Establish the Character Viewpoint

I wrote this article, which originally appeared on Suite101, on a few quick tips for opening a scene and establishing the point of view character.

Establish the Character Viewpoint

Start the Scene Quickly in Someone’s Point of View

Utilize these tips in establishing the point of view character when opening a scene.

In his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight Swain writes this about character viewpoint:

Viewpoint is the spot from which you see a story. It’s the position and perspective you occupy in order best to savor a fictional experience.

Ordinarily, that vantage point is inside somebody’s skin.

That is, your reader will live through your story as some specific character experiences it. He’ll see and hear and smell and taste and touch and think and feel precisely what that person sees and hears and smells and what have you.

Keep this in mind as you establish character viewpoint—slip your reader into the character’s skin.

Choose the Viewpoint Character

A writer can choose absolutely any character to be the viewpoint character for the scene, but usually the character with the most to lose will give the reader the greatest emotional experience.

Be thoughtful about who your viewpoint character will be. If possible, try different viewpoint characters to see which version gives the greatest emotional impact for your reader.

Establish the Viewpoint Character Immediately

Let the reader know who the viewpoint character is within the first paragraph or the first 3-5 sentences.

It can be disconcerting for a reader to not know the viewpoint character right away. They might assume one character is the viewpoint character, and then be jolted out of the reading pace when they find another character is actually the viewpoint character.

Try Not to Head Hop

In past years, authors would go from one character’s viewpoint to another. This is referred to as “head hopping.”

Many multi-published, bestselling authors still “head hop” in their novels, but for the new writer trying to break into the publishing industry, the trend is to avoid head hopping.

Try to keep to one point of view for at least half of the scene.

If you switch to another character’s point of view:

Have a good reason for doing it. Don’t just do it because you want to show the other character’s reaction to what’s happening. The other character should have something significant at stake for you to switch point of views in the middle of a scene.

Leave the first point of view with a good ending hook sentence.

Insert a section break. You don’t always need to do this, but it’s usually best if you do. It allows the reader to know that a new point of view is coming up, and it avoids confusion.

Utilize Point of View to Establish Characterization

In slipping the reader into a character’s skin, the writer is put in a unique position of being able to show the reader who the character really is inside. Take advantage of this writing technique to “show” the reader the character rather than “telling” them what the character is like.

For example, you can “show” a character’s patient thoughts with his befuddled grandmother rather than “telling” the reader something like “He was always patient with his grandmother.”

Use point of view to show a character’s admirable qualities even if the character is doing something unpleasant at the time. You can show a cop’s reluctant feelings as he tells old Mrs. Grady to stop driving on the sidewalk. His actions seems harsh, but the reader knows that inwardly, he doesn’t like doing it.

Play around with viewpoint and see what else you can reveal when the reader is in the character’s skin.