Problems to Avoid -2: Voice – Part B

by Al Kalar

There are three viewpoints of most novels that are part of the author’s “voice”: first person, third person, omniscient. Once you pick one, stick to it; don’t change part way through OR (horrors) from chapter to chapter.

First person: The story is told from the viewpoint of a character.

“I did this.

I saw that.

I remember back when . . .”.

If the viewpoint character can’t see it happening, it’s not part of the story until that character is made aware of it (someone else tells him or he reads about it).

The viewpoint character is often the protagonist or main character, but sometimes it’s a supporting character such as the main character’s sidekick. Think of it as someone telling a story about what he did or saw.

Third person: The language describes what is happening to the characters from the viewpoint of someone else.

“He did this.

He saw that.

This happened 20 years ago (so-called “info dump”).

He said, . . .”.

Think of someone telling a story about other people.

In third person, it’s permissible to shift points of view as long as you don’t confuse the reader. Chapter one may be about the main character from her viewpoint, chapter two may follow the bad guy and what he’s seeing, chapter three may be about the main character again, but from the viewpoint of her boyfriend who’s also in the scene. It’s not a good idea to “head hop” back and forth within a scene (“John thought Harriet was a ditz. Harriet thought John was cute but shallow”).

The best way to handle a 3rd person scene is to think “first person” but use third person words. This is a bit harder, but a good writer should be able to handle it. Certainly the reader will not get confused about who’s seeing/feeling what.  For instance, you can describe the protagonist, but only if you’re in someone else’s “head” (don’t use the hackneyed mirror bit — it’s lame) or the character is vain and thinking about how good he looks.

Omniscient: Rarely used today. It’s gone out of style because the author can often “cheat” by “telling” instead of “showing”.  For instance:

“… but Henry didn’t know that in 30 days, he was due to die.”

“But overhead, unseen by RatMan, the eevil Doctor Pussycat lurked in his Furball plane.”

I personally don’t care for the omniscient style. It’s often used by authors who are too mentally lazy to find a better way to convey information (and knowing the future is kind of a “spoiler” to the reader).


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