Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

12.9: Q&A on Viewpoint

Your Hosts: Brandon, Piper, Dan, and Howard

You had questions about viewpoint. Here they are!

  • Do you have tips and tricks for making 3rd-person omniscient compelling?
  • How do you make 3rd-person limited compelling?
  • Is it normal to need several drafts to nail down a character’s voice?
  • What’s the best way to portray an unreliable 3rd-person limited narrator?
  • What are your most effective methods for immersing yourself in character attributes so that you can get the voice right?
  • How do you choose between 1st and 3rd person?
  • How do you select the viewpoint character for a scene?
  • How do you smoothly transition between viewpoints?
  • How do you prevent character voices from blending into each other and becoming indistinguishable?

(Our answers are in the podcast.)

Homework: Swap dialog between characters. How do different characters say the same thing? How do they react when something they would say is said to them?

Thing of the week: Ones and Zeroes: Mirador, Book 2, by Dan Wells.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A Summary:
Q: Third person omniscient is generally the norm in most fantasy/sci-fi. Do you have any ideas, tips, tricks to make this voice more interesting or unusual?
A: Give the narrator a personality, characterization.
Q: How can you make [third person] limited more interesting?
A: Make the character sing. It’s not the viewpoint, it’s the character.
Q: It usually takes me a few drafts/revisions to really nail down a character’s voice. Is this normal for most writers? Any tips on how to discover it in other ways?
A: If it’s working for you, don’t break it! Try writing a quick scene that is pivotal and important to your character. Sample scenes, monologues, conversation, job interviews. Don’t be afraid to throwaway writing. Let the character talk so you can figure out who they are.
Q: What is the most effective way to portray an unreliable third limited viewpoint in which the reader can still know what is actually happening?
A: Why do you have an unreliable narrator? To fool the audience? Dramatic irony, where we know something the character does not? Establish that this is the character’s personality, they think one thing, even though something else is really happening.
Q: How does one thoroughly immerse themselves in a setting/person? I know it’s very subjective, but what are the most effective methods you have found in feeling, for example, when a pregnant woman, a pious man, or a lost child might feel? It’s so far eludes me.
A: Meditation, guided imagery. Primary sources! Find forums where people are sharing trials and experiences, and get the things people gripe about right. Method acting for writers – feel it yourself, then write.
Q: How do you choose between first and third person? What’s your process? When you’re preparing a story, how do you make that final decision?
A: Is the story about plot or character? If it’s about character, do it first person. Check your genre – adult romance usually is third, YA first person. How can you best express the characters? Try a writing sample, a quick scene or paragraph, to see which works best.
Q: How do you pick the right character for a viewpoint in a scene? How do you choose whose eyes you’re going to see through?
A: Who is in the most pain? Who’s most interesting? Who has the highest stakes, the most emotional response? Who’s going to be doing the most, whose protagging the most? What do you like to write?
Q: I’m writing my first novel. How do I choose to do first person, third person, it’s overwhelming. I could do omniscient, I could do non-omniscient, how do I make this decision?
A: Which POV makes the words flow for you? First novel, just write it. Spot check along the way, “Is this still working for me?” If so, keep going. If not, try a test scene in another perspective and see if that works better. What do you want to accomplish? Grand in scope, lots of different characters, third might work better. But first and foremost, finish the book.
Q: I have a problem with transitioning between voices. A.k.a. How do you know when to cut, how do you smoothly transition from one viewpoint character to another, how do you do a chapter break, do you sometimes not do a chapter break, how do you decide this?
A: End on a phrase that resonates with the reader, that’s impactful, and makes them want to keep reading. Look at the first line of the next scene, make sure the reader knows whose head they’re in as quickly as possible. Beware the garden path sentence, where the reader doesn’t know whose head they are in until they turn the corner. End on a zinger, something awesome to say goodbye to that character for a while. Answer a question, raise a new question, resolve a package. Give emotional closure.
Q: My characters start to sound less distinct the further in my story I get. How do you keep this from happening?
A: Give each character a high concept that’s evolving out of the consequences of previous acts, along with a dialogue tic that’s a result of the consequences. Check prepositional phrases and three syllable words to see if your characters are all using the same ones. Visual and verbal tics work because they remind you, the writer, who the character is. Remember the character’s passion.

