their reactions. When Susan reappears we again here Susan’s subjective point of view.

By carefully using objective and third person subjective viewpoints separated by scenes, Pratchett provides a wide view perspective of the world without confusing the reader.

Mixing up viewpoints

Like Terry Pratchett, some authors like to mix up third person viewpoints so the story to become less rigid. J K Rowling is another author known for blending omniscient and third person limited together.

Other writers also like to switch between third and first person viewpoints depending on what they feel their story needs.

First person omniscient is another viewpoint variation in which a character with the ability to see into the minds of other characters tells the story in first person. Because of this unnatural ability, this style of viewpoint suits supernatural or god-like characters best.

Switching viewpoints to spark creativity

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viewpoint perspective
Coming at a problem from a different perspective can spark ideas.

As a reader, stories that go back and forth between different types of point of view like first and third quickly lose my interest. Even fictional stories that use multiple first person viewpoints usually annoy me.

The Everneath series was an exception. I found the different characters’ viewpoints intriguing rather than confusing. Keeping the viewpoints of the protagonist and antagonist separated in different books added an element of surprise to the series arc.

While I don’t like switching between the main viewpoints as a reader, I do enjoy switching between these viewpoints as a writer.

I switch point of view when writing to avoid writer’s block. Switching to first person helps me to draw out the inner thoughts of characters, while switching to third or second person can generate objective description.

Experimenting with viewpoint

Currently, I am working on a third person limited novel with a mix of omniscient. The story shares the inner thoughts and feelings of five key characters.

When a scene involves more than one of the key characters, I chose my viewpoint character based on who seems central to the event.

A few times while following my plotted structure my creativity has stagnated. When my imagining grinds to a halt and it feels like I am forcing it, I switch and experiment with viewpoint.

Switching from third person limited to first person limited

Writing the scene from first person point of view allows me to completely step into a character’s shoes. For me, it’s similar to acting where improvisation forges a deeper connection with the character. Using first person allows me to channel the character’s inner dialogue.

Changing to first person viewpoint provides me with subjective material for my story.  Afterwards, I can use the material to rewrite the scene into third person so it suits the rest of my story.

However, playing with viewpoint can also show me that the scene may be better focused on a different character’s viewpoint.

How to change character viewpoints mid-scene

While it feels safer to change viewpoints in third person limited with a change of scene or chapter, you can create a successful mid-scene change. When the story continues with the same time and setting avoid reader confusion by showing that the change is deliberate.

To signal to the reader that the changed viewpoint is deliberate:

  • included a line space between different character viewpoints, and
  • anchor the new viewpoint in the first sentence by stating the character’s name.

Other techniques that show a change of character viewpoint include:

  • a “baton exchange” between characters, and
  • using a cinematic transition that mimics the feel of a film.

Baton exchange

A baton exchange occurs when either an action or a prop passes between both characters. This could be:

  • a shared look between two characters,
  • a book passing from one character’s hand to the others, or
  • both characters observing the sun setting at the same time.

Cinematic transition

In a cinematic transition there is a blend of third person limited with third person omniscient.

The scene’s focus centres on the perspective of the first viewpoint character. It then zooms out to a wide omniscient viewpoint of the scene before zooming in to focus on the second viewpoint character’s perspective.

If used frequently this type of transition could make a reader feel as if they are head hopping.

What point of view do you favour as a reader or a writer?

Viewpoint in fiction and how to use it effectively is an extensive topic.  I’ve only covered a few methods on how it can facilitate creative writing. If you experiment with viewpoint it can:

  • reveal more about your characters,
  • help you find a balance between objective and subjective narration,
  • find different emotional angles from which you could tell your story.

What point of view do you favour and why? Is the viewpoint that you enjoy reading the same as the one you like to choose for writing?

Comments, thoughts?

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