I used to think narrative viewpoint was one of the easiest decisions I could make when writing. I’ve never liked first-person (to tell the truth, I even find writing this post a little uncomfortable) so I tend to write in third-person, using he/she/they, and I’ve never thought about how viewpoint affects the ‘craft’ of my work.
I’m going to use this post to think about the various options I have for my current writing project. Maybe at the end I’ll stick with how I’ve always done it but at least I’ll know why I chose it – and hopefully I’ll be able to use it to my advantage.
I recently read The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick. If anyone had asked me what viewpoint it was in before I started my MA, I would’ve just said ‘third’ and left it at that. It wasn’t until someone pointed it out that I realised ‘viewpoint’ is about a lot more than just the pronouns the author uses. It’s also about the characters we follow through the novel.
The Man in the High Castle is a very interesting book because there are seven different viewpoint characters, all described using third-person pronouns. Take a look at the picture below. I marked each change in viewpoint with a post-it note and then coloured them according to which character it was.
As you can see, some colours appear more than others. What you probably can’t see though, is that the colour RED is the most common. That’s Mr. Tagomi’s colour. I could be pedantic and call Mr. Tagomi the ‘protagonist’ – we’re treated to his viewpoint most often, he has ties to almost all of the other characters, and he’s the one who wanders straight into the alternative version of San Francisco (even if he doesn’t realise he’s doing it). But he doesn’t have anything to do with the titular character. Juliana is the only one in the book to meet ‘the man in the high castle’. So why did Philip K Dick write about anyone else?
Because each character helps reveal something new about the narrative. He lets us see Axis-controlled America from every possible angle. We read about it from an American who both loathes and admires the Japanese (Childan), from a Japanese bureaucrat (Mr Tagomi), from a German Nazi (Hugo Reiss), from a Jew (Frank), from a German deserter (Mr Baynes/Wegener), from an American disillusioned with the world (Juliana) and (perhaps the weirdest one?) from an American who runs a factory making fake American antiques (Wyndam-Matson). All of the characters are related in some way, but if the novel was told from just one of their perspectives then we would be missing huge chunks of information.
That’s not to say that having a restricted view of the novel-world is ‘wrong’. I think it depends on what the novel is trying to achieve. Philip K Dick was dealing with extreme political stances and it’s important that he took the time to consider each (even if the end message was, justifiably, that Nazis are the ultimate-evil).
My project also takes place on an ‘alternative’ earth which I’ll have to introduce slowly, to avoid ‘information dumping’. I want the reader to be aware of the new setting (politics will also play a major role in later sections) but at its heart the project is a coming-of-age story about the protagonist; a multi-viewpoint novel would be an unsuitable way to tell his story.
The more viewpoints that get used, the less time the reader has to become familiar with the characters. With regards to The Man in the High Castle, I cared way more about Mr. Tagomi (who had nine sections) than I ever cared about Wyndam-Matson (who only had one).
If I want my readers to feel close to my protagonist, and understand that he’s going through a journey of self-discovery, then the readers will need to follow that journey as closely as they possibly can – so they experience it as well. That means limiting my viewpoint to the protagonist. This technique will also help the reader as they’re introduced to the world, because the protagonist will be experiencing most of it for the first time as well.
But wait – surely, if I want the readers to be ‘as close as possible’ to the protagonist, then I should write in first-person? Well, there can be such a thing as ‘too close’. It’s a problem I know I have – where the ‘I’ of the novel becomes me and not my protagonist. Reiken (2011) points out that many authors fail when writing their first novel because they are unable to separate their authors, narrators and characters into distinct entities. I don’t believe I’m experienced enough with first-person to control it properly, and I would run the very high risk of getting everyone confused.
There is more flexibility to third-person as well. I can still dip into my protagonist’s thoughts every now and again; which Philip K Dick does with almost all of his viewpoint characters in The Man in the High Castle.
Dick, Philip. K (1962) The Man in the High Castle. New York: Putnam.
Reiken, F. (2011) “The Author-Narrator-Character Merge: Why Many First-Time Novelists Wind Up with Flat, Uninteresting Protagonists,” in A kite in the wind: Fiction writers on their craft. Edited by Andrea Barrett and Peter Turchi. San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, pp. 3-24.