[Mary] Season 12, Episode Nine.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Q&A on Viewpoint.
[Piper] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And you have questions.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Piper] I’m Piper.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] And we’re going to start with a question from Alan. “Third person omniscient is generally the norm in most fantasy/sci-fi.” I would addendum that to adult fantasy/sci-fi. In teens, first person present is much more common, I would say.
[Piper] Agreed.
[Brandon] “Do you have any ideas, tips, tricks to make this voice more interesting or unusual?” I’m going to pitch that one at Piper, because I feel like we all did an episode talking about this, but you weren’t there for that one.
[Piper] When it comes to third person omniscient, I like for that narrative to have a personality. So giving that person characterization of some sort. Even though it’s omniscient, all-knowing, there should be sort of a sense of humor to it.
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah.
[Piper] Give them a personality. Don’t make them a neutral God. I would say.
[Brandon] Excellent. Third person… Actually, I read that, and I was just saying, it’s third person limited is generally the norm. I think they have that inversed.
[Dan] Yeah. It’s very rare to see a third person omniscient.
[Brandon] It used to be the norm.
[Piper] It used to be pretty big.
[Dan] It used to be the norm, and if you want to see it done as well as I’ve ever seen it, Dune by Frank Herbert.
[Brandon] We always use that one, and it is very well done. But yeah, let’s… Limited. How can you make limited more interesting? Let’s ask that. It’s just going to be with character, right? It’s all the stuff we’ve talked about on Writing Excuses. Make that character sing. Make the way they see the world… If you’re bored by doing this, your character’s not interesting enough. It’s not your viewpoint, it’s the character.
[Howard] We’ve been workshopping Bob Defendi’s Death by Cliché series. Which is comedy, and only one of the characters has a viewpoint that would tell the sorts of narrative jokes that… He’s the one with 20th century, 21st century experience. So what we’ve done during the workshop… Workshopping, critiquing, and whatever else, is try to identify how are each of these other people funny? What are the things that they do that is quirky and funny? What kind of jokes do they tell? It’s difficult to get right, but it’s critical for the feel of the book that you don’t get into a viewpoint that doesn’t fit the book because this person can’t be funny.

[Brandon] So, next question comes from Darcy, who I assume is the Darcy who always asks excellent questions on these things.
[Brandon] “It usually takes me a few drafts/revisions to really nail down a character’s voice. Is this normal for most writers? Any tips on how to discover it in other ways?”
[Dan] Well…
[Piper] Don’t all of us start at once…
[Howard] Let me start by saying congratulations on having figured out how to put a wrapper around the thing that is working for you. Please don’t take steps to break that.
[Brandon] I agree. This is not uncommon. I wouldn’t say it’s most writers, because writers are an eclectic bunch, and everything… Everyone does something different from the other writers. But in this case, if it’s working, it’s fine. I would say for me, it usually takes a few chapters that I throw away to nail down a character voice. Even then, by the end of the book, I have to revise the next few chapters at the beginning to get them to sound right.
[Piper] I would say, if you really want to experiment… Because if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Absolutely. But if you want to experiment, then maybe try writing a quick scene that is pivotal to your character, it’s important to your character. If that doesn’t shine, then maybe you want to give it a go from a different aspect.
[Dan] People… Novelists hate it when you suggest they write something that they’re not actually going to use in their novel. But stuff like that. Write a sample scene. Write a monologue. Write conversation. Write a job interview. Anything that will let that character talk so you can figure out who they are.

