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The Viewpoint of the Narrator

Submitted by Nigel Bernard on Wed, 12/09/2015 - 09:59

A key decision which the author must make from the outset is what viewpoint or viewpoints to adopt. Is the story going to be being written from only one character’s perspective, or that of several characters? Or perhaps it will be written from no character’s perspective. Linked to this is the question of the ‘person’ in which the story will be written, such as the third or first person. To a certain extent this latter issue is to do with how a viewpoint is presented and is best addressed separately. In this blog we will deal with the viewpoint itself.

As an example, consider Charlie Lupton’s Sherpa Adventure. As with all the Charlie Lupton books, there is one viewpoint only, the viewpoint of Charlie. That means that everything in the story must be known to Charlie. For example, when he and Mickey walk out of the supermarket, the shop assistant, ‘… gave them a very hard stare’ (p. 60). This is fine, because Charlie would see this. However, if I had added, ‘She had had a hard day’, this would have been incorrect because Charlie would have had no idea whther she had had a hard day or not. If it was vital to the story that the reader know this, then I could have added something like, ‘‘Listen you two,’ she said, ‘I have had a hard day, troublemakers like you are the last thing I need’’. The reader becomes aware she has had a hard day because she tells Charlie.

An author may well use different viewpoints at different times in the story and of course there is nothing wrong with this and may even be a necessity. However, the more viewpoints there are, the more complicated the writing becomes and, especially for the young, it may become confusing to read (although we should never underestimate their ability). Perhaps the simplest example of more than one viewpoint is Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The story is told from Alice’s viewpoint throughout, until the very end when Alice has woken up and run off. Then the remainder of the story is told from her sister’s viewpoint. One of the reasons Carroll switched from one viewpoint to another is to enable him to reflect on Alice’s experience, which she had recounted to her sister. The change of viewpoint also enables Carroll to contemplate how Alice would grow up and tell the story to other children.

There may be cases in fiction generally where an author deliberately makes the viewpoint ambiguous and the reader has to work hard to discern where the viewpoint has changed. However, in children’s books, it is important that the change from one viewpoint to another is made clear and that it is done at a suitable point in the text. It would be very confusing, for instance, to make the change in the middle of a paragraph. In the case of Alice in Wonderland, not only is the break marked by a new paragraph, but the paragraph is generally separated from the preceding one by a double space. In one version I have seen, a short line is also placed between the two paragraphs.

In the Charlie Lupton books, an advantage of sticking to Charlie’s viewpoint throughout is that the readers can associate themselves with him at all times. He is the literary vehicle which the reader steps inside to go on the journey through the story. Sometimes, when I’m writing the stories, I think, I’m giving too much attention to Mickey, this is supposed to be about Charlie, but the point is that part of Charlie’s function is to provide the viewpoint for the reader. If occasionally he takes a back seat, then that provides a ‘safe’ place for the reader to sit and observe. And by not making Charlie too ‘eccentric’ it makes it easier for the reader to identify with him. Needless to say, eventually in each story, Charlie does take centre-stage.

Writing from somebody’s viewpoint is not simple and, as with all aspects of the craft of writing, it is a skill which has to be continuously honed. One of the factors which makes it challenging is that it is not just a question of what the character sees or hears; it concerns what they choose to see and hear and how they interpret it. How an eleven-year-old sees and interprets the world is very different from how an adult would view the world.