Writing Basics: Part Four--Point of View

by Michelle J. Prima




Are you a head-hopper or a purist?

If you are a writer, you know these terms are related to character viewpoint.  A head-hopper is a writer who writes a story from several characters' viewpoints.  Everyone who is on stage gets a chance to tell readers what he or she is thinking.  A purist is the opposite.  This is a writer who stays in one character's viewpoint for the entire scene--possibly the entire chapter or even the book.  So how do you know which to use? It depends on how and who you want to tell your story. 

First, let's talk tense because it's simple.  Stories are almost always told in past tense (he sat, she slipped, they barked), even though the action is happening at the present time.  Non-fiction may be written in present tense because it is instructional, and your synopsis should be in present tense (he is shocked at the news, she is overcome with grief).  But the story itself should be written in past tense. 

The next decision you need to make regarding your story should be whether it is told in first person (I, we) or third person (he, she, they).  With first person, the story is told by one of your characters as the events unfold.  With third person, an invisible narrator is telling the story as he observes it.  The narrator is not a character in the story, although he tells you what the characters are doing and sometimes thinking.  

To further delineate, a story can be told from omniscient or limited points of view.  In limited point of view, the reader knows only the thoughts of one person or character at a time.  In omniscient point of view, the narrator is all-knowing and all-seeing.  It's like a camera looking down onto a group of people in a scene and being able to get inside each of their heads.

Let's see how these two elements combine to determine point of view.  If the story is told in first person, the reader sees and knows only what the narrator sees and knows.  Nothing else behind the scenes is revealed.  Thus, a first-person story can never be omniscient point of view.  The narrator, while he/she can observe others, would not be able to know what they are thinking.

In third person stories, you can have either omniscient or limited point of view.  There are varying degrees of penetration.  A purist will stay in one character's head and tell the entire story through his/her eyes.  A head-hopper will get into everyone's head and tell the story as everyone sees it unfolding before them.  In between are the writers who select two or three main characters (hero/heroine/villain) and use only their viewpoints. 

So the question arises once again--which do you use?  The answer--what's best for your story. 

Look at the story you are trying to tell and ask yourself what message you want to convey.  Is it deep emotional suffering a particular character has to overcome, like the loss of a child?  Then use first or third person, with only that character's point of view.  Staying in one viewpoint will ground the reader in that character.  By showing the reader what that character is feeling, the reader will begin to feel it also, and begin to care.

Is it a more general message of persistence and hard work paying off in the end?  This is a story where several points of views may be valuable.  Why is the hero resistant to change?  Why is the heroine so determined to bring about that change?  Why is the villain trying his best to sabotage the heroine's efforts?  If you want your readers to identify with, or care about each of these main characters, you will want to get into each of their heads and let the reader know what they are feeling. 

Or is it a story of man vs. nature and how families overcame the fury of a storm?  Do you want your reader to care about everyone in the story because they have all undergone tragedy?  Then go ahead and 'head-hop' between characters.  Delve into everyone's head from Grandma's to the five-year-old who sees his new school reduced to a pile of rubbish.  Get into their heads and tell your reader what they are feeling.

So is a purist better than a head-hopper?  Neither one is better or worse.  It's all in how you use them.  A purist has to make the main character interesting enough to keep the reader vested in their goal.  A head-hopper has to be able to clearly delineate whose head the reader is in.  They also have to be careful not to go overboard and give everyone's opinion down to the coachman who only appears once in the story.  Not only may the ready get confused, they may not get vested enough in any one character to care and stop reading.

Whichever you choose, make it the best for your story.



Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, Writer's Digest Books, 1988.

"Who and How To Tell It" by Nancy Kress, Writer's Digest September 2000.

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