[Brandon] Mick asks, “What is the most effective way to portray an unreliable third limited viewpoint in which the reader can still know what is actually happening?” That’s a tough one.
[Piper] That is. You kind of have to feather in that they’re unreliable.
[Dan] It almost seems contrary to your purpose. If you have an unreliable narrator, it’s because you want to fool the audience some. Although not always. I’m thinking John Cleaver does this a lot, where… It’s called dramatic irony, where the audience is aware of something the characters are not. Where John is wrestling with some question and the reader is like, “You sociopathic moron! Everyone with emotions knows the answer to this question.”
[Brandon] I would say that’s the main reason I’ve seen it done. Mat Cauthon, in the Wheel of Time, is an untrustworthy third person limited narrator, and he’s untrustworthy because he always thinks one thing and then does something else. Like he’s trustworthy in that that’s what he’s actually thinking, but the way he will describe people and go about his life is not accurate, it’s in his voice. His own actions betray the truth that he thinks he’s a hero, that he’s really a hero, even though he’s saying, “I’m not doing this because I’m a hero.” That sort of thing. Yeah. It can really pop out a character. I would say that you need to wear it on your sleeve a little bit if you’re trying for this. You need to establish this is how this character sees the world. It’s not a trick. It is their personality.
[Dan] Well, the reason to be overt about it is that you have to cue your reader into the fact that they need to be looking for subtext. They need to be looking for what’s actually going on despite what the character is saying.
[Piper] [inaudible]
[Howard] I use the unreliable narrator principle as handwavium when I don’t want to commit to math.
[Howard] I’ll have a character throw out a couple of round numbers when they’re describing how big something is, or how heavy something is. If it’s in a narrator box, if the actual narrator says it, then I’ve kind of committed to it. But if one of the characters says it in a dialogue bubble…
[Howard] Yeah, that’s fine. Hey, Captain Tagon doesn’t actually know how heavy a planet is.
[Howard] Why are you asking him? Why are you using his number in your com… In your email to me about how he got it wrong?
[Brandon] Oh, that’s great.
[Brandon] Periodically, Pat Rothfuss will get an email from somebody saying they said this, and they said this in the other part. His response is simply, “You trusted him?”
[Brandon] Which is always fun, but… Yeah. He does a lot to establish that Kvothe is not a trustworthy narrator.

[Brandon] Merlin asks a question which I thought was really interesting. “How does one thoroughly immerse themselves in a setting/person? I know it’s very subjective, but what are the most effective methods you have found in feeling, for example, when a pregnant woman, a pious man, or a lost child might feel? It’s so far eludes me.”
[Piper] Meditation.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Piper] I would, actually… It’s not far from meditation, but guided imagery. If you’re the type of person to want to sit down and do that. It only takes a couple minutes to sit down, close your eyes, and really try to take in what it might be. If you’re trying to experience that idea, you either go and find a person who is doing that thing and try to experience it through being near them, or you imagine putting yourself in that place.
[Brandon] I look for primary sources. If I’m going to be doing something like this. I go find somebody, and it’s not so hard these days with the Internet.
[Piper] So you found a lost child?
[Brandon] You go and you say, “What does it feel like to be lost?” Right? You go and you say… If you want to find out what it feels like to be a pregnant woman, you can’t know 100 percent, most one half of the population, but what you can do is you can go to forums where people are sharing their trials and experiences. If you can get the things that people gripe about right, I have found, that that gives an instant bond to the character. They’re griping about the right things, authentically. Because…
[Piper] [garbled oh, so right]
[Howard] We love to gripe.
[Brandon] Right?
[Howard] The manner in which the question was asked has me thinking that what he’s asking for is method acting for writers.
[Piper] That’s kind of why I went to the guided images.
[Howard] I’ve found… Well, one of my favorite things, favorite discoveries, was watching Phil Foglio talk, when he and I were sitting at dinner, and realizing, “Oh, my gosh. You use your face in the mirror to do facial expressions for the characters in the comic.” He made this face, and I’m like, “Yeah, you totally do that.” He goes, “Yeah.” That’s… When he wants to be angry, when he wants to be quirky, when he wants to be whatever, he would use his face as a reference. He’s fortunate in that he’s got a very, very expressive face, but I’ve caught myself doing some of the same things. Where before I can write the angry dialogue, before I can draw the angry face, I have to clench up a little bit and… Grr… Mad… Mnnst… Rrr… Scowly… Okay, now I can draw it.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which is a book by Dan.
[Brandon] Ones and Zeroes.
[Dan] Ones and Zeroes is the second book in the Mirador series, which is my YA cyberpunk.
[Howard] It’s also one of the delivery mechanisms for the book.
[Dan] Yes. It is about… The first one was kind of an intro to cyberpunk digital drug. This one is they are gamers and they get to actually go through a tournament. So it is kind of half sports movie, as they play a videogame tournament, and half heist movie, as they use that tournament as an opportunity to steal some data from this massive company.
[Brandon] That sounds so awesome.
[Brandon] I haven’t read the second one yet. I read the first one and really liked it.
[Dan] The second one’s better.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Brandon] I am really looking forward to it. So that is Ones and Zeroes, and it’s out this month.
[Dan] It is. It is out this month, and it is super cool, and you should all read it.

