The Varied “Viewpoints”

Probably like you I have read so many novels over the years. Unless any two were written by the same author, no two have really ever been much alike. The styles and approaches were all in their small ways unique and distinctive.

[From Twitter.]

That tweet led me to reflect on what follows. Despite what some seem to think, I do not believe there is some hard “formula” to adhere to in writing a novel. I speak here only from my own reading and experience writing.

Two differing approaches to it, though, that I do think are basic have to do with how a reader is presented with the action.

The first way is to use the “1st person” “point of view” (POV), which means that the word “I” is everywhere. The novel is built around what the main character sees and experiences, and that character also is essentially the narrator. One example, The Big Sleep detective classic:

[The Big Sleep. Photo by me, 2015.]

A more well-known “1st person” to many today is The Great Gatsby:

[The Great Gatsby. Photo by me, 2019.]

The biggest drawback to that “1st person” approach mostly boils down to the fact that we as readers see only what that one person – the main character – sees, which therefore drastically restricts the scope of what we can see too. We get ONLY the perspective of “I” and what that character “thinks,” and so never truly “know” what anyone else is “thinking.” That might work nicely with a detective story in which we follow the detective trying to solve the case, or a recollection of a man’s experiences with various people he knows or has met, but if you are trying to write more broadly it just won’t cut it.

The free short story I wrote in 2020 is a “1st person” tale. To be honest, a short story, or a short novel, is where “1st person” works best. For having only a “Philip Marlowe” or a “Nick Carraway” describing what THEY see (or have seen or heard about) and learning what only they think is perfectly reasonable given those stories’ limited scopes.

Then there is multiple-POV (as alluded to in that tweet), which allows various characters to offer us what they see. They are usually “3rd person”-written as well; the words “He” and “She” and “They” are all over the place. Both work best (I think) with the likes of 1869’s War and Peace, in which a host of people describe for us what is happening at various times and the “narrator” is unseen and possibly “God-like”:

[The first page of War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, 1869. This English translation approved by Tolstoy.]

Many critics at its release in 1971 did not like this next novel example very much. However, I think the book achieves what its author intended – to tell a huge canvas tale like Tolstoy’s. It was a big seller, was a decade later adapted into a television miniseries, and likely influenced a generation or two of especially Americans into learning more history about the Second World War and the Holocaust:

[The Winds of War, by Herman Wouk. Photo by me, 2021.]

In that The Winds of War, there are multiple characters who share their “viewpoints.” Sometimes we are with the central (main is perhaps too strong a word) character, U.S. navy officer “Victor Henry”:

[First page of The Winds of War, by Herman Wouk. Photo by me, 2016.]

Sometimes we are with U.S. Foreign Service officer, “Leslie Slote”:

[The Winds of War, by Herman Wouk. Photo by me, 2021.]

In it we see, for example, the Pearl Harbor attack of December 7, 1941 through the eyes of “Victor’s” daughter-in-law, “Janice Henry”, who is then living near that naval base – so witnesses much of what happens:

[The Winds of War, by Herman Wouk. Photo by me, 2021.]

And it all hardly stops with their views. We also are occasionally with “Victor’s” sons, his other daughter-in-law, his wife, and some others. They all lend what “they see” to help fill out the story. That is a classic “3rd person” and “multi-POV” approach.

That approach for Winds makes sense. You cannot really write a novel about 1939-42 on various continents in a host of situations with dozens of characters and rely only on one person’s viewpoint.

Well, okay, yes, you can TRY it. But if you do try by following, say, ONLY “Victor Henry” throughout the book, and seeing only what “he” sees, the book is going to be a much smaller and narrower tale. Because it will be only “HIS” view of the cosmos, so to speak.

[A view along the Seine River, Paris, France. Photo by me, 1994.]

Also due to its narrow-perspective reality, I believe a “1st person” view is actually easier to write than “multiple 3rd person,” although I am sure many would disagree. (That Twitter editor above seems to.) I write mostly in the “3rd person,” and while I don’t have Winds’s large number of major characters, all my novels come at a reader from varied perspectives. While there is a “main” character there are central ones who are only slightly less important, so they are very much deliberately “ensemble” books. (The “2nd person” is simply too clumsy a way to impart a viewpoint to a reader over any length of writing, so is very rare in literature.)

I feel having various characters “thinking” to us at times is important because it conveys the bigger world. It allows me to write not only what a main/central character (in my case, so far, only a) man sees, but allows others to think too, particularly women; women are therefore active and equal participants, and are NOT just objects that man sees and what he sees them do and hears them say. That helps battle, I think, “one dimensionality” in them. After all, as in our own lives what one person sees, feels, and experiences is one thing, while what another sees, feels, and experiences could be something decidedly different.

I think the issue of “viewpoint” is so intriguing and opens doors for additional perspectives in telling a story, I have several times even written the same scene twice – but from another person’s perspective. The first time I tried it was in my third novel. I reached back about two years in “story time” and re-ran a scene that had been in my first book – but this time from another person’s “viewpoint” (and I even mixed in some “first person”):

[An excerpt from Distances: Atlantic Lives, 1996-1997. Paperback. Copyright 2015. Photo by me, 2021.]

So that second time above, rather than seen mostly from a “HIS” perspective as in the first book, the same scene is seen now from “HER” “viewpoint.” There was, I believed, a compelling storyline reason to do that (which I am not “spoiling” here). “HER” perspective of that same gathering was, I felt, necessary – otherwise, it would have always been all about only “HIS.”

Writing for readers is (to me) all about being creative and not being afraid to stick your neck out in order to try to get the story to best resonate with a reader. Again, as I had noted my previous post, it is not, I believe, about me as the writer. It is about, to me, the reader’s eye.

Now, it is back to more of my new writing – that will hopefully be found interesting to readers starting later this year. Hope you are having a good week so far. 🙂

3 thoughts on “The Varied “Viewpoints”

  1. One of my favorite topics! And I agree with you. I write primarily in first-person POV in my short pieces but love to play with second as well. Just the thought of maintaining either throughout an entire novel is stressful. 😁📝

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