Character point of view and narratives

Dead Bad Things by Gary McMahonSimply starting to write a novel is a hard thing to do – it can be even more difficult than actually finishing the thing. There are so many questions you need to ask yourself, and each one has several possible answers because there is no ‘right’ way to do a lot of the things that cause writers problems. Because of this, I’m always wary of giving writing advice. What I can offer, though, is the benefit of personal experience.

What you must discover after that is the right way for you.

The question of character point of view can be a tough one. Do I stick with one character throughout the entire novel, telling everything through the filter of that one person, or do I move between several main characters in order to tell the tale?

A lot of this obviously depends on what kind of story you’re trying to tell – is it tight and focused or wider ranging in terms of the scope of the narrative? Sometimes this isn’t immediately obvious, and you might need to rewrite the opening chapters more than once just to get the feel of which viewpoint is right for a particular project. Other times, it’s obvious from the outset.

To draw on the aforementioned personal experience, my first mass market novel was called Hungry Hearts. Ostensibly a plot-driven zombie novel, the story focused on three characters involved in a weird love triangle, but there were several subplots. I knew right away that I couldn’t tell the whole story through only one set of eyes, so chose to use all three characters to carry the viewpoint. The best way for me to proceed with that novel was to hop between heads, sometimes to the extent that I’d show the same scene from the perspective of two different characters. To make it easy for the reader to follow and help the narrative flow smoothly, I decided to write each chapter from a different point of view. This meant that I could unearth certain subtleties in mood and atmosphere, and it suited the story well. I found that it needed those rigidly defined breaks between the changes in viewpoint, despite the characters being well defined and clearly delineated from each other.

It’s usual for a novel written as first person narration to have only one viewpoint – obviously, that of the character who is telling the story. In Dead Bad Things (the second of my Thomas Usher novels), I decided to play around with that convention. My first-person narrator, Thomas Usher, was kept out of the main storyline for the first half of the book, so I flipped between his story arc and that of a female police officer – whose sections were written in the third-person. This helped me immensely when it was time to blend the two separate halves of the book together and show how they were actually part of a whole, and it also aided me in revealing certain aspects of character and theme. Using different character viewpoints can also help to highlight subplots that are not necessarily part of the main plot but are still important to the overall story.

In Ramsey Campbell’s exceptional novel of supernatural horror Midnight Sun, the story is mostly told through the eyes of a man and his wife. There’s one vital chapter, however, where the focus changes to an old woman. This seemingly abrupt shift in viewpoint helps to illustrate how the malign forces at work in the book are spreading; they’re touching more people than just the two main characters and establishing a grip on the whole town. I used a similar device in Hungry Hearts; there’s one chapter that includes several shifts in viewpoint between minor characters. It helped me show, in a very brief amount of time, how the zombie plague was basically tearing society apart.

In conclusion, the choice of viewpoint depends on several factors: the type of story you want to tell, the scope of the narrative, the kind of literary vision you want to achieve, and many more aspects that I probably haven’t touched upon here. Like everything else in writing, it’s difficult and takes a lot of thought and careful planning. Then you have to make a great leap of faith.

GARY MCMAHON