[Brandon] All right. Next question. “So how do you choose…” I’m narrowing this question down a little bit. “Between first and third person? Like what’s your process?” They’re asking, “When you’re preparing a story, how do you make that final decision?”
[Dan] For me it’s as… The question is as simple as is this story about the plot or the character? If it’s about the character, I do it in first person.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Piper] In contrast, a lot of romances are very character driven, but it’s not as often in first person. YA definitely has a tendency to be in first person. But adult romance has a tendency to be in third. I find I’m more comfortable writing in third to express those characters and their narrative. So for me, it’s about what are most characters comfortable in, to be able to express those characters. Although occasionally I will do a writing sample to see if first person worked better. Just like a quick scene or a quick paragraph.
[Howard] I think our answers… I say our answers. People who talk about writing. The answer to this question is going to change dramatically in 30 to 40 years. Because we’ve moved from omniscient viewpoint to third person viewpoint in fantasy. I don’t know what’s coming next. But a lot of what we get when we read a third person limited or a first person or an omniscient or a whatever is contextually what are the other things I’ve read that are like this.
[Dan] Our grandchildren will all be reading second person conditional tense.
[Brandon] I was thinking that. No. You joke, but if VR takes off, I could see second person becoming the way that people experience stories and novels then shifting to do that.
[Howard] It’s already the way you experience… I mentioned in an earlier episode Bethesda Games.
[Brandon] So we joke about that, because second person… We’ll talk about it later on the podcast, near the end of the year, but second person is one of those things that in literary circles, it’s like when somebody’s going to try something really literary and fail at it as a student, it’s like the student film version in writing, do it in second person, and yet, the best fantasy book of the year last year was a second person novel, The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin. So it’s…
[Howard] Alyssa Wong’s second person won a Nebula Award.

[Brandon] So. All right. Let’s go on. A lot of people are asking how you pick the right character for a viewpoint in a scene? Among, there’s like five different questions. “How do you choose whose eyes you’re going to see through?”
[Howard] Who’s in the most pain? Who is able… For me, who is able to tell the best joke…
[Howard] Or who is the most likely to get the best joke told on them?
[Howard] It’s really, for me, I mean, understand I hop around a lot, because I’m technically in third person cinematic. So it’s more about where I point the camera, but I’m always looking for which piece of the story is the most interesting, who’s in it. If they’re not in it, and I need them to be in it, well, maybe the previous chapter’s been written wrong.
[Piper] Well, head hopping is common for romance, too. Because often times, you’re head hopping between the hero, the heroine, or, if you’ve got a romance that involves more than binary, right? Like you could have a male-male-female, male-female-male, female-female-male, you’re going to be hopping between the main characters’ points of view. A lot of times, it’s about… For that scene, where all of them are in the moment together, who has the highest stakes, who has the most emotional response to what’s going to happen? Because that’s the part where the reader’s going to be like sucking it all in.
[Brandon] I would add to that another rule of thumb would be to look at who’s going to be doing the most. Right? Having… Where you run into difficult choices, and I’ve run into this a lot, and I’ve chosen the other side, is one person’s going to be very emotionally invested by what is happening in the scene, but another person’s doing the act that is going to cause that emotional investment. In that case, I go half-and-half, sometimes it’s the person engaged in the activity, and the person watching, they see their horrified looks, sometimes it’s the horrified person watching on as this action happens.
[Dan] Well, I think a lot of it comes down to what you personally like to write, what you enjoy. I love writing painful decisions. So in a case like that, I would always default to, well, which person is going to have to choose something that they don’t want to choose. That’s who I go with.
[Piper] Whereas in contrast, you’re talking about somebody doing something and somebody horrified by it. I write hanky-panky, so it somebody doing something and somebody going, “Whoaoaoa!”
[Brandon] Hanky-panky.
[Dan] And somebody horrified by the hanky-panky.
[Brandon] That is the first time, I think, we have used the term hanky-panky on Writing Excuses.
[Brandon] I’m very happy…
[Howard] Don’t say it too often.
[Brandon] Yeah, I know.
[Howard] Because that’s a great phrase.
[Brandon] It will lose its power.
[Howard] Saying…
[Brandon] That’s true.

