Writing advice, Writing and Editing

An Exercise in Point-of-View

Most of us who have spent some time at this avocation called fiction writing are familiar with the most common aspect of point-of-view: first person, second person, and the many variations of third person (omniscient, limited omniscient, absolute, etc.). Odds are we have tried several of them in various works at one time or another. Through experimentation and experience, we have learned that each has its particular advantages and limitations.

That isn’t what I want to talk about today. Today I’m going to discuss a different aspect of the point-of-view question: which character exactly do you choose to tell the story?

Any psychologist or cop will tell us (and common sense confirms) that any time several people witness an event, they will report just as many different experiences of the same event. This is because we all view the events around us through the filter of our individual experiences. Our personal history colors everything.

The same holds true for our characters. The story told by character A will not be the same story as that told by character B, even if they are both involved in the events. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that we make an informed, conscious decision when we choose our work’s central character.

A perfect example of this is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald could have chosen many different characters as the point-of-view character: Gatsby himself, Daisy, Daisy’s husband, as well as Nick. Each would be a legitimate central character; but the story would be different than the one Fitzgerald finally chose. So why did he choose Nick? Probably because Nick was the social outsider, a semi-objective observer of the social excesses and Gatsby’s doomed love. His distance from the drama made it all the more dramatic. None of the other characters could provide this distance.

So the exercise:

Write a short scene, just a page, or so, of a young family around the dinner table for their evening meal. The parents are in the middle of a disagreement, not a terrible fight, but feelings have been hurt. Despite the disagreement, they are trying (only partially successfully) to present a picture of normalcy for their eight-year-old son. Write the scene first from the viewpoint of one of the parents. Now write the same scene with the same dialogue from the other parent. Finally, write the scene, again using the same dialogue as the first two scenes, but now from the viewpoint of the eight-year-old son.

Do the three scenes become three different stories? Does the wants and needs of each of the characters inform how they perceive the action? If you did it right, it should.

I think we have a tendency to stay within our comfort level when we write. I know I do. I am an adult American male. Most of my main characters are adult American males. A couple are juvenile males. Virtually none are female of any kind. (Though I do have several scenes in Deception Island written from the point-of-view of female characters).

Perhaps by occasionally switching to a different main character we can find a better story than the one we originally envisioned.

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