[Brandon] All right. A lot of people are asking things, actually, about second person. I wanted to say again, we will do an episode on second person in the future. One person asks, and some ask similar things to this, “I’m writing my first novel. How do I choose to do first person, third person, it’s overwhelming. I could do omniscient, I could do non-omniscient, how do I make this decision?”
[Howard] Which POV has you sitting down at the keyboard and making words with your finger ends on the buttons?
[Brandon] Okay. Okay.
[Howard] Seriously. You’re on your first novel.
[Dan] That’s how you humans write, isn’t it?
[Howard] On your first novel, be a human person and sit in front of the keyboard and whichever perspective makes the words flow, because 50,000 words from now, a million words from now, you’ll look at that and you’ll say, “Oh. Wow, I would decide that a lot differently now.” But I have no idea what that decision is going to be for you today, because you haven’t written those words yet.
[Piper] Although, if you want to do a spot check along the way, you could write a scene, or write a chapter, and go, “Is this still working for me?” Okay, good, let’s keep going. If it’s not working for you, maybe try a test scene in another perspective and see if that’s working for you better. Right?
[Dan] I think, again, for me, it all comes down to what I’m intending to accomplish with the book. If the book is going to be grand in scope and include a lot of different characters, I will split it into third, rather than first. Things like that.
[Howard] That’s how most of us make the decision now. This is someone asking the question from the perspective of the first book. Whatever makes you make words, and then sit down and make the words, because that’s the most important thing.
[Piper] We want you to finish the book.
[Brandon] Whatever you default to on your first one is fine. Practice that. You’re going to want to learn to use both tools eventually anyway, so practice on one of them.

[Brandon] All right. So. A lot of people are asking a similar question. I’m going to use Wallace’s version, because it’s the simplest. “I have a problem with transitioning between voices.” I like this. A lot of people are saying, “How do you know when to cut, how do you smoothly transition from one viewpoint character to another, how do you do a chapter break, do you sometimes not do a chapter break, how do you decide this?”
[Piper] I like to end on… I like to end on a phrase that’s going to resonate with the person. It’s got to be impactful in some way. So they take a breath, “What’s the next page? What’s going to happen next?” So I try to make sure that wherever it’s going to end, it’s on a really good one-liner.
[Dan] See, I look at the first line of the new scene. To make sure that you have… That you know whose head you’re in as quickly as possible. I do them all with breaks. I mean, he asked about breaks. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything as soft even as a scene break. It’s all chapter breaks if I’m going to switch heads. But that’s just me, and not everyone does that.
[Howard] The concept of the garden path sentence here is important. There’s a lot of… There are a lot of sentences you can write where you know whose perspective you are in, you know which it is that you are writing, but when we read it, we are… Because of the way you’ve ordered the words, we are going to see that as being in somebody else’s point of view. It’s really difficult to catch that without beta readers. I do what Dan… What you described. I want my first line to tell me whose point of view I’m in. That first line is often difficult to get right, because I’m wordsmithing it to be clever, and by the time I’m done being clever, I’ve masked whose head we’re in.
[Dan] You’ve hidden it. Although to Piper’s point, now that I’m thinking more about books where I’ve done this, whenever I’m about to jump to a new point of view, I do make sure to end on a real zinger of some kind. If it’s one chapter is Kira and the next chapter is also Kira, well, then that first chapter can in however it wants. But if the next chapter is Marcus, we need something awesome to say goodbye to Kira for a while.
[Howard] That’s my Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday toolbox. I want to end with… I mean, I’m always ending with a joke, but I want to end with something that answers the question or that raises a completely new question and asked you to chew on it while we step away, or in some way resolves this package. Because sometimes I’ll cut away, and it’s broken, because there wasn’t that sort of emotional closure.
[Brandon] That was a strong answer, guys. You guys did a really good job with that one. I’m actually going to let us go little bit longer on this episode, because I have one more I want to ask, and there were a lot of questions. I’m sorry if we can’t get to your questions, guys.

[Brandon] But a lot of people are asking a question that Delise really nails how to ask the question. “My characters start to sound less distinct the further in my story I get.” I have noticed that I do this sometimes, too. You get so used to writing a character that they blend into the next person, or the two kind of converge on one type of a voice. “How do you keep this from happening?”
[Piper] I actually, and this is… So sometimes when I’m designing my characters, I use a [fake core?] character sheet to get like a high principle. But what I do is for every act, my characters have a high principle that’s evolving out of the consequence of what happened in the previous act. So I’ll recheck and maybe give them some sort of dialogue tic that’s a result of the consequences from the last act as part of their high concept for the following. So it refreshes their voice, but it also evolves through the story.
[Howard] Look for prepositional phrases and three syllable words. Maybe print it out and go through with a highlighter, because if you find that all of your characters are using the same three word prepositional phrase in their dialogue, or they are all using the same suite of three syllable words when they are trying to describe something, that is often the easiest way to fix this. You just highlight and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh. Everybody says unusual.”
[Piper] Everybody has chocolate eyes.
[Howard] Everybody is saying unusual.
[Howard] She says unusual, and he says weird. You make that decision early, and then you replace it. Now you’ve taken the first steps at defining their voices.
[Dan] This sounds like a cheap answer because… Even though you’re talking about high concept stuff and all that, I think a lot of people are going to hear this and go, “Oh, well, just give them visual and verbal tics.” That’s cheap. But it totally works. The reason it works is because it helps remind you. So even if it’s just something simple, like in the Mirador series, the character Fang, she is sardonic and she is sarcastic all the time. That’s a very simple thing, but it keeps me remembering who she is, and if she says a line that sounds like it should come from another character, it’s easy for me to go back and go, “Oh, no, wait. She wouldn’t say it that way. She would say it this way.” That keeps them much more distinct than you think, if all you’re starting from is, “Oh, we’ll give them a verbal tic.”
[Brandon] Yeah. I agree with that 100%. The thing I will do to help with this also is remember the character’s passion. Everybody is passionate about different things. If I can remember, “Wait. This character really, really cares about the food and how it’s presented. This character just… Will skip dinners, right, because they’re just working and doesn’t really mind and these sorts of things.” Those two characters, that sort of thing, just a simple thing like that, will help you to remember this person’s eating fancy chocolate and is liking that it’s like 98% dark.
[Brandon] This character can’t remember what the last chocolate bar they had was, it was just calories.

[Brandon] I’m going to call it here. We have so many questions. I’m sorry we didn’t get to them all. But, Piper has some homework for us.
[Piper] Oh, I do. My brain just died. I’m so sorry. So, my homework for you is to take dialogue, not narrative, dialogue, and take the characters who were involved in the dialogue… Probably works better with two or three, just a limited number of people in the dialogue, and swap them. So character A might say one thing, character B might say another. Now swap them, and how would character B say that first line, and how would character A respond?
[Brandon] Excellent. I really like that writing exercise. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.